William J Stuntz explains his life with what most people think it is the worst.
Survivors of some horrible plague or battle often find themselves wracked with guilt: Why did I live while so many died? Though I had no battle scars, I used to feel a similar sense of guilt. I married the only woman I’ve ever loved. We have three terrific children. I have a secure job that I love and that pays well. Sometimes I would ask God: Why have you been so kind to me? Why have I gotten such an easy life?
I don’t ask those questions anymore.
A little over nine years ago, while driving home from a family vacation, my car got a flat tire. When I started to change it, something nasty happened at the base of my back. Ever since, my lower back, along with the top half of my right leg, have hurt. After two operations, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills, my back and right leg hurt every waking moment. Most of those moments they hurt a lot. Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up – and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.
A few months after my back turned south, my family and I moved when I accepted a job at Harvard Law School. Our family began to unravel. One of our children suffered a life-threatening disease, and my marriage fell apart.
Those crises faded with time but left deep scars. Early last year another piece of bad news struck me – doctors finding a large tumor in my colon. A month later, x-rays turned up tumors in both of my lungs. I’ve had two cancer surgeries and six months of intensive chemotherapy. I’ve been off chemo for a few months, but I’m still nauseous much of the time and exhausted most of the time. Cancer kills, but cancer treatment takes a large bite out of one’s pre-diseased life, as though one were dying in stages. Some of that stolen life returns when the treatment stops. But only some.
Today, my back and especially my right leg hurt as much as they ever have, and the odds are overwhelming that they will hurt for as long as this life lasts. Cancer will very probably kill me within the next two years. I’m 50 years old.
Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes – why me? – makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.
Thankfully, God gives better and more surprising gifts to those living in hard times. Three gifts are especially sweet.
The first gift is that God usually doesn’t remove life’s curses. Instead, he redeems them.
Joseph’s story makes this point. Joseph was victimized by two horrible injustices: one at the hands of his brothers who sold him into slavery, the other thanks to Potiphar’s wife, who falsely accused him of attempted rape. God did not undo these injustices; they remained real and awful. Instead, God used those wrongs to prevent a much worse one: mass starvation. When Joseph later met with his brothers, he said this about the transaction that started the train rolling: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good. Rather, the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph. Evil was twisted back on itself, like a gun barrel turned so that it aims at the would-be murderer firing the weapon.
Joseph’s story foreshadows the central story of the Gospels. The worst day in human history was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, which saw the worst possible punishment inflicted on the One who, in all history, least deserved it. Two more sunrises and the Son rose: the best day in human history, the day God turned death itself against itself – and because he did so, each one of us has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.
That is our God’s trademark. Down to go up . . life from death . . beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.
That familiar pattern is also a great gift to those who suffer disease and loss – the loss may remain, but good will come from it, and the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. Our God sees it.
A change in suffering’s character
The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.
Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: Even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as if I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.
But other days, although not most days, are different, thanks to the manner of Jesus’ life and death. Imagine a man, who is normally seen in an elegant suit, putting on an ugly suit. The suit wouldn’t look bad because the man’s attractiveness spills over onto their clothing, changing its meaning, and the way other people respond to it. If the man wears it, it’s a good-looking outfit. If he wears it often enough, it becomes a good-looking suit even when you or I wear it.
God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine yet still-human person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But his suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all he touches. Just as his years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain he bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.
The Shawshank Redemption is about a prisoner convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. That prisoner escapes by crawling through a sewer line until he’s outside the prison’s walls. The narrator describes the transaction this way: “He crawled through a river of [dung] and came out clean on the other side.” God the Son did that, and he did it for the likes of me so that I, too, and many more like me, might come out clean on the other side. That truth doesn’t just change my life after I die. It changes my life here, now.
The God Who Remembers
The third gift is the most remarkable. Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. Rather, it is more like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. When Jesus was dying, one of the two convicts crucified with him said this: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus responded by telling him that he would be in paradise that very day.
The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means “recall”. I remember when I connect a student’s name to her face, or when I can summon up some fact or the image of some past event. That kind of remembrance is a sterile enterprise, lacking both action and commitment.
In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than “get your history right.” A better paraphrase would go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.”
Job understood the concept. Speaking with God about what would follow his own death, Job utters these words: “You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin” (Job 14:15-16). Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it. Thus, his belief that the Lord of the universe remembers each of his steps. He is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.
Philosophers and scientists and law professors (my line of work) are not in the best position to understand the Christian story. Musicians and painters and writers of fiction are much better situated – because the Christian story is a story, not a theory or an argument, and definitely not a moral or legal code. Our faith is, to use C. S. Lewis’s apt words, the myth that became fact. Our faith is a painting so captivating that you cannot take your eyes off it. Our faith is a love song so achingly beautiful that you weep each time you hear it. At the center of that true myth, that painting, that song stands a God who does vastly more than remember his image in us. He pursues us as lovers pursue one another. It sounds too good to be true, and yet it is true. So I have found, in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer.
William J. Stuntz (Henry J. Friendly Professor at Harvard Law School)
Originally published in Christianity Today, August 2009. (slight editing has been done) www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/34.44.html