The Pain on the Far Side of the World


Today’s city newspaper featured a front page story about a school bus rear-ended by a dump truck. A teenager was killed. Someone’s 18-year-old son, all ready for graduation, all geared up for college in the fall (“Mom, Dad, I got accepted!”), wolfs down his breakfast, maybe says goodbye, maybe even offers a kiss on a good day, gets on that bus and winds up a few minutes later in eternity.

A couple days ago, I read an obituary in my town newspaper about a 27-year-old man who died in a freak accident while on vacation. The part that got me was that he was very active in the Big Brothers organization. They ran his picture in the obit, a smiling face bright with possibilities. Now some boys who don’t have fathers don’t have the surrogate dad who took time out of his schedule to help them.

Personally, I find it very hard to read these kinds of stories. I’m thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t.

David Kuo at Beliefnet recently wrote the following in his post Thoughts on Suffering after seeing for himself the misery in Uganda:

Is that [poor decision-making] God’s fault?

I think not. Because at every moment those decisions were made God was whispering for people to do the right thing, the just thing, the merciful thing. But we chose not to listen.

God has done his job. We haven’t done ours.

I used to think the suffering question was a serious head scratcher, a truly troubling thing—the best evidence against God. No more. I think it is largely an excuse to make ourselves comfortable in our complacency by blaming God for the suffering we aren’t spending our lives addressing.

We live in unusual times, times that didn’t exist until a handful of years ago. It is said that the average person today is inundated with more data in a few weeks than most people in the 18th century and previous got in their entire lives.

We can thank our instantaneous global news networks for this. All the world’s misery can be pumped into my home in a matter of seconds. Every day of the year. For as long as I live.

I’ve thought for many years that this constant stream of anguish and pain coming at us from every corner of the globe is an aberration of our age. God never intended Man to process so much misery at once. Misery, Want, PainIf we’re increasingly a nation of people on psychoactive medication, should we be surprised? Isn’t there enough pain within ten miles of our homes to last us a lifetime? What then do we do when we hear an orphanage was buried under a mudslide in Ecuador or a bus full of nuns holding babies in their arms went off a cliff in Singapore?

If you and I were serious about praying for others, we’d have enough prayer requests from hurting people in just our church alone to last most of us from week to week. Isn’t that the case with you? I know it is for me.

I could probably spend two or three hours a day just praying for the crushing needs of people I know. So how can I shoulder the rest of the world’s problems?

I believe that many of us are suffering from compassion fatigue. The flood of misery washes over us and we’re just numb to it anymore. That’s a problem, because God never intended that we live our lives as if anesthetized to pain.

Somewhere, though, we have to draw the line.

With all due respect to David Kuo, I can’t blame myself for the problems of Africa. If he wants to blame himself, that’s his prerogative. This is not to say that I don’t care about the pain in Africa, only that if I want to be sensitive to the needs of others, I can’t let myself grow numb in the waterfall of misery that is the entire world in 2008. And that means I have to find a means to turn off at least part of that waterfall. For my own effectiveness as a Christian.

That may seem callous, but I have to ask myself what my responsibility would have been a couple hundred years ago. Before the instant news update on the earthquake in Japan. Before the daily notification of genocide in Sudan. Before the suffering of the entire world landed on my doorstep and asked me in one united voice to solve the problems of 6.5 billion people.

It’s not that I don’t care, only that God never intended for me to be the savior of the world.

Of Godblogs & Gobbledygook


As of this last month, I’m convinced that information overload is hurting our souls.

A common factoid spread around the blogosphere tells us that a single edition of the New York Times contains more information on its pages than the average person in the 17th century accumulated in a lifetime. Whether true or not, it doesn’t take a sociology degree to know that we’re bombarded with increasing amounts of data we must process daily. I think about the sheer amount of medical knowledge today and wonder how any doctor can possibly do his job without becoming irrelevant in only a couple years. Or consider how high-tech spawns and kills off new technology almost every day.

We don’t have to be doctors or IT specialists to know that the average person today must not only process local events, but happenings on the other side of the world. It’s not enough that a local teacher was killed in a car accident over the weekend, but a bus full of nuns holding babies in their arms went off a cliff in Outer Pradesh. It’s difficult enough to know the pain of our neighbors, but now the whole world is our neighborhood, and the newspaper screams the entire planet’s misery. Add in the Web, e-mail, TV, radio, and some new media yet to be produced, and you’ve created a litany of laments few rational adults can process.

