How To Deal With Sorrow
As Stephen's Faith In Action internship draws to a close, he reflects on how to deal with the sorrow that injustice causes.
Almost 20 million tonnes of food is thrown away in Britain every year, while nearly 5 million people live below the poverty line. As well as being the constant base line of my Faith In Action internship here at SCM, these statistics have also been a great source of sorrow for me.
Sorrow that so many people are hungry, when there is more than enough food for everyone. Sorrow that ignorance and selfishness seem like such powerful forces in our society. Sorrow that seemingly simple steps can be taken to reverse this trend, but such simple steps prove so difficult in practice. Sorrow that my weak mentality and negligent economic activity contribute in many ways to the inequality in our nation. Sorrow that, even once aware of this, I still live with this complicity weighing heavily on my back.
I am so sorrowful. In a few days my internship comes to an end, and I have to answer a question that I am dreading; ‘do you feel more positive now about how we as a society can tackle the problem of food waste?’ Ellis, our excellent Fundraising and Communications Officer, is preparing to ask me this question in an interview which you will be able to watch on this blog soon, and I am preparing to stall.
Do I feel more positive? Well, honestly, no. Twelve months ago, on my first day with SCM, I felt so excited. ‘What a great opportunity to fight a good fight and make the world a better place!’ I thought. But I feel like the seed of optimism sown into my nutritious heart back then has been choked by weeds and thorns; weeds of realisation that inequality is so deeply woven into the fabric of society, thorns of realisation that the dirt is on my hands. More than discovering great ways to heal a wound in our society, I have discovered that this wound is deeper and bloodier than I thought.
Our battle is against the powers of this dark world, and boy, are they powerful powers! Now the Spirit within me cannot let that sentence stand without declaring ‘ -- NOT AS POWERFUL AS OUR GOD!’ And indeed, this is my hope. But just before we declare hope in the power of God, I feel there is an important lesson to learn from this bleak place of sorrow.
What can we learn from the church about sorrow? Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth seems to have caused quite a bit of sorrow - and I’m not surprised. Paul’s infamously hard-hitting letter included such admonishing words as ‘a man is sleeping with his father’s wife - and you are proud?!’, and ‘I say this to shame you’. After the Corinthian church received a good telling off, Paul wrote them a second letter with these words:
2 Corinthians 7:8-11
‘Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
Here there is a distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. The church in Corinth experienced sorrow ‘as God intended’. What evidence is there of this? It led them to repentance. It produced earnestness, longing, and readiness to see justice done. Sorrow was an integral part of the church seeing where it was falling short, leading them back to the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s forgiveness, and restoring their heart for justice. To wallow in worldly sorrow brings death, but godly sorrow leads to salvation.
This reminds me of the story of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 1, the protagonist hears news of great sorrow - ‘the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire’. This news hit Nehemiah hard, so much so that he mourns for many days. But in his mourning he prays to God; ‘I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.’ His sorrow has led him to repentance. And through his repentance, he readies himself for justice.
You might wonder, what is Nehemiah repenting of? He isn’t responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls - what’s he saying sorry for? The fact that Nehemiah’s first instinct is to repent signifies that he feels complicit in the injustices in the world. Upon hearing the sorrowful news, he isn’t filled with anger against the enemy who destroyed the walls, but broader sadness for the pain and conflict that exists within every human heart. It is this of which he is repenting - a sin which, though evident at this precise moment in the destruction of the walls, exists in the hearts of all people. It is the negligence of God’s peace and love - a negligence for which we are all implicable.
I feel this reaction to injustice is quite rare in the modern world. Consider the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January earlier this year. Some reacted with anger for the suspects. Some with anger for what the suspects represented. Some reacted with pride and a resilience that said ‘we are not as bad as you are’. I wonder how you reacted? I suspect that Nehemiah would have seen the event simply as further evidence of humanity’s separation from God, of a communal, intrinsic sin for which we all have to repent. Of course, we are not each guilty of murder for what happened that day. But we as a species all share the burden of sin, that lashes out in different ways at different times across the planet, and each time we see it, we must repent.
‘Godly sorrow leads to repentance, which leads to salvation.’ Nehemiah repented, and then went and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. The Corinthian church repented, and then were ready to see justice done. I, in the shadows of the great sorrow I have uncovered this year, must repent of my sin and the sins of my society that wastes mountains of food while others go hungry. And this godly sorrow will produce in me also a readiness to see justice done.
And through this process of sorrow and repentance, I dare to maintain the hope I have; that though the problems of this world can seem so huge, can seem at times to choke my optimism, I know that God is more powerful than the powers of this dark world, and that Jesus has already overcome the world.
Now I’d like to ask you; do you feel more positive now about how we as a society can tackle the problem of food waste?