Back to index of articles

Encountering Mortality – Encountering Grace

Andrew Butcher

When you are running there comes a point when it seems the easiest thing is to give up and turn back. Your breathing becomes laboured, your heart beats faster, the inclines feel particularly steep, and just keeping on putting one foot in front of the other becomes difficult. Passing this point can be rewarding and invigorating, but it can also be tremendously painful and challenging. Pushing through is not for the timid.

When the theology of health, wealth and prosperity meets a culture of individuality the result is a terrible exclusion of those who suffer. The Bible, by contrast, appeals to us on several occasions to share our joys and our sufferings in communion with others. We are called to 'rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep'.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.1

These images have come to mind recently as I have been reflecting on some very difficult months which saw the deaths of my grandmother and a friend along with my own prolonged and relatively serious ill health. This time of 'processing' – marked by loneliness and a descent into darkness like I have never previously experienced – is, as it must be, a work in progress. Yet as I have encountered mortality and suffering I have encountered humanity and grace.

Darkest Night

Many find physical ill health difficult to deal with, if not in themselves then certainly in others. My own ill health was not easily diagnosed and remained largely mysterious for many months, causing me anxiety and the medical staff confusion. The emotional and mental toll was pronounced. On many occasions I felt like I was losing my grasp of reality, even losing my mind.

I was often asked what effect this had on my faith. I found that God was closer as I faced my humanity and weakness. Shirley Murray's New Zealand contemporary hymn expresses it well: "Here is our hope, in the mystery of suffering is the heartbeat of love, love that will not let go".2

In the person of Christ is the reality of life itself. The all-embracing humanity of Christ is in perfect unison with the all-embracing healing of God. In all of reality, Christ is always present. This, our almost intangible hope, is enshrouded in the mysteries of life. It is the tattered lifeline when one is down a dark hole.

Surprised by Grace

As someone pointed out to me during some of the darkest days of my ill health, the Bible calls us to carry one another's burdens and it doesn't specify a time limit. When the theology of health, wealth and prosperity meets a culture of individuality the result is a terrible exclusion of those who suffer. The Bible, by contrast, appeals to us on several occasions to share our joys and our sufferings in communion with others. We are called to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep".

This calls for an intensely practical Christianity. For many, Christianity seems most comfortable when it is not threatened, when it can be easily 'spiritualised' and when it involves the minimum level of actual sacrifice. But the Christianity lived through the Christ of the Gospels is more like that described by St Francis in his well-known prayer:

Lord make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy; and all for thy mercy's sake. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.3

IN GRAEME, MY friend dying of cancer, I saw the humanity and the weakness of Christ: an acceptance, an understanding, a welcoming and a belonging. In adjoining hospital beds there is no room for pretence. With both of us being regularly medicated and neither of us in any physical position of strength, our common bond was our weakness as each of us inquired about the other's health.

It strikes me that in general Christians have something to learn about relating to the weaknesses of those around us. So often we come to matters of life from a position of strength – we have the answers, we can make sense of it all, we have it all together – when it seems that what the world wants is not to be intimidated by our strength, but rather to be surprised by grace. It wants to see humanity in us.

I have come to believe that people relate better to humanity than to holiness: they want to see who we really are, not who we pretend to be. Our faith calls us to engage fully with reality, not to retreat from it into closets of piety and naïve Christianity, where the world is simple and life is fair.

I HAD EVERYTHING from people telling me I should pray more, to people saying that God was a God of abundance and blessing, which is so difficult to believe in the midst of unbelievable pain. I was affected by the insensitive and the negative comments, and then came across this from C S Lewis which expressed what I was feeling rather well.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don't understand.4

Other friends just listened, or talked about other things like the crossword and the cricket. With one friend I talked about poetry, with another about film.

There were those who said they would pray and there were those who did. There were those who took time out of their busy schedules to visit me on several occasions and there were those who told me they were too busy to visit at all. There were those who told me they understood and those who suggested I get a grip.

