The seven words that give hope in the face of suffering

June 1, 2009 | 7 comments

This post was originally published on November 28, 2007.

Yesterday I was catching up on some blog reading and came across a blogger who did a post in remembrance of Holodomor, the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. For her post she translated the writings of some Ukrainian bloggers who wrote on the topic.

I wasn’t prepared for what I read. First of all, I am ashamed to admit that I was not that familiar with Holodomor. I had some awareness that many people in that area of the world died of hunger around that time, but that was the extent of my knowledge. But to find out the details, and to read those stories recounted by the bloggers whose grandparents lived through it, was just shattering. I’ll save you from an excerpt containing any of the more disturbing details and just offer this thought from one Ukrainian:

Old men and women spoke calmly about [raskulachivaniye – persecution of kulaks, collectivization], about the war, about DneproGES [Dnipro Hydroelectric Station] construction. No big deal, they were saying, it was tough, but it was a long time ago, and tears and grief tend to get erased from memory.

But as soon as you asked them a question about the Holodomor of 1932-33, these ancient men and women, who had seen lots of horrors, began to cry. Just cry. Some refused to talk – they had no energy to tell anything about it.

Of course Holodomor is not by any means the only large-scale tragedy to have happened to civilization — many more occurred even in the same century. Maybe it was that I never heard much about this in history classes, that we live in a world where even a tragedy of that scale could get lost in the mix of all the other terrible things that happened in those years; maybe it was the personal tales that put a “face” to the suffering; maybe it was that quite a few of the stories involved parents mistreating their own children; or maybe it was the fact that the entire situation, this mass starvation of millions of people, was caused and perpetuated by a government. It was probably all of the above. But, whatever it was that jolted me out of my detached mode of reading words about historical events and into the mode of a mother, a daughter, a fellow human being whose heart ached terribly for the men, women, children and babies who faced such unimaginable suffering and evil…it left me in a sort of spiritual paralysis.

Since becoming a Christian I’ve read and prayed and thought a lot about suffering, so I tried to analyze the situation based on the knowledge I’ve gained from reading the great Christian scholars and their works on the subject. But it wasn’t working. Just as I would begin to recall what C.S. Lewis or St. Augustine had to say about it, the thought of all the children who lived during Holodomor would come to mind, which would remind me that the Holocaust happened just shortly after that, which would remind me of all the stories my dad told about his friends who died terrible deaths in Vietnam, which would remind me of the current AIDS crisis in Africa…it was too much to think about. I thought about praying for the people involved but couldn’t even really do that because bringing any of these topics to mind just overwhelmed me with sorrow. I have little kids to take care of, and thinking about this was making me feel so down that it was impacting my ability to function, so I decided to just forget about it for now.

I tried to, anyway. It didn’t really work. Shutting all of these horrors out of my mind, not even spending much time praying for the people involved because that would mean thinking about it, did not feel like the right response, especially as a Christian.

Last night, as I knelt beside my bed to pray, I asked God to show me what to do. I knew that putting my head in the sand was not the right response, but I just couldn’t think clearly enough to know how to even begin to pray about suffering at this kind of catastrophic level, to understand how we as Christians are supposed to have even a shred of hope in the face of such tremendous evil.

This angst was still with me in the back of my mind when I went to pick my husband’s car up from the mechanic’s shop this afternoon. As soon as I turned the key in the ignition, I heard a voice say:

You must keep your eyes on the risen Christ at all times, or life will seem to be just a bitter joke.

It was one of my great heroes, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, introducing one of the Glorious Mysteries over the sound of a mournful yet hopeful violin piece. Unbeknownst to me, my husband must have borrowed my favorite rosary CD and left it in his car. I’ve listened to it, this introduction to the Glorious Mysteries in particular, so many times; yet it was like hearing it for the first time today. I started it from the beginning, and wiped tears from my eyes as I heard:

No rosary, no meditation on the life of Christ, is complete, or even makes sense, without pausing to think about and to pray about the events that took place beginning early Easter morning. The glorious Resurrection and the absolute triumph of Christ makes all of these events comprehensible, livable, for those who are still walking in the valley of tears.

You must keep your eyes on the risen Christ at all times, or life will seem to be just a bitter joke.

In the Glorious Mysteries we have not only Christ’s victories in this world, but the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of eternal life. The Christian life only makes sense when we keep before us the glorious and eternal mystery that we celebrate at the end of the rosary.

Yes. Of course.

