I had the privilege this past Sunday to participate in the Lord’s Lighthouse Bible study. I sat and listened as a group of people confessed that they needed to think of themselves less and instead focus on loving and caring for others. I was taken aback by the intensity with which they analyzed the text. They spoke with an urgency and assurance of God’s presence that I, a fourth-year Practical Theology student and church intern, have rarely, if ever, felt in my own life. Some of the members of this group had just come in from sleeping on the sidewalk outside, and others sat with all their possessions in a single bag. If any group had an excuse to curse God and walk away, it would be these people. Instead, I was overcome by the faith I witnessed and the thankfulness that was given to God as we began to pray. I am convinced that I encountered God in that space.
The following Wednesday night I was sitting on the Metro as I made my way back from Hollywood Pres towards my apartment in Azusa. As I sat with my head against the window I began to look around at those around me. There was a man talking to himself in the corner, a woman who looked as though she had not eaten in days, a man with no shirt or shoes sleeping across two seats, and many others who fit similar descriptions. It was then that I felt, with overwhelming certainty, that the Holy Spirit was most certainly present on that train. I consider myself very orthodox in my theology and I will admit I am very skeptical anytime someone insists that they “feel the presence of God.” As Dr. Michael Bruner likes to say, “I get hives if I see anyone even raise their hands in worship.” And yet, just like my experience at the Lord’s Lighthouse, I was again convinced that I had encountered God.
The two things that these instances had in common was that they took place in the presence of individuals who were suffering. I would like to entertain the idea that when we are oppressed or suffering, or when we are in community with those who are oppressed or suffering, it is here that we more consistently and clearly encounter God. However, when we attempt to avoid suffering by building up comfort, we effectively become spiritually disabled, constructing a wall that obstructs our ability to see and encounter God.
Throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that he identifies and resides with those who are oppressed and suffering. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that what we do to “the least of these,” we do to him. Deuteronomy 10 states that “Yhwh executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” God is described as being deeply concerned with perpetual oppression, and Jesus’ ministry on earth gives us another example of this. We are assured that even when God’s people do not respond to the call to help those in need, God is still fully present with those who are suffering.
However, God warns those who are rich of the dangers that come with material comforts. In Mark 10, the rich young man goes away disappointed, not because Jesus was giving him a suggestion, but because he knew that to follow him would cost everything. In that same chapter, Jesus insists that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. I believe that this has nothing to do with the idea that rich people are more sinful than poor people, and everything to do with the fact that the comforts of this world make it nearly impossible for us to recognize our dependence on God and thus make it difficult to encounter him. Suffering, oppression, and discomfort leave us nothing to do but turn to the Father.
So what is the response for someone like me who, for the most part, has not encountered times of oppression or suffering?
We can start with the spiritual discipline of simplicity which should be looked at, not as a practice that we can take up and put down, but as a key characteristic in how we as Christians are called to live. Richard Foster explains that simplicity is “An inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.” The primary purpose of simplicity is to reject anything that can drive a wedge between us and God. It is the practice of continually realizing that, as St. Augustine said, “All plenty which is not my God is poverty to me.” This practice will allow us to remove the things in our lives that act as a boundary, and thus trick us into thinking that we do not need to be completely dependent on God. Removing these distractions, we will have nothing to do but run to the Scriptures, seek out community, and spend time with those who can teach us much of what it means to find God in the midst of suffering.
It is only after we commit ourselves the discipline of simplicity that we will be able to understand the importance of surrounding ourselves with and trying to engage and help in the suffering of others. Whether that is friends and family who are suffering through sickness or the loss of a loved one, or those people in our congregation who are currently without a home. We have no excuse anymore. When we ignore suffering, we ignore the face of Christ.