March 20, 2020

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

The secret at the heart of suffering

Brandon A. EvansSt. Paul makes a startling promise about the unstoppable nature of God’s love in his letter to the Romans:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

It is something we’ve all heard in our lives, undoubtedly most often in times of suffering. It is there with all the other words of advice that remind us that God is always at our side, and that he has a plan for everything.

And certainly, it is true the love of God persists in our world because all who seek find, and God seeks us. He will always find his own and will never stop.

But what about when the suffering pulls deeper? What then when flows from the tabernacle nothing but dread silence? When there is no consolation, no presence, no sense to it all, and worse, no healing to be seen?

Even the power of the Scriptures seem vacated before the awful things we each endure. The idea that we can “offer it up” or that God is blessing us with such suffering offends us.

How are we ever to live the grossly optimistic line from the hymn O God Beyond All Praising:

“And whether our tomorrows
Be filled with good or ill
We’ll triumph through our sorrows
And rise to bless you still.”

How? There are foes in this life that are bigger than us and times when we are going to lose.

There are pains that drive worse than death; depression and fear that steal all hope from our hearts and leave us on the ground weeping to an absent God. Our lonely eyes look in anguish only to find that there is no possible way out of such despair.

But there is an impossible way.

It is there, in that barren place—in that fire of senseless, pointless hurting—that a secret is hidden. It is a secret that reaches to the heart of Christianity. Beyond even the grasp of the devil, all history turns on the power we find at all hopes end.

For there is something in us, planted by God, that cannot be taken, it cannot be conquered or caught, wrestled or matched or outwitted: it can only be given, and given freely.

When all goodness is taken from us, we can still give joy. A writer need not feel his words to wield their power, nor a singer revel in her song to make weep the hearer. A simple smile, though our hearts stay chilled, can bring light untold to another.

This is the miracle at the heart of love. This is the love of which all others draw near in reverence: a love that does not seek itself, but that takes the last meager morsels of goodness and passes them along.

Through God, we can give even what we do not—or cannot—possess. With us, God can reach through despair and bring light to the world. We became workers of the impossible.

From deep within the pain, we can beat the system; short-circuit it; transcend it. There is no force, no strength, that can steal our ability to give love, nor does it require some terrifying feat of courage or strength. The very power of God to bridge death and turn weakness to strength becomes shared with us in the ability to defy the darkness, even when it is all we see.

This is perhaps why St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that love is stronger than faith or hope, and unlike them, it does not fail. Small acts of kindness can be willed by us at any time: in sorrow or in joy.

Each act of love that we give—that we choose, especially in dark moments—has a value that the Lord does not miss in his count of all things and will not forget.

Only a God-made-man could arrange such a miracle, in which the most common of all people is offered, each day, the chance to participate in the salvation of the world by the careful love of so many little things.

(Sight Unseen is a new, occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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