On September 14, I was at the Legon Seventh-day Adventist Church, Accra. The service followed the usual ritual structure of praying, tithing, and thanksgiving service and swaying the body gently to choral music after divine service.
The climax of the divine service was a sermon, which was not audibly titled, but which every laity could readily follow.
The reason for an untitled sermon that could readily catch the attention of the congregation was simply because of the narratives that embellished it. More so, the sermon was given by a non-clerical member of the church, who was described by Dr. Patricia Afrifa, the master of ceremonies of the divine service, as a man of few words.
The untitled sermon was delivered by my ‘brother’ and friend, Mr. Yeboah A. Fordjour, known on social media as H-Ford.
The reason for the rapt attention the sermon received was because it followed a true account of the pain He-Ford and his wife (She-Ford) faced as a young couple. Accordingly, their marriage, which God stood in as the star witness, was an incredible show of pomp and pageantry. Thus, after they got married in 2015, the couple expected to hear the cry of a baby.
Certainly, in Ghana when people miss your wedding, they look forward to compensating it with attending a naming ceremony. The significance of children in marriage is measured in terms of the prospects of the couple. And, indeed, in a society where childbearing marks the real consummation of a marriage, almost every couple looks forward to having children. Not having children is almost an unspeakable curse!
But the story about He-Ford and his wife was one of pain and frustration. Shortly after their marriage, He-Ford impregnated his wife and the two of them could not hide their joy. They were full of praises for the Lord.
But wait! Just when the pregnancy was nearing the trimester, the unfortunate and unexpected happened. She-Ford suffered a miscarriage. They could not believe it. As Adventists, who have mastered the reading of Ellen G. Whites’ magnum opus, The Great Controversy, a book I read many years ago, they decided to excuse God of doing them any evil. Mr. He-Ford knew his wife again (in the manner Abraham knew Sarah) and lo and behold, She-Ford did not miss it. She became pregnant again. This time, too, they thanked God and prayed for the pregnancy to stay. But it appeared the prayer fell on a rock. She-Ford suffered another miscarriage.
Fortunately for He-Ford, his father is a gynaecologist. So, as they had done the first time, He-Ford consulted his father. As a father, he counselled them and assured them of God coming in for them. He encouraged He-Ford to keep performing at night, while She-Ford was advised to be a good receiver of the magic liquid.
The couple did as they were advised, and graciously, She-Ford was impregnated. This time, they decided to do all they could to keep the pregnancy. They prayed. They fasted. They participated in all church prayer meetings, including the routine ten-day prayer of the SDA church. The only thing that was missing was the Pentecostal tongue-speaking fervor. But before they could lift thanks to the Lord, there was another miscarriage. ‘Where is God?’ He-Ford asked. Does He even care? Three series of miscarriages? How?
At this point, He-Ford’s faith was just on the false precipice of sinking. He temporarily stopped praying, as he did not know what more to tell God. For two days, he remained an agnostic – not knowing whether to believe in a living God of Abraham, the patriarch, or a dead god of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the German philosopher of the nineteenth century. He-Ford was struggling to keep faith and fate together. He struggled to speak words but did not have words to speak any meaningful words to his wife.
Again, he ran to his father. ‘Dad, guess what has happened, we failed this time too.’ His father was almost also drifting towards agnosticism. But, a father must always be a father – putting up an image of invincibility. He suppressed his worries, and did use stories, as usual, to encourage the couple. He narrated, ‘He-Ford, do you know that when you were young you used to protect your younger sister who was eight years younger than you? Do you remember that anytime she took a knife you would take it from her? Do you remember that whenever you took the knife from her she cried? But do you also remember that her cries did not stop you from keeping her from danger? Don’t you think God is doing the same thing to you? Don’t you think, as I said previously, God is taking away a badly formed embryo from you? Yes, you may cry, but God is keeping you safe! Just take heart.’
With these words of encouragement, H-Ford assured himself with a maxim that the stars shine best in darkness. Well, without darkness, you do not see the beauty of the star. So, without pain and suffering, you do not see the goodness of God! Given that Homo Sapiens is a meaning-seeking and meaning-creating being, these stories kept He-Ford and She-Ford going. But all this while, She-Ford was working out of Accra while He-Ford was in the capital. So, as He-Ford read ethno-spirituality into whatever was happening, he decided to ask his wife to join him in Accra. He felt that the multiple cross-pollinations – which involved the rotational visits across regions between himself and his wife was a burden to them. But since he read mystical causality into the issue, he decided to rebuff the leadership of the Adventist Conference that had refused to give his wife a transfer.
