The Ache that Defies Comprehension

[note: my friend and fellow blogger Teryn O’Brien just finished reading The Man who was Thursday; so, to celebrate, we decided to write a set of posts exploring the questions raised in the novel and the nature of suffering. Go here to read her excellent post.]


I think my favorite moment in any of the Bourne movies is that absolutely riveting moment at the very end of the third movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, where Jason Bourne—having lost his girlfriend in a brutal assassination attempt and been pursued across three continents by former employers who are trying to terminate him for no clear reason—finally has the chance to meet the man who made him.

Just moments away from being felled by some of his fellow assassins, Bourne enters the facility where he was first apprenticed as a young killer. As agents swarm the building, he finds himself alone in a corridor leading to the training wing. Flashbacks to his induction suddenly well up from the dark recesses of memory, and as he stands there contemplating the lonely ruin of his life, an old man appears behind him at the end of the hallway.

“Hello, Jason,” he says calmly, as he approaches the young assassin. “I hear you’ve been having some problems. Put the gun down. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to talk.”

“I spent three years running,” says Jason, realizing for the first time that this man is the genesis of all his problems. He grabs him and hurls him into a corner, struggling to repress his rage enough to hear what the man has to say. “Why me? Why did you pick me?”

It’s a fair question. I remember watching this movie with the rest of my scary community near the end of our end-times training in the summer of 2011—I had just spent eight months being shunned by Tyler Deaton and the rest of my friends, at the end of which (like the old man in the movie), Tyler tried to convince me that all the bad things that had recently happened in my life were my own fault. And yet I couldn’t repress a feeling of visceral horror as I watched this scene unfolding. Though I had no way to explain it, I think I identified with Jason on a primal level in those moments, as he interrogates his creator; as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence, the purpose behind all the bleeding.

It’s nice to imagine that suffering is distributed evenly, that there’s some kind of heavenly bureaucracy committed to ensuring that everyone suffers in equal proportions. But, as the psalmist recognized, some people skate through life without a problem. Others stumble under burdens too big for them to carry. And there doesn’t seem to be any justice, any fairness to it. “Truly I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning.”[1]

Yeah. I feel like that a lot.

And I think our temptation as Evangelicals is to minimize the suffering of others because it doesn’t make sense. Tragically, suffering doesn’t always fit into our Christian worldview—which is kind of odd when you think about how our religion started. Recently Samantha Fields wrote a post on her blog about how some of her fellow Christians try to dismiss the intense bodily pain she has to suffer through continually because it threatens them, challenges them, makes them uncomfortable. At least one person actually responded to this achingly vulnerable story by accusing her of having brought all this pain on herself. “What you have is only hatred for the Living God,” he wrote in the comments, “for which He shall pay you His recompense unless you repent in your heart before Him.”

Well, there you go. It seems like every time one of us is going through a horrible trial, the accuser is standing right there behind us trying to deny the validity of the experience we’re suffering.

But you know, I don’t think any of this is necessarily supposed to make sense. I’ve come to embrace some of the weird mysteries of my life—“why do these strange, horrible things seem to keep happening?”—because they’re a living reminder that life is weird and mysterious; that God can’t be squeezed into a narrow theological construct; that our faith isn’t so much a precisely-delineated scientific treatise as it is a song or a poem. These realities are all deeply offensive to the natural man, who is incurably religious and hates the cross with a passion. Job’s friends are forever trying to reduce our incredibly painful experiences into something they can fit in their hands because they can’t accept what they can’t control, but I own those experiences, I hold onto them, because through them I’ve encountered something you can’t get in a church handout or a three-point Sunday school lesson. It’s called reality, and it doesn’t come prepackaged for mass consumption. I treasure the things I’ve gone through because they’ve awakened me to a deep experience of living and a mysterious participation in the sufferings of God.

And that, ultimately, is the revelation given to Gabriel Syme at the end of my other favorite spy story, The Man who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. (Spoilers lie ahead for those who haven’t read it). Syme is a detective working for Scotland Yard who infiltrates the dangerous Council of Anarchists in the hopes of bringing down Sunday, the leader of the Council, an enormous man with apparently God-like powers.

For the first 200 or so pages, the novel is humming along pretty straightforwardly, if unconventionally—Gabriel eventually realizes that all the other anarchists on the Council, with the exception of Sunday, are secretly detectives. And then, in the final pages, the incomprehensible happens.

Having pursued their ringleader across country by taxicab, elephant, and hot-air balloon, the six detectives-turned-anarchists find themselves on the precipice of Sunday’s vast estate. He invites them inside; each one of them is clothed in the robes of the day of the week they represent on the Council, and the six men take their places on thrones in a circle around Sunday.

And the six men interrogate Sunday. And Sunday interrogates them.

“I am not reconciled,” says Monday, angrily. “If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? We wept; we fled in terror; the iron entered into our souls—and you are the peace of God!”

And then Saturday: “I am not happy, because I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell.”

And so it goes, until finally Tuesday says, “with the absolute simplicity of a child”: “I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.”

Wisely, Chesterton does not attempt much of an answer to the mystery of what these men have suffered. What answers are given point beyond themselves to even greater mysteries. In the end, one character who has been missing for most of the story, Gregory the anarchist poet, suddenly enters the room. In high rage he accuses them of never having suffered. To which Gabriel rises in his own defense, and the defense of his fellow detectives, to fling the lie back into the face of their accuser. Strangely, it’s right here, in this heroic affirmation of the validity of what they’ve just gone through, that Gabriel really glimpses the meaning of everything. “It is not true that we have never been broken,” he says. “We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell.”

There’s no real answer given, and none that were offered would be very satisfying. Nevertheless, when I read the last chapter of this book—when I finished it, in tears—I felt like I had just understood the whole meaning of my life. I felt like everything had been explained to me.

And maybe what we’re all really wanting is just to have our experiences affirmed like that. Just to stand before our creator, like Job, and know that He sees us. That He has seen everything. To thank Him, as Gabriel does, for many a fine scamper and free fight, and air my confusions and troubles and know that He heard them. Sometimes I don’t think I’m really looking for answers to all the questions I have. I’m not trying to understand the mind of God. Sometimes, I think I just want Him to understand me.

Which is why, I think, The Man who was Thursday ends the way it does, with a single mysterious image that burns itself onto the brain even in the moment of reading. At the end of his speech, having thoroughly denounced the blasphemer for denying the depths into which they’ve descended, Gabriel turns to Sunday and says in a dreadful voice, “Have you… have you ever suffered?”

And Sunday suddenly grows to enormous proportions, bigger than the whole room, and in the blackness before his brain is destroyed entirely Gabriel hears him say, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

And that’s it. Just a single line “from a commonplace text” he had heard once.

Like the writers of LOST, Sunday never bothers to try and offer them an ultimate explanation, for no explanation could have really satisfied the longings of their hearts. What they really wanted—what they got—was a story. And in the context of that story—and in the revelation of his shared suffering in the trauma and turmoil the story brought them—everything that had happened found new meaning. It was not a meaning any of them could put into words. It just was. They were they, and he was he, and in the end they were all together. They raged, they wept, he listened.

And somehow, that was enough.

[1] Psalm 73:13-14

3 thoughts on “The Ache that Defies Comprehension

  1. Pingback: The Ellesmere Book Club: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton | Identity Renewed

  2. Pingback: When Holiness Becomes Evil | thetalkingllama

  3. Pingback: My 51 Favorite Books (1995 – 2013) | thetalkingllama

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