I believe that hearing that line as soon as I started the car was God’s answer to the question I posed in prayer. Whether or not it was a direct response to my prayer, it is certainly the answer to the question.

I came to believe not too long ago that Jesus probably did rise from the dead like the Christians claim; and now that I have lived as a Christian myself, and seen God’s work in my own life as well as the lives of those around me, I am certain it is true. And that’s really all that matters. In the face of suffering in our fallen world, it’s not even necessary to do too much complicated theological analysis, because the only important question is this: Did the crucified Christ rise from the dead? Did the Resurrection happen? Because, if it did, then we know that there is eternal life, and that all the terrible events of this finite world will be but a blip in comparison to an eternity with God. We know that the epic saga of human history has a happy ending.

I realize I’m talking about concepts here that most Christians probably mastered sometime around the third grade. But I thought I’d share anyway since this disarmingly simple truth has shown me how I can think about, pray about, and hopefully one day actively help those who experience great suffering, without succumbing to despair in the process:

I don’t need to analyze it or even fully understand all of the how’s and why’s behind all that is wrong with the world. I don’t need to sift through all the words in the weighty tomes about religion and human suffering. I need to remember only those seven words that mark the turning point of all of history and shine a floodlight of hope into the darkness of our fallen world: “He is not here; he has risen.”

photo by Untitled blue

7 Comments

  1. Christine

    I have knelt beside my bed many a night thinking the same thoughts as you just wrote. How can I understand all the suffereing?

    I have a picture in my house of Jesus with “Jesus, I trust in You” and it gives me comfort.

  2. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    Funny that you should repost this today (as in “the Lord works in funny ways” . . .) – I posted last night on uniting our suffering with that of Christ. Should you have an extra few minutes (ha!), you can find it here. Blessings!

  3. Cheryl

    Beautifully written. Very touching post.

  4. pragmaticcompendium

    I am always so thankful when God sends me an answer to prayer like that. Thank you for sharing it.

    Over the last two months, I’ve been actively thinking and learning about the paradox (I’ve stopped saying “conflict”) between evil and suffering and a loving God.

    For the first time in my life, I’m reading more than excerpts from C.S. Lewis, as I read “The Problem of Pain” in which he quotes St. Augustine. I’ve posted a few things on my thoughts (under the “suffering” category), and as I am still actively reading and learning, I’m sure I will post more. (I actually haven’t posted in over a week due to all the reading I’m doing. My last post was for Quick Take Friday on May 22nd.)

    Like you, I obviously didn’t master an understanding of this in the 3rd grade. My goal for all this learning is to be able to articulate – to believers and non-believers alike – why I believe what I believe.

    For non-believers, quoting a few Bible verses doesn’t cut it. Acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God must come before Bible quotes. For believers who are suffering or who are seeking answers too, I want to be able to reach out, instead of remain in my own personal comfort zone.

  5. Tres Angelas

    I realize it’s a bit beside the point, but I believe it bears mentioning that the starvation of the Ukraine has been “lost” in the historical mix because the vast majority of Western scholars (and journalists and filmmakers) aren’t interested in documenting the atrocities of the left.

    Stalin’s forced famine is estimated to have killed on a scale similar to the Nazi Holocaust, and yet most Americans have never heard of it.

    However, that (thank God) is not the big picture. All these sins — Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, Tojo’s, Pol Pot’s, Franco’s… mine — all the sins of the world are not just sins against the victims, they are sins personally against Christ.

    For unrepentant sinners, this is quite a problem.

  6. Anna

    Thanks for reposting this. I’m getting back into faith issues after a bit of a dry spell, so I appreciate these posts that help me at least think past stumbling blocks to belief.

  7. 'Becca

    I agree completely. For me there is one more step to it, and oddly enough I learned about that step long before I came to understand the meaning of the Resurrection. I learned it from A Wrinkle in Time and Star Wars and my parents' attitude toward human suffering:

    The only way to fight the darkness is to choose the way of the light.

    Focusing on the darkness will only overwhelm you with how big and how dark it is. Do not deny its existence–look at it and learn from it so that you will resist the same mistakes–but keep it outside you by filling yourself with light. Let that light shine through you and guide your actions.

    I think you know this but just didn't articulate it in this post. I know that most of my non-Christian friends would read you as saying, "One moment 2000 years ago was so good that it makes up for all evil things," which sounds pretty lame. But it's not about that one moment; it's about the Light of Christ and what it has done for us ever since then.

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