Invariably though, it was the moments of being 'surprised by grace', as one person put it, that are most memorable. There was the afternoon tea with a couple, one of whom had only recently come out of a long stay in hospital, where we laughed about our mutual hospital experiences. There was the chance encounter with a fellow church-member one Thursday afternoon – when he told me of his experiences and shared his own story of suffering, I knew he understood mine.

There was the anointing with oil by the maverick vicar, as we shared our experiences of faith and reality. There was the phone call from one of the elders from my church, giving encouragement as he told me he would bear my burdens as long as necessary. He never knew it, but I began to cry then, as I had been struggling with those who were telling me my burdens were too heavy for them to bear. And there were other comments besides - often from the most unexpected quarters.

TOO OFTEN AND too easily Christians simplify suffering, reducing it to basic explanations of sin, lack of faith or bad living. But to take such a reductionist approach denies both the power of suffering and the harsh reality of it in the lives of the people around us.

Suffering is part of everyday life and a Christianity that is practised as if life is forever a field of lilies denies suffering's power and reality. For many people, it is their only reality. Their darkness is overwhelming, and quaint phrases will not pierce it.

Their reality is a terrifyingly lonely place, where fear and doubt are all too real. Their greatest desire is for company, but being told to "just get over it" is no help whatsoever. Recognition and acknowledgement of the truth of their reality – whatever we personally may make of it rationally or theologically – provides the understanding and the company so deeply needed.

In thinking about my own friends, I count amongst them one who has a cyst on his brain, another whose father has Alzheimer's, another without work, another battling mental illness. I could go on.

It is not that my friends are unique in their suffering. They are not. Their reality and pain is that of many people. Some are confused and worn down. Their experience of life is one of deep hardship and trial, their journey in the desert is almost unbearable.

Are these people less 'spiritual' or 'Christian' because of it? Should they pray more or exercise more faith? Should they confess their sins and cast out demons? Some have tried all these and more besides.

IMPLICIT IN THESE questions people ask of suffering is an assumption that somehow suffering is a blip on the plains of life, an out-of-tune note in an otherwise melodic existence. But it is not and it never has been.

Suffering is as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe. It's a reality whether we deny it or not. It permeates the Psalms, Lamentations, Jeremiah and Job; it is reflected in the tears of Christ. The call to Christians is to have compassion. The call to Christians is to 'suffer with'.

When our experiences of life clash with our understanding of God and of Christianity, we have what psychologists call a 'cognitive dissonance' – life no longer makes sense. Some cannot cope with this fundamental shock. However, the saving – and surprising – grace is this: our God is bigger than we often give him credit for. God is more forgiving than we are of others and of ourselves. God understands where others do not. And God welcomes where others close the door and turn their backs.

In the Light of Eternity

It took a dying man who claimed to be an atheist to teach me that life can only be properly lived if we believe in an after-life: that there is more to our existence than our temporal lives here on earth and that everything has eternal significance. The writer of Hebrews speaks of something similar:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.5

GRAEME AND I talked about what heaven might be like. He hoped it would be like Wellington, his favourite city. I mentioned to him Adrian Plass' comment that heaven is probably full of our favourite things. When my grandmother died I imagined what her entry into heaven might have been like: a homecoming, as those whose lives she had influenced gathered around her.

I hope that whenever I get to heaven, not only will I see my grandmother in her garden – or, more likely, giving hospitality to recent arrivals – but that I will also sit in the heavenly lounge bar, where water is turned into wine, and find that the pianist is Graeme, delighting in how much heaven is like Wellington.

Six days in hospital and the friendship of a dying man taught me sobering lessons: how trivial much of life is and how much better life would be if we dwelt not on the trivial but on the true. It taught me how immensely important people are.

Surprised by grace and by finding hope in the darkest moments – even when nothing ahead could be seen and nothing was certain – I was drawn closer to Christ the suffering servant, and my faith became integrated with the harsh realities of life. But the most important thing I learned was that our faith in God is better lived than spoken, particularly when it is lived in the weakness of humanity instead of spoken in the forced piety of holiness.

AS CHRISTIANS WE too often recoil from suffering, fearing it as a threat to our faith and everything we hold to be true. I've come to the conclusion that – to use Henri Nouwen's expression – the best healers are wounded themselves.6 The best companions to have on the unforgiving trek through darkness and despair are those who have also known darkness and despair. Instead of platitudes and piety they offer perseverance and pain sharing.

