This was all before. I now live after, after the death of our son, Eric. My life has been divided into before and after. To love is to run the risk of suffering. Or rather, in our world, to love is to suffer; there’s no escaping it.
Augustine knew it well; so Augustine recommended playing it safe, loving only what could neither die nor change on one—God and the soul. My whole tradition had taught me to love the world, to love the world as a gift, to love God through and in the world—wife, children, art, plants, learning.
It had set me up for suffering. But it didn’t tell me this: it didn’t tell me that the invitation to love is the invitation to suffering. It let me find that out for myself, when it happened. Possibly it’s best that way.
I see now, looking back, that in writing it [Lament for a son] I was struggling to own my grief. The modern Western practice is to disown one’s grief: to get over it, to put it behind one, to get on with life, to put it out of mind, to insure that it not become part of one’s identity.
My struggle was to own it, to make it part of my identity: if you want to know who I am, you must know that I am one whose son died. But then, to own it redemptively. It takes a long time to learn how to own one’s suffering redemptively; one never finishes learning.
Now everything was different. Who is this God, looming over me? Majesty? I see no majesty. Grace? Can this be grace? I see nothing at all; dark clouds hide the face of God. Slowly the clouds lift. What I saw then was tears, a weeping God, suffering over my suffering.
I had not realized that if God loves this world, God suffers; I had thoughtlessly supposed that God loved without suffering. I knew that divine love was the key. But I had not realized that the love that is the key is suffering love.
I do not know what to make of this; it is for me a mystery. But I find I can live with that. The gospel had never been presented to me as best explanation, most complete account; the tradition had always encouraged me to live with unanswered questions.
Life eternal doesn’t depend on getting all the questions answered; God is often as much behind the questions as behind the answers. But never had the unanswered question been so painful. Can I live this question with integrity, and without stumbling?
It moved me deeply to discover one day that John Calvin alone among the classical theologians had written of the suffering of God. Whenever he wrote of it, it was, so far as I could discover, in the same context: that of a discussion of injustice. To wreak injustice on one of one’s fellow human beings, said Calvin, is to wound
and injure God; he said that the cry of those who suffer injustice is the cry of God.
God is more mysterious than I had thought—the world too.
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