Someone once said, “If you preach about pain, you’ll never lack an audience.” My own experience, both in the pew and in the pulpit, confirms the truism. The reason is intuitively obvious: the current of suffering passes through every life, leaving among the ruins in its wake the Great Question, “Why?” The whole human race, it seems, is seeking an answer.
Our credibility as ministers of the gospel–and, by extension, the credibility of our gospel as a body of teaching and as God’s message to the cosmos–hangs on the answers we offer to this universal question of suffering. If people find our answers to this question unsatisfactory, they will (rightly, I think) reject off hand the answers we might offer to any other questions they ask. In his new book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, Bart Ehrman (Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) describes how his own search for an answer led him away from evangelical Christianity and, ultimately, to agnosticism. (Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewedDr. Ehrman this week; you can listen to the interview and read an excerpt from Ehrman’s book here.)
I can relate to Ehrman’s journey. My own questions formed in the fire of the pain brought about by feeling like a woman in a world and a church that required me to be a man. Why would God do such a thing to me? As I wrote in the “coming out” letter I sent to some of my dearest and most respected Christian friends,
For most of my life, I believed that this deep impulse I felt to live as a woman was sin or sickness, and I prayed fervently for God to heal me. The fact that God did not heal me, in spite of all my pleading, led two years ago to the most profound crisis of faith I have ever experienced. There seemed to be three possible explanations. My prayers had gone unanswered because (1) God did not actually exist, (2) God felt no compassion for my suffering, or (3) my feelings were neither sick nor sinful, and I was free to seek a way to integrate them into my life.
As one of my friends who received my letter was quick to remind me, there is another possible explanation. Perhaps my being transgender was something akin to the burden the apostle Paul refered to as his “thorn in the flesh.”
In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12:7b-11)
Reading these words over the years, I wondered if perhaps feeling myself to be a woman, feeling discomfort at being forced to exist in the world as a man, was my thorn in the flesh. Was it simply my cross to bear? For most of the three decades I lived “in the closet,” I accepted this as the only possible explanation for my suffering. For some reason, unknown and perhaps unknowable to me, God had decreed that I should suffer in this way, and that I should do so indefinitely, unless and until God should decide to relent. I accepted this explanation for years without question, and did the best I could to bear up under the pain.
I chose to live this way because I believed it was what God required of me. I hated being the way I was. I wanted to change, desperately. I believed God could change me, but should God choose not to do so, I was prepared to live a tortured life according to God’s will, trusting in his sufficient grace to make it through. Or so I thought.
And then, one day, the mental discomfort became more than I could bear, and the grace I thought had been carrying me along was no longer sufficient. And as the wave of suffering rolled over my life with a greater magnitude than I had ever experienced, the ancient question rose once again to the surface. “Why?”
Why would a benevolent and omniscient God choose to inflict such suffering on me, or on anyone? If God was responsible for my pain, and understood my pain, and felt compassion for me, then why hadn’t he delivered me? To allow me to go on suffering for no good reason amounted to torture. To do so to keep me humble, to keep me in my place as Paul implied in 2 Corinthians, seemed more the behavior of a tyrant than of a loving parent. Like Dr. Ehrman, I came to believe that none of the traditional answers to the question of my own pain held up. The God I had come to know, the God my faithful teachers had taught and modeled to me, was neither a torturer nor a despot.
And that was when I realized the truth. God was not doing this to me, causing me to suffer like this. I was doing it to myself. I had chosen to do so, and I could choose to stop. Finally, after thirty years, the truth had set me free.
The cross we are called to take up is not some individualized cross, custom designed to produce the maximum amount of pain in us for God’s “good” pleasure. The self we are called to deny is not the unique and beautiful creation God knitted together in the secret place, as if we should cast it aside like a filthy rag. We are each of us called to take up Christ’s cross, embracing the world’s symbol of shame, oppression, and death in faith that it will be turned upside down by the divine power of new life. And we are each of us called to deny our selfish sense of personal entitlement and embrace a life of service to the world in the name of the one who is saving us all.
And Paul’s thorn? I don’t know. Perhaps, as tradition suggests, it was some incurable physical ailment (which begs the question, “Had a cure become available, would Paul have accepted it?” Should he have? Would his theology allow for it?) Maybe it was the seemingly unending series of persecutions he suffered for preaching the gospel. Maybe “thorn in the flesh” was a euphemism for sexual desire and the way it clashed with Paul’s vow of celibacy. We can only speculate. But regardless, one thing seems clear. It was not God’s strength that allowed Paul to live with his thorn, to conquer it or rise above it. It was God’s grace, the favor God bestowed on Paul unconditionally and without reference to his moral standing, that got him through. “I know you’re weak,” God told Paul. “That’s okay. I can’t take away your weakness, for to do so would be to take away that which makes you human. I value your weakness so much that I took it on myself, and let myself be buffetted by Satan’s messengers just like you are being buffetted right now. Let it be enough for you simply to know that I love you anyway.” In this same grace we can each decide how best to deal with the pain we encounter without fear.