The Couple With Perfect Lives:
A True-Life Parable
So many people worry about why God allows suffering in the world, and that is far too large a topic to cover in this small piece, but I think we can find some illumination on looking at the other side of the question: what happens when people donít suffer?
This is actually quite a difficult thing to answer, since the only people who donít seem to suffer are those one doesnít know well. We tend to hide our sufferings from others, so it is only those who know us well who can tell something of the degree of suffering in our lives.
If you look at strangers, then, you are judging something you know nothing about. And the more you look at the people you know, the harder it is to find someone who hasnít suffered. Often, peopleís behaviour can be explained by someone who knows something about their suffering.
I know, myself, that in my whole life, I have never known anyone who has been untouched by suffering Ė with the exception of one couple.
I didnít know them well, personally, but I knew the womanís sister, and they had been close all their lives, so she told me in great detail about how their lives had gone. Iíve mentioned these people to many Iíve known, since their case is so extraordinary. Since you, too, may not know anyone without misfortune in their lives, you might want to hear about them.
To begin with, even though the woman (weíll call her Mabel) was born during the Depression, her father always had worked, and the family was always better off than most people. Her mother, a God-fearing woman, was often somewhat absent-minded, so her husband had to remind her that, when she went shopping, not to pay for things with a $20 bill, since that would make other people feel bad Ė in those days, a $20 bill was like a $100 would be now. He was sensitive about how others felt. She would have been, too, had she been less distracted by various thoughts. She was a woman who read her Bible so much that she regularly wore out the bindings of various Bibles, and needed to buy new ones from time to time, and she did her best to obey God.
So, young Mabel grew up in a godly home, wealthy when others were poor, with kind, thoughtful parents, and wanted for nothing. She did well in school, always had friends, and never had any accidents or major illnesses. She fell in love in high school, and married her high school sweetheart, and had a happy marriage all her life. Her husband had a good job he kept until his retirement, and they never wanted for money. He put her through nursing school, and she had a satisfying career as a nurse, until she retired. Mabel had no trouble conceiving, had no miscarriages or stillbirths, and, like her mother, had easy deliveries. Her children were healthy, happy, and well-behaved, and even in their teens, never got into any trouble. She had a boy and a girl, and each one did well in school, got their degrees, and became professionals. Each married well and happily, and had happy families. Neither Mabel, her husband, or her children ever experienced job loss, serious illness, or family problems. In due time, the woman and her husband retired, and became a bit bored, so they started up a small business. It did well, they prospered, and they enjoyed working together.
To my knowledge, as long as I knew them, no shadow ever fell across their lives. I believe, in her seventies, Mabel had to have a minor surgical procedure, but it went well, and aside from a little postoperative "picking" as her stitches healed (which we all heard about at great length), she was as good as new.
What would it be like to know such people? What would they be like? Well, they were sort-of relations by marriage, and I worked for them periodically in their little retirement business, and I saw them at family gatherings, and their frequent visits to the house, often when they came to get Mabelís sister to give them haircuts, so I can give you a general picture.
They were pleasant, happy people, and everyone liked them, and they seemed to have a lot of friends, and a good social life. They were good to their employees, and I donít recall anyone complaining about them. I got along with them well enough, though I donít recall ever really warming to them. They were nice, but something always seemed missing to me, though it was nothing I could put my finger on, and certainly it was nothing I held against them. They were always pleasant to me, as an employee and a relative.
But I remember one period of time when it became clear what they were really like. Mabel's sisterís husband was in the hospital: it was serious, and we all knew he wasnít going to go home. Everyone in the family knew he was on his death-bed. We were visiting him in the hospital, and he was being fairly cheery, since he was a good-hearted man who wanted everyone to feel as good as they could with the situation, when the in-laws walked in.
They stood at the door, uncomfortably. They had never been in this kind of situation before, and didnít know how to act. Mabel had come prepared. Thinking to make light of the situation, or "break the ice," or whatever went through her head, she laughed, tossed a pair of scissors onto the dying manís bed, and mockingly threatened her sister, accusing her of being a "layabout," since sheíd neglected to cut her brother-in-lawís hair. She fully expected her sister to give him a haircut in the hospital room.