Initially, he could not hold his balls to let his wife leave the job, because she did not want a wife who would always say, ‘could you kindly add some amount to what I have?’ But, he felt strongly to ask his wife to turn in her resignation. Finally, the couple decided to remain in Accra and go for a job hunt. Fortunately, after three months of a job hunt, She-Ford landed on a juicy-paid job. Given the choice of job She-Ford had, the couple surprisingly (but possibly out of emotional exhaustion) decided to pray against pregnancy. But this was not unaccompanied by bed-matics.
They still had sex, anyway. So, against the tide of their prayer, She-Ford became pregnant. Apparently, He-Ford had jokingly (but to maintain a stance of no pregnancy yet) told She-Ford that if she became pregnant, he would deny ownership of it. But since a particular child did not care about the kind of job they had had, the couple had to humbly accept the new pregnancy.
This time, they went to see a medical specialist. But, of course, they added cultic rituals to it. The pregnancy crossed the trimester and survived till the ninth month when their son was born! But for their Christian faith, the boy would have suffered some body mutilation to keep him from returning to the world of the ancestors – does that world actually exist? Well, we are told it does and is the replica of the material world. As ensamando (or asamando) – a never ending world, the world of the ancestors is believed to have all the families of all of us who once lived in the mundane world. We are told that there is a river separating ensamando and the material world. This explains the mortuary and burial rites like putting money in the coffin so that the dead can use it to pay to be ferried across the river. He is also given a handkerchief to wipe his face, as the journey is long and winding. But did our ancestors actually use money until the recent invention of money? Even if money did exist, was it used for its economic or social value? Whether we believe this to be true or not matters less, so long as it provides solace to the living in the face of a world that is woefully incapable of giving us 24-hours of peace.
But He-Ford and She-Ford disregarded ancestral cherished practice. Their son was not mutilated to make him less attractive to the ancestors who may claim him. Instead, they danced cheerfully to the Adventist church to have the boy named and dedicated to Jesus Christ. When He-Ford ended his odyssey of pain with the birth of his son, the entire church sighed heavily and unconsciously bleated a chorus ‘Amen’ (at the Adventist church clapping, din, and ululating are hardly practised). It was as if I had been jostled out of stupor, I also offered a sigh of relief with an ‘Amen’. Songs of praises capped the sermon. During the handshake item of the service, I asked for He-Ford’s permission to write this story.
There are basically two things that have existential reality: pain and the ultimate reality. The existence of God is axiomatic to people of faith. They believe in God even if they cannot touch or have a physical relationship with Him. As far as people of faith are concerned, God is a spirit and those who worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). The epistemology of God is both complex and simple simultaneously. It is complex because you cannot use trite rationality to unravel the mysteries of God (I Timothy 3:16). It is for this reason that Anselm’s proslogion about God was that of ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists.’ To this end, he defined theology as faith seeking understanding. The idea of God is considered an abstract philosophy that is complex for the simple-minded person. It is for this reason that some Eurocentric anthropologist concluded that the ‘untutored African cannot conceive the idea of God.’
On the other hand, the existence of God is also simplified in the sense that whoever comes to faith must have an a priori belief that He exists (Hebrews 11:6). Here, faith is harped as the basis of religion. This is not coterminous to blind faith. It is simply to say that the finite mind cannot contain an infinite mind. Besides this, there are many philosophical assumptions, such as those of St. Aquinas’ five proofs of the existence of God that seek to rationalise the existence of God. St. Aquinas’ five arguments can be summarised as follows: the argument from metaphysical motion; the argument from efficient causation; the argument from contingency; the argument from degrees of being; and the argument from final causality (“teleological argument”). Since these may be difficult to comprehend, the best approach to faith is F-A-I-T-H – Forsaking All I Take Him (Jesus Christ).
