John Oakes is completely different from me: different age, different race, different background. He is a homeless ex-convict and drug abuser whose kidneys are failing. He has tried to get his life together. He no longer uses drugs or alcohol, he goes to dialysis, and he prays faithfully for healing. But no healing has come. He is not shy about shouting his "Why me's" to the skies. Yet Heaven remains silent.
Mark Hilsman is a white professional, a successful and respected lawyer. After a nephrectomy for renal cancer, he developed intractable pain. He is bed-ridden and incontinent. He has had to retire on disability from a job he loved and faces a life, for however much time he has left, of severely reduced mobility and almost complete dependence. A good husband and father, he has made significant contributions to his community. "Why doesn't God intervene for me?" he asked plaintively.
As their chaplain in the hospital, I stand beside their beds filled with sadness and pain--and ask the same questions they ask. What does all this suffering mean? Maggie, John, and Mark are, each in their own ways, trying to live according to what God wants. Maggie and Mark have always lived like that; John has worked hard at straightening out. The Bible tells us God loves the prodigal child who strays but also loves the child who has stayed close throughout (Luke 15:11-32). What answers do I have for these three people, so radically different, yet whose suffering is so similar? Why does God seem silent? Doesn't God want to heal them?
How illness, suffering, and death fit into God's plan--on the micro level of individuals or on the macro level of peoples--is one of humanity's most enduring questions. For me, illness is not a test from God; it is not God's way of sending us a "wake-up call" or making us "better people." Illness is not punishment for sin. God desires us to be happy and whole, not broken in pain and fear. When I stand at the bedside, I hear and feel the same silence the patients do. But my own struggle with God's silence through prayer, reflection, and pastoral experience, has given me at least a few ways to come to terms with it, to continue to live in it, and to accompany others who are experiencing it.
"How long, O Lord, will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look upon me, answer me, Lord, my God! Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death." (Psalm 13:2-4, New American Bible translation)
Honest rage keeps us connected to God and that is what is essential: to stay connected to God, no matter what. In the face of the silence, I encourage patients to freely express their anger and fear--and then to listen because when the fury is spent, peace comes.
For me as a Christian, God's answer to the suffering and the silence is clearly and simply Jesus, the One who has suffered and who understands what we are experiencing. Standing before a God who has experienced suffering through the life and death of Jesus, standing in the sight of Jesus himself--who has known human anguish and understands our pain completely--we can change the question from why to how: How am I to live with this? With Christ as our example, we can assume a new orientation centered on forgiveness, gratitude, and the treasuring of what we have been given throughout our lives. We can consider the possibility that, in extremity, we are being called to consider what is of ultimate value. Certainly not things, maybe not even health--perhaps only God.
One answer will not fit everyone. Each of us must tackle the question in our own way; each of the great religious traditions has its own wisdom and insight to offer. Ultimately, God does not need us to defend God's mystery, to apologize for the pain of life or the reality of death. God does need us to walk with each other, to make sure that no one is abandoned and that God's love is there for all--even in the silence.
* All names used in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the very real people they represent.