I’m not going to give you anything on the subject of the existence of suffering and evil that many thinkers before me haven’t already doled out. But maybe you haven’t read their books. And maybe you are new to suffering… the intense kind that rips your heart out when someone you love dies or is diagnosed with a terminal illness. And even if you are old to suffering… when these things come there is always a new reckoning, no matter how much wisdom you gained in the last round. Suffering makes us forget anything but pain in the moment, and makes the involuntary “Why?” of anger, grief, and fury bubble to the surface, shouting at the universe, God, anyone.
I don’t have the answer to “why,” except a confidence that one day that question will be answered to a depth of satisfaction and understanding that we can’t imagine right now with our limited human brains.
Here’s what I do have: I can’t imagine any goodness, realness, or depth in this current life we live without suffering. It’s horrible, and wrong, and I’m not saying any of the genocide, slavery or cancer is justifiable. But it’s the reality we find ourselves in. And there is the strange correlation that for those who have let suffering mold them, there is an increase of compassionate, loving character that I’ve never seen manifested in those who have barely been brushed by loss, injustice, or illness.
“Those who have let suffering mold them…” is key here- we all know those who have become bitter, twisted and angry people after the brutality of suffering. Suffering itself can shape us to be either better people or worse… the very worst inflict suffering on others as a result of their experiences.
Let’s say you’ve just experienced a brutal blow and you are trying to make sense of it. You are reaching out and grasping in the dark for any kind of handhold. Who will you seek out? A person who is blithely enjoying the good life, who seems to have escaped grief and hardship as of yet? Or the person who has been in your shoes and will sit silently while you pour out your anger and grief… but the compassion in their eyes and experience in their nodding head tells you they are right there with you? And, which of those two people do you want to be one day?
The people I find myself drawn to when my world is turned upside down are those who have drunk deeply from the bitter cup. They’ve lost children, or seen them take a path of addiction. They’ve had cancer, been widowed, cared for a loved one through a long, painful terminal illness. They grew up abused, they’ve personally experienced persecution and injustice for their religion or the color of their skin or being a despised minority or poor. They’ve seen their country ripped apart by war and lived as refugees. Or they made terrible life choices that destroyed their families, and have come out the other side. Or lived with mental illness or other disability. I could go on and on.
I don’t WANT that stuff to happen to me. But it has, and it will.. That’s the life I find myself in. There is absolutely no way to escape the reality of suffering. The only way forward is directly through.
Not everyone who has come through the fiery furnace of trial is a Christian. But I am. And the people that I admire most and want to walk alongside are. We don’t have a satisfactory answer (yet) to the question of “How can a God who is good allow evil and suffering and injustice?” Nonetheless the story of God’s response to suffering still astonishes me: he didn’t make it stop, but he entered into it himself. He didn’t stand off afar just watching, he actually made himself a baby human body to grow up in and completely, willingly, experience every kind of suffering and injustice, to the point of horrific, totally unjustified execution.
He is the one who has been completely positively formed by suffering- the one with the compassion in his eyes and nodding head of understanding, who did not save himself from experiencing it when he could have stopped it at any point. He did not inflict vengeance on his enemies, he loved them. Loved them so much he actually died to rescue them from the self-centered, self-righteous, unjust, cruel people they were. It says in St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-7). Yes. While we were committing the worst unspeakable acts and atrocities against the best and most loving man to ever walk the earth, he willingly looked at us as beloved lost children in need of rescuing, and let us kill him. Surely, if Jesus himself saw the need to experience the deepest depths of human suffering, there is purpose in ours.
Suffering can make our souls ugly or beautiful. Since I find I have no choice except to live on this planet where suffering is a given in this life, the path that Jesus already walked before me in accepting suffering and letting it do its work in me is the path I want to walk. The worst strategy is trying to run away from suffering. As a diagnosed sufferer of several mental disorders, I’ve learned painfully that the guaranteed way to make them as bad as possible is to stick my heels in the ground and either refuse to acknowledge they are there (out of shame and fear of judgement and stigma) or attempt to force them to go away with sheer mental willpower or the lure of giving into compulsions (OCD) that only reinforce the cycle. Alcohol and drug abuse mitigate suffering but come with a terrible cost. All the self-destructive behaviors I can think of come from trying to do anything except face the pain and accept it, whether its cause is internal or an external event or relationship.
Jesus still bears his scars as living proof of what he went through to rescue us from ourselves. I look back at the years of my life when it felt that one thing after another slammed me to the ground, stripping me raw. Losing our twins. Family suicides. Loved ones dealing with their own pain in extremely damaging ways. My experience losing my mind and being hospitalized. I have experienced incredible healing from these traumas, they don’t haunt me anymore, and while I never want such things to happen, I would never trade the priceless work Jesus has done in me to make my roots in him deeper and surer, and the promises of completed life in him, more and more tangible in the distance ahead of me.
My Oma, an extremely quiet and humble woman of faith, lived to almost 93. I had the great privilege of sitting at her bedside at the very end, new life growing inside me while her body ebbed away. If you’ve sat at a bedside like this, you know it is a strange time of waiting and wondering, dreading and wanting the suffering of your loved one to be over. One afternoon I was sitting praying, and in my mind I could see angels in the room, her body young and vibrant again. Suddenly she lifted herself up saying “I see angels!” and her face was flooded with joy and glory. She took my hand on one side and my mother’s on the other and lifted them up, grasping them in a sign of victory, looking ahead of us into something we could not see. When she lay back down she lapsed into sleep and did not wake again in this life. I will never forget that moment. Suffering was past, and joy was ahead. One day, it will all be worth it.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2