I’m slightly ashamed to admit that at least once in the past three years, I have used the hashtag #adulting without the least bit of sarcasm. We were on a weekend trip with two other couples to Pittsburgh, where we visited the Warhol museum, ate at a nice restaurant, and drove out to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. It was a totally stereotypical weekend trip for millennials, and we knew it. But #adulting felt fun. We felt “mature.” Yet in reality, we were less “being adults” and more “playing” at some version of what we thought it meant to be an adult.
Recently, my sister and I have been using the hashtag (jokingly this time) in our family text chain as we both begin the process of buying homes. The deep dive into your financial reality that is required to purchase a home certainly brings to light the cold, hard truth of being an adult. We’ve trudged through the snow to visit open houses, put in offers, been rejected, been accepted, had to back out after inspection, and gone back to the drawing board. #adulting, when it comes in the shape of home buying, seems to be one anxious moment after the other, grasping for a dream that often feels like a mirage.
In the midst of my #adulting woes, a conversation with a friend brought the true weight of adulthood into focus. I listened as she shared with me the recent flood of tragic events happening in her life: a cancer diagnosis, tragic deaths, fellowship applications, wedding planning, another cancer diagnosis. The only words I had — “I’m so sorry” — began to feel more and more inadequate. And then, she, someone raised with very little religious upbringing, said to me: “Deep down, I really do want to believe in God. But what kind of God does this?”
I found myself grappling for words. I knew that she was asking a rhetorical question and was not expecting me to answer. I wanted, nonetheless, to be able to formulate a response. If not for her, than for myself. What kind of God, indeed? I certainly don’t want to believe—and don’t think I do believe–in a God who would inflict such suffering onto people!
The connection between sin and suffering when human agency/free will is involved — that I understand. I can talk about my belief in a fallen world, the bound will, low anthropology and my understanding of Sin, with a capital S, which is so much more than the actions we point to as “sinful”. I can quote Romans, explaining that I do the things I don’t want to do. But what about cancer? Random accidents? Situations that seem entirely out of our control? Human agency, free will, and even sin do not apply, here. What is the cause of this type of suffering? I can’t bring myself to believe in a God that would inflict pain on humans as punishment, as judgement.
The [theodicy] that comes nearest to working is probably We suffer because the world is not as God intended it to be, and indeed, it has a long and distinguished history as a Christian idea that’s compatible both with experience and with keeping God’s love recognizable…The trouble with this one is that its convincing picture of the state of things requires, in turn, an explanation of how they got like that…
You get more for your money, emotionally speaking, if you just howl, and kick as hard as you can at the imagined ankles of the God of everything, for it is one of His functions, and one of the ways in which He’s parent-like, to be the indestructible target for our rage and sorrow, still there, still loving, whatever we say to Him. The element of useful truth in this last and best of theodicies is the reminder it contains that the creation is not the same as the creator. He may sustain it all, He may be its bright backing, He may be as near to us at every moment as our neck-veins: but it is not Him, it is not-Him, it is in some mysterious sense what happens when He isn’t…And that’s about the end of what argument can do for us.
Spufford goes on:
How, then, do we deal with suffering? How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t. We don’t even try to, mostly. Most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction. For most of us, worrying about it turns out to have been a phase in the early history of our belief. The question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it, without abolishing the mystery, or seeing clear conceptual ground under our feet…We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in a time of grief, a true judge in a time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair…The only comfort that can do anything—and probably the most it can do is help you to endure, or if you cannot endure to fail and fold without wholly hating yourself—is the comfort of feeling yourself loved. Given the cruel world, it’s the love song we need, to help us bear what we must; and, if we can, to go on loving.
Spufford’s words brought me comfort, relief from the need to have a clean or easy answer. Yet I have found myself wondering how his words would sound to my friend, who is not a Christian. In this wondering, I recognize the tension in myself between a “spiritual but not religious” approach and the (Christian) gospel. I acknowledge that a part of me seeks to speak about my faith in a way that will not offend or separate me from spiritual seekers, broadly defined. And yet I believe—in a very real way that I do not understand intellectually so much as experientially—that Jesus dying on the cross shows us that God is with us in our suffering in a way that no other spiritual system or religion can.
In the midst of my confusion, I find strength in the words of Rachel Held Evans:
Everyone’s got an opinion these days about why people are leaving the church. Some people wish to solve the problem by making Christianity a little more palatable—you know, cut out all this weird, mystical stuff about sin, demons, and death and resurrection, and replace it with self-help books or politics or fancy theological systems or hip coffee shops. But sometimes I think what the church needs most is to recover some of its weird.
Fully embracing the fact that I cannot make sense of my faith apart from “the weird, mystical stuff” that makes Christianity what it is, I turn back to Spufford, and let the specifically Christian answer to the question of suffering be enough, at least for today:
Our main comfort in the face of unjustifiable suffering is very different… Our hope is not in time cycling on predictably and benevolently under an almighty hand. Our hope is in time interrupted, disrupted, abruptly altering from moment to moment. We don’t say that God’s in His heaven and all’s well with the world; not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.
Day after day, I learn, and re-learn, that being an adult doesn’t look like a photo-worthy moment that you can slap a label on. I learn that having an adult’s faith does not mean having all the answers. Being an adult (and having an adult’s faith) looks more like dropping down to my knees, confessing my desire for certainty and easy answers, and trusting Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.”