Shining Light on Suffering: A Theology of Scars

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It is often argued that we are what we read. According to a study conducted by a professor at Dartmouth, the books we read form us into people resembling the fictional characters with whom we imaginatively identify.[1] As Rebecca Mead reveals in My Life in Middlemarch, a great book can prove to be a companion throughout one’s life. Worthy books shape us and offer glimpses into who we are and who we want to be.[2]

Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel Gilead has become a faithful companion to me. In this epistolary novel, an old man, Reverend John Ames, is dying and so writes a letter of sorts to his young child, sharing the things a father would tell his son in the normal course of life. The first memory Ames records provides the interpretive key for the entire story and – I would argue – for our own stories as well.

Recalling the time he and his father journeyed through the Dust Bowl in search of his estranged grandfather’s grave, Ames writes:

“The graveyard was about the loneliest place you could imagine. If I were to say it was going back to nature, you might get the idea that there was some sort of vitality about the place. But it was parched and sun-stricken. It was hard to imagine the grass had ever been green.”[3]

After clearing the thorny snarl from the gravesite and planting flower seeds in the reordered earth, his father began to pray. As he prayed, the boy Ames observed a full moon waxing as the sun waned:

“Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth.”[4] Witnessing the intermingled radiance of the luminaries upon the grave, Ames’ father reflects: “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”[5]

Eventually, we all attempt to make sense of suffering in our lives. We try to discover meaning within it, to discern order in the chaos. Gilead can be read as a wonderful meditation upon this universally human quest. Even in the most God-forsaken places, beauty and meaning can arise when illuminated rightly.

This is but another way of saying that creation may be redeemed. In a surprising way, this is what creation is for: redemption. God always intended creation and redemption; not simply life, but resurrection life. This raises the awful implication: only through death is life resurrected. Jesus is making all things new, but this recreation appears differently than we might imagine.

It is amazing that the resurrected Jesus bore the marks of crucifixion. If God is able to raise the dead, He’s surely capable of erasing any trace of those costly wounds of love. Certainly, the scars served as evidence of Jesus’ identity (Luke 24:39; John 20:27). But they indicate a greater purpose than just proof.

In Christ and Culture, Graham Ward explores the role of suffering in the economy of Christian redemption.[6] The scars wrought by nail and spear offer a clue. Pointing to a cryptic verse that presents Jesus as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), Ward argues that creation emerges from a kenotic giving and is set on a kenotic trajectory. Creation has “a logic of sacrifice that always made possible the Passion of Jesus Christ on the cross, the slaying of the Lamb.”[7]

We might take this one step further and suggest that such verses indicate that suffering is baked into creation, rendering the Passion not just possible but inevitable, even necessary. The greatest manifestation of God’s glorious love is the redemption of suffering through suffering. The scars of Christ offer hope that through his suffering our suffering might be redeemed.

A pattern emerges consistently from the end as from the beginning. Jesus was foreknown as the sacrificial Lamb before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:19-20). He was revealed as the sacrificial Lamb suffering upon the cross (John 1:29; Hebrews 10:11-12). At the consummation of all things in Revelation 21, “the Lamb worshipped and adored, the disseminator of light throughout the Eternal City, remains the Lamb that is slain.”[8] Suffering seems woven into the fabric of the universe.

Embracing this vision requires a faithful imagination though some may see this pattern as a figment of the imagination.

In his book Fire in the Mind, George Johnson argues that the driving force of humanity is the desire to find order in the world. Humans are neurologically wired to see order but are “cursed with never knowing when we are seeing truths out there in the universe and when we are merely inventing elaborate architectures.”[9]

Is the pattern we “see” discovered or devised? Is it in front of our eyes or behind them? Do Christians find meaning in Jesus’ scars as the ancients found meaning in the stars?

Johnson suggests the possibility that our vision is like that of a goldfish “…up against the edge of the aquarium; the shapes and colors that dazzle us could simply be our own reflections distorted by the glass.”[10] The Apostle Paul offers a similar image with a different perspective. While admitting the asymptotic scope of our vision – “for now we see in a mirror, dimly” – he offers assurance that the Christian vision is true even if not exhaustive: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”

There’s no evading the partial and provisional nature of our vision between the “now” and “then.” There remains a hiddenness to things that necessitates walking by faith and not by sight. This requires living without the full resolution of suffering.[11]

Proper vision requires a baptized imagination. This is no empty make believe that all is well but the fullness of belief that Jesus will make all well. Jesus’ scars are an a fortiori argument: if the greatest suffering and injustice could be redeemed and redound to glory, so too can our own. It’s in this hope that we are to believe against hope.

Acknowledging life’s inherent difficulties, Ames reminds his son of the great promise that “He will wipe the tears from all faces,” then matter-of-factly quips that “it takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.”[12]

This life is not without profound tension and mystery. While the marks of suffering abide there will be no vestigial sadness. There will be only joy – glorified, transfigured joy. We can catch glimpses of this vision, obscurely, given the desire and fortitude to see:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance…Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”[13]

 

[1] George F. Kaufman and Lisa K. Libby, “Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 103, Jul 2012, 1-19.
[2] Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014), 6.
[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 13.
[4] Ibid., 14.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2005), 254ff.
[7] Ibid., 255.
[8] Ibid., 256.
[9] George Johnson, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order (New York: Knopf, 1995), 21.
[10] Ibid., 25.
[11] Andrew Lincoln, “Colossians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 641.
[12] Robinson, Gilead, 245.
[13] Ibid., 246.

 

Article by Kevin M. Antlitz

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