Fear and Trembling

Hear me and answer,

        for my cares give me no peace.

I am panic-stricken at the shouts of my enemies,

       at the shrill clamor of the wicked.

My heart is torn with anguish

and the terrors of death come upon me.

Fear and trembling overwhelm me

       and I shudder from head to foot.

-Psalm 55:2-5

When we encounter suffering, our first impulse is to run like hell from it. In the past year, I have faced more squarely my own personal suffering and the suffering I have filmed around the world. It seems impossible to put it all into an understandable perspective. There is no escaping pain and suffering; it visits all of us. It is question without an answer: why must we suffer? But this we know: suffering destroys some of us while also making some of us stronger. Suffering seems to be a teacher no one wants; we want to avoid suffering at all coasts. But all the money in the world cannot shield us from personal suffering. We are powerless over suffering, and our very inability to avoid suffering is in itself a basic form of suffering. There are three basic forms of suffering that afflict us: physical, psychological and social. For those who can afford it, physical suffering can be treated and the pain minimized. Psychological suffering often goes untreated. The only suffering we can hope to reduce is the cruel social suffering caused by poverty, injustice, alienation and oppression. It is stunning how we are able to ignore the cries of the poor and casually dismiss the fact that the majority of people on earth are enslaved by a poverty so severe it kills thousands of people every day. Clearly, suffering caused by tyranny needs to be abolished and their captives liberated.

The Psalms frequently address the intense, three-dimensional suffering people face in their daily lives, as they dramatically lament all forms of pain that tend to crush people, most notably the pain of hunger, imprisonment, isolation, loneliness and ostracism. To look at Jesus on the cross is to see simultaneous physical, psychological and social suffering. Sadly, through most of Christian history, right up to my childhood, suffering was presented as something God sent our way because we were sinners deserving punishment or at least as a wake-up call to turn us from our sinful ways before it is too late to be saved from eternal damnation. In other words, grace came robed as affliction; suffering was the gateway to atonement. Guilt was never an effective stimulus for transformation. Even religious answers to the question of suffering are weak, feeble and overly pious…and worse often take on a sadistic and masochistic tone that presents a God who justifies inflicting misery.

Jesus said that whatever you do to the least of his brothers and sisters, those who are hungry and thirsty, you are doing to him. In the parable from the 25th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus is saying that God becomes immanent in the pain of others, and in serving them, we are loving God. Our personal suffering can lead us to spirit of life-affirming detachment, to a subtle dying to self in order to become more receptive to God. This is a far cry from tolerating, enduring or overcoming suffering.


1 Response to “Fear and Trembling”

  1. 1 Mary Dib April 19, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Having just finished reading “Come Be My Light” the private writings of the ”
    saint of Calcutta,” I am amazed at how much Mother Teresa endured in suffering from a lack of consolation, a feeling of abandonment, a desire to pray but not being able to do so as she tells her confessors. This went on for a very long time but she endured all, offering her silent suffering along with the selfless love and caring to so many people starving for a human touch and the basic nesessities. She concentrated on satisfying the “Thirst of Jesus” for souls and in covering up her own sufferings which later were also physical, by always flashing a big smile. At times she felt like saying, “Enough” but instead accepted everything, constantly pushing herself to do more but also to spend the time in God’s presence even when no prayer could emerge from her heart. (I don’t fully understand this but the Psalm above that is applied to Jesus was the kind that she could well understand.} She too, in the depth of her soul was crying out to God, “Hear me and answer me” but no reply came. She got through this darkness by clinging to faith that God did hear but was asking more of her.


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