We all turned and stared at her. Her husband was laughing at the joke, too, and then they were silent at our stares. They seemed uncomfortable, but completely in the dark about what had just happened. Her sister handed her the scissors back, and hissed at her, "Take these away, right now." She did, and they made some excuse about having to go, and then left.
Later, in the hotel room, Mabel's sister was spitting with fury. She couldnít believe they could be so insensitive. "Throwing those scissors down on the bed, as though he werenít even there! As though he were already dead, and all they cared about was saving money on a haircut!" I comforted her as best I could, but nothing could undo the fact that, in her hour of need, her own sister hadnít the faintest idea how to be a comfort to her.
Later, they came to the hotel room, jolly as anything, thinking it would all have blown over. Mabel's sister tore into her, but it did no good. It didnít even really become a spat, since Mabel didnít like unpleasantness, so she remarked that her sister was in a bad mood, and she didnít need to take that, and they left.
Even after Mabel's sister was widowed, I donít think Mabel or her husband ever gave her sister sympathy or concern. Once theyíd determined her husband was going to die, they seemed to have "written him off," and didnít think about him any more. That would have brought unpleasantness into their lives.
Now, this is not a chronicle of some outrageous, scandalous sin. On that scale it is miniscule. But as an act that revealed the mind and heart of the people who did it, it was enough. This experience convinced me that these two were the most selfish, heartless, cold people Iíd ever had the misfortune to meet.
Since then, I have met many more people with far greater malevolence than these two (they never went out of their way to do either harm or good), most of those people seemed to have some struggle of conscience, some need to justify themselves or explain, some desire to be understood, that these two were too complacent to feel. Iíve never seen anyone so completely self-absorbed and without conscience or ability to understand or regret anything they did as Mabel and her husband. If the unpardonable sin is the sin that cannot be repented of, then I fear they are the kind of people who are capable of committing it.
Once they had revealed their true selves, I found I couldnít stand them or being around them, which wasnít much of a problem, since they were not very welcome around the house after that, and, to avoid unpleasantness, they visited seldom.
So, before we get too bent out of shape about suffering, letís look at the end result of people who have lived a life totally without suffering. They were, to paraphrase the Greg Kinnear character in the movie, As Good as it Gets, "absolute horrors of human beings." And the character that the remark was aimed at actually proved himself better than that judgment.
Leaving condemnation aside, this must give us serious pause. Letís look at the people we know, in the light of what theyíve suffered. Donít we turn to those with a deeper background of suffering when we need to talk? Donít we instinctively turn away from the more fortunate, because we find their attempts at comfort often shallow, and too many times out-and-out hurtful?
If suffering produces these fine characteristics in people, do we really want to know people who have never suffered? Is suffering really the worst thing, or is it becoming "horrors of human beings"?
The Bible talks about us learning from our sufferings, and this is true of all people, whether they are religious or not. Sometimes, in fact, being religious complicates oneís suffering, because one then needs to struggle with oneís relationship with the God who is allowing this all to happen Ė but that difference is, I feel, more illusory than real.
"There are no atheists in foxholes," they used to say, and it is true that there is nothing like suffering to make people think about God, and struggle with these issues. Better we should be prepared in our minds with some relationship with Him before tragedy strikes, since we will not be spared that agony or struggle. We all, deep inside, know God made us, and we all cry out to him in times of catastrophe.
The fact that there are no easy answers to suffering, and that people do feel the brunt of "time and chance," regardless of their beliefs, often causes a crisis of faith when trouble hits. But not always. Sometimes, it just makes it clear Who is the only One worth trusting in. But this is another story for another day.
So, before you bemoan the existence of suffering, mentally list the characters of the people you know who have been through a lot, versus those of the people who have, generally, had a comfortable life, or who have one now, and ask yourself: which kind of people would you like to have in an ideal world? And, if the world were filled with people like the couple I described, would you even want to live in it?
Thankfully, most people, particularly as they grow older, mature, and have more life experience, including much suffering, are much better than this. They are still reachable. I donít believe God ever wants anyone to become so hardened that they cannot respond to the sound of His voice when the time comes.
So, when we give thanks to God for everything, even our sufferings, maybe we can think of this, that God may be doing something good in our characters, and saving us from a worse fate Ė even in this life Ė than temporary sorrow.
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