Great Misfortune

March 4, 2010

Great Misfortune

There was once an old man named Benoni who had know great misfortune through life, having lost his wife and children to poverty, disease, and war. The many lines on his face betrayed his pain, and his heart was filled with sorrow and regret. Indeed he barely had the strength to carry on.

But there was one who had drawn alongside him in his sorrow. His comforter was the village blacksmith, a strong but caring man who exhibited a gentle, humble, and charitable way of life. People knew very little about this blacksmith, as he was a quiet man who had moved into the town only a few years before. Yet he was well liked by the community and would often be found sitting on the porch of his workshop, enjoying the midday sun and passing the time by engaging strangers in conversation. His face was strong and full of character, betraying both a depth of spirit and breadth of experience. But it was also a kindly face that was set alight by his compassionate smile.

When Benoni lost his first child, the blacksmith called round to his home, put his hand on Benoni’s shoulder and with great affection said, “I am so sorry that you have suffered this grace misfortune. If you will allow me, I would like to stand with you at this time of hardship.”

Ever since this first encounter the blacksmith had called round to Benoni’s house most evenings, sometimes to sit and chat, sometimes to listen, and sometimes simply to leave food and other provisions. As each new calamity befell Benoni, the blacksmith would be there to speak and cry with.

One day when Benoni was particularly depressed he went to visit a pastor who lived in the heart of the city, so as to talk through what had taken place over the traumatic years and try to make sense of it. The pastor listened to what Benoni had to say and then, after a little thought, replied, “Well my son, in order for great fortune to take place one must first suffer great misfortune. The suffering you have faced is the price that has had to be extracted for strength of character, and a spirit forged in the fires of hell.”

So Benoni returned to his home along, lit a fire in an attempt to take away the evening’s chill, and contemplated the words of the minister. Perhaps he is right, thought Benoni, maybe I should take some comfort from these words. But it is cold, I am alone, and words can offer no shoulder to rest on.

Just hten the blacksmith knocked on the door and Benoni, as always, welcomed him in. As they sat together they drank whiskey and talked long into the night. That evening Benoni shared the words of the pastor with his friend, adding, “Perhaps now that I have been given these words to comfort me, you no longer need to visit as you have done this last year.”

The blacksmith simply looked at the floor for a few moments and then replied, “My dear friend, if what the elder has said is true then I am needed all the more, for if you had to suffer such great misfortune in order to find strength of character and wealth of spirit, then this is in itself a great misfortune.”

And so they sat late into the night bringing comfort and warmth to each other through the sharing of their lives.


The parallels and divergences from the Job story in this parable are interesting to me. Obviously the two characters suffer much, but Benoni is never portrayed as prosperous– before or after all his misfortunes. Both also have friends who come to them in their trouble, but Benoni’s at least has the courtesy to not blame the misfortunes on Benoni. In fact, the blacksmith just suffers along with his friend, and that’s what I want to talk about.

There’s a moment in the Gospels when a man is brought before Jesus, and before he is healed the crowd asks Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned?” Around this time people took the whole “to the seventh generation” thing pretty literally. (As we’ll see later, they still do.) The story of Job makes it pretty clear that some people just suffer, no accounting for it. Jesus’ response to the question, “Who sinned?”, underlines the point: the man did nothing wrong, and neither did his family. Sometimes bad things just happen. Then Jesus healed the man.

What Jesus didn’t say was, “This happened because your character needed to be tested; God’s just throwing a little adversity your way (crippling illness is just a little adversity) so that you can be a better person,” which is today’s equivalent of “Who sinned?” Both of these approaches take for granted the idea that God causes suffering in people’s lives, and the stories of Jesus healing folks and Benoni push back hard against that notion. This isn’t to say that adversity can’t make a person stronger, but the point is that God isn’t causing the suffering, and it isn’t because of something the person’s done. This notion is popular in Christianity, for reasons I do not understand at all. I get that there’s a Calvinist, total sovereignty thing going on here, but the idea that God would purposely cause people to suffer– even if it meant growth of character– seems totally out of sync with the picture we’re given of God. When people talk about Job, they often miss the forest for the trees. They get hung up on the fact that God and the Accuser strike a deal to torment Job and lose sight of the fact that Job is a Jewish story trying to explain suffering, and the answer it comes to is, “God’s bigger than you are, and sometimes there aren’t reasons for things.” More importantly, a few hundred years later, God in flesh said, “No one sinned; no one did anything wrong.” Jesus didn’t demand an accounting of how the man’s character had been improved by his lifetime of suffering. He just alleviated the suffering.

