What We Do With Suffering

suffering-god

Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life.  Suffering leads us to encounter the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we’re struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended.  When this happens we naturally want to know “why” our comfortable life is now filled with pain and struggle.  Suffering is a catalyst for change and hopefully that change will be a positive one.  Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them.  In suffering we should find people to forgive and forgive them.  Most importantly, from suffering we should find people in despair and show them hope.  In short, we must live life and keep ourselves from sleeping through it and sometimes suffering is the very thing that wakes us up.  In the end, the ultimate question you’ll ask yourself as a result of any suffering is am I loved and do I love others enough.  For the Christian, suffering is something that draws us together in community in order to be helped and to help others.

If indeed suffering is part of the human condition and cannot be avoided what is the Christian response to it?  What do we need to do to work through our suffering and the suffering of others?  The answer is we need other people.  Because of our need to be loved, to love, and connect with others we suffer.  Connecting with others means being vulnerable to them.  The paradox of this spiritual maxim is that in the companionship of  others we are healed.  Suffering draws us together, but to be drawn together intimately with others we must be willing to suffer and be hurt by them.  The Christian realizes they’re not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way.  We are one body and that one body suffers when any member is in pain.  Some Christians have used a common phrase to describe how they feel when their fellow believers are martyred.  The phrase goes something like this; “When one bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been true a number of times.  Here is an example from the writings of  Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who gives an account of how Christians lived echoing how one person’s suffering impacts the whole Christian community:

“And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”

Suffering is a mechanism in this broken world allowing God to be manifest through the grace filled acts of Christians.  This means suffering can become a means for spiritual growth.  It creates a nagging prompt initiated by the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she requires.  Even if that relief is merely being present with someone so they know they don’t suffer alone, the Spirit beckons us to be with the one who suffers.  One can sum up suffering in the Christian life wonderfully by reflecting on this quote by A.W. Tozer:

“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering.  Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing.  You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure.  You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death…  You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven” (Tozer, 1977, p 122).

The ultimate things in life help us refocus on what is important.  But we are Christians and cannot merely stay in that anxious and frightful place that is human worry and concern for temporal peace.  We must always see life where there is death, hope where there is despair, and love where it seems like all that surrounds us is hate.  Use your suffering to refocus on what matters; a life lived well in the Spirit of God to give him glory and make heaven a reality in a broken world.

 

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The Way We Suffer – A Spiritual Perspective

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Christians struggle with the topic of suffering, particularly when so many of us are falling for the Gospel of prosperity where it’s believed by merely having enough faith you will be healed of all disease, receive great financial success, and live happy healthy lives.  That my friends is not Christianity but rather some strange New Age philosophy wrapped in misquoted biblical verses.  A.W.Tozer once wrote the following about suffering:

“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering.  Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing.  You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure.  You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death…  You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven.”

A Christian response to suffering touches the very core of human experience, it doesn’t transcend that experience by providing hyper spiritual or cognitive philosophies to dismiss what we feel.  Some religions and philosophies try to make suffering nothing more than an illusion because of earthly attachments, or they try to convince us we can eliminate suffering by merely chasing life’s pleasures.  In the book “Competent Christian Counseling” the authors explain suffering in the Christian life is none of these and can be viewed as an opportunity for growth.  Here is what the authors say:

“Life is not a question of whether or not we suffer; that is a given for everyone born on planet earth.  The more crucial question is how we respond in the midst of suffering.  The reality of heartache and hardship should not lead us to the false and twisted belief that God causes suffering.  Since we cannot escape distress in this life, we are better off finding a way to live with it, finding meaning and redemption through it.”

The reason we suffer is a direct result of the fact we love in a disordered and improper way, and often we do that unintentionally.  In Genesis chapter three we read about our disobedience to God and how it reflects the improper exercise of our free will causing the harmonious structure of creation to be fractured.  Our desire to be something more than we were intended to be (We desire to make ourselves God instead of loving him) makes us vulnerable to the lies evil whispers in our ear.  Our disobedience to God destroyed our access to paradise and continues to destroy any good we seem to do in the present.  Yes, God could have created a creature that only did as he commanded but that would mean we could never truly love him since love requires an act of free will.  God gave humanity the gift of free will fully knowing the ramifications of its misuse.  When we misuse our free will loving in a selfish and self-centered way the world becomes something it was never intended to be.  We have forgotten how to love God first, one another in selfless acts of love, and care for creation in a responsible way.  Suffering occurs in the world because the very distorted love that followed from the fall continues to perpetuate itself today.  We suffer, because disordered love destroys relationships, people, and creation.  It separates us from God keeping us exiled from the bliss of being aware of his continual presence and love in our lives.  Disordered love separates us from one another leaving us to see other people as objects to fulfill our needs and desires, not fellow creatures on a shared journey of living Godly virtue in service to one another.  Lastly, disordered love causes us to make created things into idols taking the place of God.  Disordered love views creation as something to be used; an endless supply of material things to fulfill our selfish desires, needs, and entertainment.  Suffering occurs because we have elected to break the harmony of God’s creation, a harmony established through properly ordered love.

Sin perpetuates itself on people and creation.  Someone hurt by another person doesn’t learn what love truly is and perpetuates that hurt on others.  The land is stripped by one community to meet their energy needs and another community hundreds of miles away suffers when mudslides kill thousands of people living in the path of destruction.  Illness, natural disasters, and a myriad of other problems may not be caused by one person’s sin, but these maladies do exist because all the brokenness in this world accumulates and bursts forth wherever it can.

Yet suffering can have a purpose.  In psychology this is often understand as “Post Traumatic Growth” a type of growth in which an individual develops strength.  I’m not proposing God desires us to suffer in order to grow spiritually, but only that suffering exists in this world because we have elected to be disobedient people who distort love.  God, in his infinite mercy and grace can use this broken condition to reveal himself more profoundly as the God of love, peace, mercy, healing, and strength when we most need it. In a very dark time in my life a wise friend showed me God can use the difficult and painful events in our lives for a greater purpose and path to peace.  He said to me, “Always remember Dominick, God writes straight with crooked lines.”  Suffering is the crooked lines in which God delivers a message of love to us.

Suffering in the Christian life reminds us of the temporal nature of human existence.  Its root is in the fact sin has entered the world and at the heart of sin is its divisive nature.  Sin divides us from God, one another, creation, and finally from our very selves.  We are separated from our bodies in death because of sin.  Other religions attempt to understand suffering and often write it off as nothing more than an illusion, but the Christian recognizes it for what it is, a reality found in a broken world.

If you suffer I know you feel trapped.  Sin is a powerful force that lies to us and tells us we’re all alone.  Yet remember, we never suffer in vain because God enters into our suffering and helps us find a way through it.  He doesn’t always eliminate it, and that is indeed a mystery, but he most assuredly helps us walk through it.  In fact, Christianity believes God so profoundly humbled himself that he entered into it and experienced our suffering in a more profound way than we can imagine.  Have hope, see your condition with eyes of faith, and know you are loved.  This is the Christian walk, one that sees the eternal and transcendent in the temporal and broken.