Three Gifts for Hard Times
William J. Stuntz, criminal justice professor at Harvard Law School, died March 15, 2011. The following piece on suffering is an article he wrote for Christianity Today in 2009.
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 and 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, and 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, in February 2008, another piece of bad news struck me: Doctors found a large tumor in my colon; a month later, films turned up tumors in both of my lungs. In the past year, 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.
First, God usually doesn't remove life's curses. Instead, he redeems them.