Estimates vary widely, but some claim that publishers put out as many as 300,000 book titles last year alone, up from the year before, which was an increase over the year previous—and so it goes. Each book comes packed with information we must process, facts we must consider and digest. Data, data, data.

Many of those titles come from Christian publishing houses. Into that mix we add Christian magazines, music, curricula, television and even Bibles. And now we have the new phenomenon of the blogosphere, complete with its own Christianized blogs.

I used to skim through about 100 Christian blogs via Bloglines. I dropped that to about fifty. Now I’m down to about the same dozen. And I might need to trim even those.

I can’t speak for you, but I look at my own soul and see confusion. I can no longer process all the information hitting me daily. I cut my blog diet down simply because I’d come away from reading with an itchy scalp that required constant scratching. Too many opinions. Too many contrary facts. Too many discussions of esoteric theological minutia. Too many book reviews of too many “must-read” books guaranteed to make me a better servant of Christ.

But what I’m discovering, contrary to the pervasive wisdom of educating oneself, makes me wonder if this information deluge might be hindering the discipleship process God created rather than boosting it. One book tells me how to pray, but another claims that other book has it wrong. This blog here discusses the finer points of infralapsiarianism, with several blog participants yelling at each other. After a while, everyone is simultaneously right and wrong. I can’t possibly give any of it much deep thought. What I tend to do instead is build a wall around myself to keep the facts from demanding too much of me.

The restlessness many people feel in their souls may be due to an inability to handle this data deluge. I consider myself a fairly competent processor of info, but I can’t do it all anymore. When Paul tells Timothy to study in order to show himself to be an approved workman, I highly doubt he wrote of what you or I contend with daily. As the foremost book says:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
—Ecclesiastes 12:12b

Consider how many books the average person in Solomon’s day might encounter. There’s not a person reading this now who doesn’t own more books than a hundred households even a hundred years ago. Did Paul advise Timothy to sit down with a stack of systematic theologies? Was he advocating collecting the complete works of this rabbi or that and poring over them until their wisdom filled every nook and cranny of Tim’s noggin?

We know about Pavlov’s dog, but do we know about Seligman’s? That dog, placed in a wire pen, received an electric shock whenever a tone sounded. After a while, the dog sat helplessly whimpering in the corner of its cage on hearing the tone, even without the shock.

I believe that one reason the Christian Church in America continues to struggle with meeting the demands of the Kingdom comes from an overload of data, a sort of constant mental electroshock. Every time someone dumps another factoid on us, we run cowering to the corner, afraid of whatever inevitable damage must afflict us for the knowing. We live in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance that sends us begging for it all to stop.

People beg for it to stop in different ways. Some throw themselves into one source that they hope might stem the noise from other sources. Information overloadOthers go searching for even more info, without knowing they’re using more to keep from dealing with the consequences of truths they already grasp. Others simply go into a self-imposed shell. Some avoid anything that smacks of more information, but they don’t know how to ultimately turn off the noise, growing frustrated.

And it has become noise, hasn’t it? Even the genuine signal gets lost when it’s pumped up to ear-splitting volumes. In a world hellbent on getting this message or that through the noise, life’s volume knob comes preset at eleven.

Who can blame people for failing to respond? With all that shouting, even from Christian sources, who can tell what’s right? Better to not risk doing the wrong thing based on conflicting info than to look stupid. And who knows what’s right and what’s wrong with everyone shouting?

It seems unbelievable to think that buying one more Christian book to read might be the wrong thing to do, or that perusing a respected Godblog might be a hindrance to growth. Or consider that Sunday’s sermon might be yet one more set of commands we can’t possibly live up to simply because it must contend with all the other data we don’t have time for. Lately, when I look at all the input, I don’t have any other way to think of it.

Listening to too many voices, even when those voices are good, is still the sign of a schizophrenic life.

I don’t know that that means for Cerulean Sanctum. I don’t want to add to the turmoil. I don’t want this blog to join others in numbing people to the Gospel. Whenever life gets reduced to a anesthetized blur, all meaning is lost. God never intended for us to dwell in a perpetual state of information overload.

I’m thinking. What are you thinking?