“I am so tired of seeing flowery Bible verses from people who are part of a demographic that will probably be fine, and have never gone hungry a day in their lives.”
I came across this Tweet and it sparked the following thoughts. I don’t know what “flowery Bible verses” it refers to, but I imagine they were intended as encouragement.
The thing is, we are a word-weary audience. Phrases that once encouraged the faithful to persevere through trial have had the life silk-screened out of them. Overused language falls flat. It cannot get past our skin.
This Tweet got me thinking about the western tendency toward optimism and positivity that we confuse for spiritual encouragement. These early days of the Covid-19 pandemic have thrown this tendency into sharper relief, revealing it for what it often is— a firewall against our own discomfort when faced with human suffering.
Forced cheer often leads to bad theology. It keeps us operating from Norman Vincent Peale’s postwar “power of positive thinking” and fooling ourselves into believing that the right thoughts will keeps the wolves at bay. The popular notion that if I think positive thoughts and say the right things, me and mine will be just fine, is denial about my vulnerability. That I am just as vulnerable to suffering and pain as anyone else is an idea that, if allowed in, could pull down the whole house of cards.
As news of the pandemic first took hold, (before most churches cancelled services), my friend stopped a fellow member of her congregation from hugging her. This sensible bit of friendly redirection was met with spiritual rebuke. “Where is your faith?” But the reactions of so many who were reluctant to take seriously the threat of Covid-19 and take CDC recommendations seriously, at first, was less a testament of their faith than a symptom of bad theology. As @ShaneClaiborne tweeted, “I believe in prayer. I also believe in soap.”
I think that the readers of Paul’s epistles were very encouraged by them. Unlike some who quote from those letters in today’s book/chapter/verse fashion, Paul was himself in a place of hardship while encouraging the church to keep the faith. He was facing persecution and living under house arrest. When suffering comes, popular phrases like “God does not give us more than we can handle” simply fail to land. They also fail to accurately convey the scripture they are based on. I Corinthians 10:13 is about God’s faithfulness to us through times of temptation. It is not a promise that we will never be anguished with unbearable suffering. Rather, Paul is assuring the Christians in Corinth (and us), that God will not abandon us to temptation. We desperately need courage and faith in the midst of fear. But we could do without the dismissive or breezy adages. The exhortation to fear not is only meaningful if we can admit how afraid we really are.
Instead of meeting a bid for empathy by swooping in hastily with, “We mustn’t give in to fear,” empathy slows down, pulls up a chair, and says, “Yes. I feel it too. I get it. Let’s find ways to encourage and support each other.” Or rather, and more often, empathy has the vulnerability to admit, “I do not pretend to know what you are going through− but I want to support you, and am willing to listen to whatever you need to say.”
Listening to people whose experiences are very different from our own can be uncomfortable. Listening well is so very hard. It requires that we live with cognitive dissonance and host terminally unanswered questions. But by allowing the sharp, uncomfortable edges of difference to carve their marks onto us, we grow in grace and compassion.
We commonly use the term survivor’s guilt. There is also such a thing as privilege guilt. What if your pain, your story stirs up scary feelings of powerlessness in me? What if I have to confront my privilege? It is easier to look away from suffering, block it with a flowery firewall, or slap on a thick coat of theological-sounding platitudes to avoid feeling that pain (or guilt). But when we do this, we forsake God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are not being “a good witness” at all.
Why do we wave off lament so hastily? Forced optimism is not “shining our light for Jesus”. It is denial. It allows the reality of pointless suffering to go unacknowledged. Why have so many wed the Christian faith to success culture? Why, like the priest and the Levite on the road to Jericho, have we gotten accustomed to crossing the street, to ignoring the sight of the beaten man? What if the uncomfortable edges we recoil from are the very tools that, in God’s hands, would build in us a home for the Holy Mystery that breathes beyond our understanding?
The people of Hubei Province, of Italy, were among the first to walk through this valley of the shadow of death. Now many other countries, including ours, have joined them in this particular valley.
If we do not grieve, if we do not lament, we lose depth. We need greater depth in order to receive comfort and courage from the Spirit, whose love and grace fills our hearts and allows us to encourage and comfort others. We need roots that go down deep as we lament and grieve and pray and intercede for any and every aspect of this thing as specific aches and needs weigh on us.
If we choose to use words, let’s not say, “It’s going to be fine because God’s in control.” Let’s not say this, because we know that horrible things happen every minute in this broken, beautiful world. We know that already, in this pandemic, so many beautiful, beloved people have died. We can support each other however we are able− some by delivering groceries, some by sewing masks, some by bringing cheer to the isolated and lonely− as we are all rocked by the stressful ripple effects of this. We can love our neighbor as ourselves. We can find creative ways to be present with one another in spirit. We can pick up the phone and laugh and weep with one another. We can pray and sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. We can fall to our knees and pray healing for the sick and comfort for the dying. We can mourn with those who mourn. We can read and read again this promise of the Good Shepherd. “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”