Our faith finds reality not in the trappings of religion but in the truth of humanity. It connects with the world not in arrogance and strength but in vulnerability and weakness. It becomes legitimate not when it is forced upon others by mortal words but when it is 'done unto others' through eternal deeds.

Our faith draws people to God not by condemning them as sinners but by loving them as friends. It heals not from a place of wholeness but from a position of brokenness, not from strength but from sickness, not from greatness but through grace.

A Goodly Heritage

In the middle of my illness, my grandmother died. I could draw many lessons from her life, but two stand out. The first: people are important. Spending six days in hospital and weeks afterwards with a honed sense of my own mortality was life-changing for me; in particular I recognised the importance of the people in my life.

Our jobs will come and go and some friends will too, but there are people in our lives who will be there forever – we should never take them for granted. There will be people who come into our lives only for a season: we should be the best friends we can be to those people and when it is time to move on, do so with grace knowing that we have experienced a gift from God.

The second lesson is this: God is faithful. Friends may be fickle, circumstances will change, the way we prayed might no longer work for us anymore, and life may take on a different sense of reality. Yet through it all, even when we are not aware of it, God is faithful.

My grandmother demonstrated the welcoming acceptance of Christ, not speaking her Christianity, but openly living out Christ's presence in her life. Her door was open for all and she accepted people from whichever walk of life they came. The power of her lived testimony was illustrated in the three hundred plus people who turned up at her funeral.

Via Dolorosa

Through the trials of those months my faith in God's faithfulness never wavered. Whatever happened in my life, God's faithfulness remained. Who am I to demand more than that, to assume that I know what is best for me, to speculate what tomorrow will bring?

Reading through the Scriptures, I see that God does not remove those he loves from the fiery furnaces of life – rather he enters into them with us. I see that God did not save Paul from flogging; rather, he took that flogging with him. Hebrews 11 reads not of needless suffering and an uncaring God, but of a God who suffers with his people and Isaiah tells me that God, in the form of Christ, was despised and rejected by men. And I look to the Cross.

As I have told my story of suffering, others have felt the freedom to share theirs. Together, we have a common bond: each of us has entered the unknown and the chaotic. Some are still there. For many, the dark night of the soul lasts longer than they think they can bear. Journeying through the valley of the shadow is slow, difficult, painful and lonely.

IT IS A NAÏVE Christianity that supposes these moments to be mere aberrations in an otherwise blissful existence of abundance and blessing. God does bless and provide abundantly, but there are times, too, when we are allowed to suffer burdens that seem too heavy to bear.

God knows about this very real part of life –why else would he say "Come unto me, all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light, and you will find rest unto your souls"?7

Our relationship with God grows more in the valleys of agony than on the mountaintops of ecstasy. As our ecological system needs both spring and winter for things to grow, so in our lives. We damage ourselves by pretending that the harsher reality does not exist. For in this reality is the presence of God.

Encounters with the real

On the train coming home from work one day, exhausted and in pain, I sat next to a church friend whom I've known for many years. My friend has a wonderful simplicity about his life – there is no grandeur or pretence with him. I shared my struggles and as we parted, he said: "I don't know what it's like to have surgery, Andrew, but I will pray that God will give you strength."

That was a moment of grace. He didn't try to make sense of suffering theologically; he didn't try to say the 'right words', he just said what was on his heart.

When we encounter suffering people we often do not know how to respond. For some the Valley of the Shadow is uncharted territory in theologically murky water. What do we say?

The best thing is to be honest. If we don't know what to say, then say that. Whatever we do, we shouldn't try and formulate the 'right phrase', or try and package it neatly into a theological box. Listen, be present, don't 'just forget' about the suffering people you know.

You don't have to look very far to see the pain in this world. For some it is physical, for some emotional, for others mental or spiritual. Philip Yancey says pain is a gift – and it is. C S Lewis calls it "God's megaphone to a deaf world". Let those who have ears to hear, listen.