But the other reality that hardly attracts any speculation is pain/evil/suffering. Pain is so real that it will take a hardy fool to deny its existence. It is a subject that needs no professor or scientist to explain. The reality of pain is simply existential. It is real. It is with us daily. It is also experiential. St. Augustine rationalised the existential reality of pain in his saying that, ‘God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.’ To deny pain is to live in a self-imposed illusion. But, there are a few individuals like Mary Eddy Baker, the nineteenth-century American founder of the cult of Christianity, the Church of Christ, Scientist, who defined pain as unreal. As far as they are concerned, pain is just a matter of the mind. The New Age Movement – a fusion of western science and eastern mysticism – follows this logic. But, we don’t need any racking of the brain or splitting of hair to prove the inanity and imbecility of such a speculative proposition. Evil/pain/suffering is real. Just this evening, a friend of mine in England almost broke down emotionally because a relative of hers in Ghana had been involved in a life-threatening accident and is under intensive care at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. In fact, even animals experience pain and try to avoid it. All the disciplines – from Anthropology to Zoology – are based on the reality of pain and the need to reduce its effect on humanity.
While the existential reality of pain is hardly disputed, scholars have tried to rather concentrate on how the existence of pain squares with the existence of a good God. The question is usually asked, ‘If God is good, why does He allow evil?’ ‘If God is omnipotent, why does He not stop evil and pain?’ In my philosophy class – (Logic lecture, specifically), we had to resolve Epicurus trilemma, ‘If God is willing to prevent evil, but unable, then God is impotent. If God can prevent evil, but unwilling, then God is malevolent. Evil exists if God is either impotent or malevolent.’ And since evil is an existential reality, you can tell the conclusion of this deductive reasoning or trilemma formulation. I remember that when we used the truth table to resolve this riddle, the conclusion that God was either impotent or malevolent was right! Much later in life, David Hume, a Scottish philosopher who lived in the eighteenth century recapitulated the argument of Epicurus to emphasise his scepticism and naturalism – a world without a god.
Since the troubling and tragic account of the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, the existential reality of evil continues to trouble and test human minds. The reality of pain has both pushed some into and out of faith. Some have migrated from faith to doubt because of the reality of pain. There are equally others who have migrated from doubt to faith, as a result of the existence of pain. Whichever direction you move, pain is real to you. And whichever direction you move, you cannot wish away pain. It is with us. This is to the extent that we live in a world that is woefully incapable of giving us 24-hours of uninterrupted peace. Our peace of mind is always strained and stressed!
As I have said, disbelieving God because of the existential reality of pain and evil does not neutralise the effect of pain. It does not suppress or even stop the daily reality of evil. And whether you believe evil is part of the evolution process does not also help ameliorate the reality of pain. It is here that a God who is in touch with pain and has gone through pain is needed. All the religions of the world talk about a god who cares about us when we suffer. They talk about a god who is preparing a blissful place for us after we have gone through pain. They tell us about the need for us to be patient (sabr) in the face of pain and evil, because there is a god who cares. They tell us that one-day evil will be conquered. They prescribe rituals and prayer formulas to help us deal with pain and evil. But none of the gods of these religions knows what it means to go through pain. This is because none of them has personal experience with pain.
It is only Christianity that presents a God who is in touch with pain. A God who has experienced pain. A God who became human and experienced real pain. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came on earth; took upon Himself human nature, and experienced real pain and evil. He went through excruciating pain. He suffered from hunger. He suffered homelessness. He suffered from rejection. He suffered mockery. He suffered persecution. Finally, He suffered the climax of evil – death. But, having gone through all these, He leaves us with two pieces of timeless good news (the crucible of the Gospel). First, He survived all the pain and evil of the world. Most importantly, He survived death. He conquered death. He has control over death (Revelation 1:18). He has control over natural disasters (Mark 4:35-41). Second, because of His experience, He can empathise with us (Hebrews 4:15-16). If Julius Caesar was right that experience is the best teacher, then Jesus Christ is the real comforter in the midst of pain.
From the account we are given about Jesus Christ in the Bible, not the fictitious Jesuses of other religions, we know that He is the only one who has the answer to the existential reality of pain and suffering. We know that He has conquered pain officially, but He would actually conquer it in His second advent (to paraphrase Norman Geisler, one of the greatest American Christian apologists of the twentieth-century). As to why we still go through pain, we know that He knows all things and He is always right in what He allows (Genesis 18:25).
Writer’s email [email protected]
The writer, Charles Prempeh, is from the African University College of Communications, Accra