The idea this story is pushing is that it is better to suffer alongside a friend who is suffering rather than attempt to explain it away. This is what the blacksmith means when he says, “if you had to suffer such great misfortune in order to find strength of character and wealth of spirit, then this is in itself a great misfortune.” It allows for human smallness: maybe there is a reason behind this, but if there is that is a terrible thing indeed. More importantly it mimics the divine stance as shown by Jesus; we don’t know the reason for the suffering, but I will create space for you to suffer, grieve, and be healed.


5 Responses to “Great Misfortune”

  1. Jacob B. said

    So, in my Religion in America class, we started the semester talk about providence and whether or not we take the stance for or against providence. Anyway, I’ve always been fairly certain that providence is a load of crap and that we make our own destiny, and this affirms that in a way.

    • christophermahlon said

      I think Providence sounds really great when things are going good for you, it makes it tempting to think that God is on your side. But enough really crappy stuff happens in the world that it is very difficult for me to accept that God’s behind it in any significant way.

  2. Evan said

    Hey Hey, its me again. I’m sure by now Chris is sick of my comments, but I couldn’t help but feel the need to chime in as we just had a sermon on Providence and it reminded me of a few antecdotes:

    A) My sophmore year of college, in my Physical science class we watched a movie about Intelligent Design. According to the professor in the video, the earth is located in what is known as “The Circumstellar Habitable Zone,” which is ideal for human life. If the earth were one degree closer or further away from the sun, human life on earth would be impossible.

    B)This one will probably interest Chris more than the previous one. In fact, you might have heard it already. Apparently, the night before the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon had said something to the effect, “I fear nothing but the weather.” Well, it just so happens that a thousand miles away on a micronesian/Polynesian(??) island a volcano erupted spreading ash into the atmosphere affecting the weather pattern over the battlefield. It rained and we all know the rest of the story.

    Now, if these things aren’t evidence that providence exists, I don’t know what is.

  3. Evan said

    Sorry if my command of the exact details in regards to the antecdote about Napoleon are a bit hazy, but I think you can understand the bigger picture even if I didn’t get everything just so.

    • christophermahlon said

      To play the ever continual devil’s advocate:

      I, like you, see the position of the earth as evidence of the Creator’s intentions, (I’m not really sure how I could see it otherwise, since I believe in God.) but I also think the scientific explanation can be fit within a created narrative. Anyway, the response from someone who doesn’t believe in God to the point about the earth’s position is pretty obvious, and I think you can see it, too. There’s no reason that it should have been here, and we’re just incredibly lucky that it happened here. Odds are it would have happened elsewhere, and it probably has.

      As to the second, I’m really reluctant to assent to that one being Providence. For one thing, it is hardly evident to me that Napoleon winning Waterloo would have been a bad thing. At that time in Europe, all the government’s were pretty equally crappy, if you ask me. And anyway, if I accept that God caused a volcanic explosion in order to stymie Napoleon’s conquests, that means I have to either accept that God also causes the really crappy natural disasters that occur, (Plus, did anyone die because of that volcanic explosion? I’d find it very difficult to stomach that one if God had killed people in Poly/Micronesia in order to defend Europe.) OR I’d have to only ascribe to God those natural occurrences which were favorable to me, which, I think you’ll admit, is a pretty flimsy pretext. It is much safer to me to assume that Napoleon just chose a crappy time to go on the offensive, and that regardless of the outcome of the battle of Waterloo God would have kept doing work within and through the church.

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