Month: October 2018

Why We Suffer – A Christian Response to a Tough Question – Part 2

quote-suffering-if-it-is-accepted-together-borne-together-is-joy-mother-teresa-57-1-0159I have mentioned suffering can lead to spiritual growth and I want to elaborate on that some more. Even Buddha’s experience discussed above led him to grow spiritually, yet he did so without the light of the Gospel and therefore his spiritual growth was incomplete. We cannot deny spiritual growth can result from suffering if one allows themselves to work through it. The reason suffering can lead to spiritual growth is that it reminds us of “ultimate” things.

Every week I celebrate the Eucharist. After one of those celebrations, I had a conversation with a good friend about a number of spiritual topics the scripture readings provoked that day. My friend mentioned the fact we fear or at least prefer to avoid those things considered “ultimate.” His words were profound! We discussed why people fall into spiritual sleep, a kind of numbness in which they grow comfortable with their spiritual “status quo.” My friend explained he believed it happens because we avoid the ultimate nature of things. Ultimate things are like playing poker and someone asks you to show your hand. We don’t like it when that happens, particularly if we aren’t holding a winning hand. Suffering reminds us of the ultimate nature of things. It reminds us not just that life and its pleasures are temporal, but that in the end there is an ultimate reality we must acknowledge. My friend indicated he realized that profoundly when he suffered a mild cardiac event. There is an ultimate reckoning we must acknowledge that becomes immediately clear to us when we suffer.

Think about the things we consider ultimate. Death is ultimate and if we ponder its reality we’re forced to change how we live! When we recognize how short life is we certainly don’t remain complacent taking it as it comes. We make it count. Our “bucket list” becomes more important than the daily grind. Anything in life that’s “ultimate” forces us into one of two positions. The first is to brush it off. We avoid dealing with it and psychologically dismiss it. For example, what happens when you’re told you need to eat better and exercise? You like to eat, drink, and celebrate, but the doctor just told you if you don’t change your lifestyle you’ll die. The first thing most people do is avoid seeing the doctor altogether. If we never go to the doctor, we never hear the bad news. If we do see the doctor and get a bad report, we immediately justify our behavior. We tell ourselves we deserve that extra piece of pizza, or that our relatives in Europe lived on beer and pretzels so we can do the same. We say we’re going to start a new exercise program tomorrow to make up for our poor eating today. In short, we psychologically avoid the ultimate result of our lifestyle choices. However, if we face this ultimate reality straight on we are forced to make serious life changes. If we don’t, cognitive dissonance forces us back into denial. When faced with a serious illness we’re required to change our way of life so we can thrive and live well. We become radically different. This same process applies to our spiritual life. Suffering is a way we’re reminded living in this broken world is not just temporal but requires a particular response. Suffering and crisis situations are opportunities for healthy change found in spiritual growth.

Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life. When suffering leads us to understand the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we find ourselves struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended, we naturally want to know “why” this happened. It is the catalyst for change, and hopefully, that change will be positive. Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them. Find people to forgive and forgive them. Find people in despair and show them hope. In short, live, don’t sleep through life. 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. This ultimate set of questions leads us to the third thing suffering does in the Christian life. It 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 suffering in others? How can we process suffering? The simple answer is other people. We have already demonstrated because of our need to love, be loved, and connect with other people, we will potentially suffer. The paradox is in that suffering the companionship with others heals us. Suffering draws us together. The Christian realizes they are not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way. We are one body and that one body suffers when any member of it is in pain. I once heard someone say, “When one Christian bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been the case a number of times. Here is an example from the writings of Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who was giving an account of how Christians lived:

“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 that allows God to be manifest through the grace-filled acts of Christians. In this way, suffering is a mechanism for spiritual growth. It causes within the Christian a nagging prompt of the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she can. Even if that relief is merely being present with them so they know they do not suffer alone. One can sum up suffering in the Christian life from 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).

I’m not saying we want to desire suffering or that God takes great joy in our suffering in order to make us love him more and grow spiritually.  I am simply saying that suffering, like all of life, can be a means for us to grow and become more profoundly aware of the mystery of this life.  In the end, we must find ways to love one another more profoundly and when one of us suffers there is no greater time to choose to love them at a difficult vulnerable time.


Why We Suffer – A Christian Response to a Tough Question – Part 1

quote-the-deep-meaning-of-the-cross-of-christ-is-that-there-is-no-suffering-on-earth-that-dietrich-bonhoeffer-56-84-66Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Do we really need to be so sad over a temporal loss such as a marriage or the death of someone we love since we’re really made for heaven? Is it even proper for the Christian to grieve over the death of someone when the truth is they will be in heaven with us for eternity? Should we spend so much time trying to get over a broken marriage when the truth is I have Jesus who makes me complete? Why spend so much time processing this temporal pain?”

Whether we admit it or not, temporal pain does have implications for eternal purposes and to ignore it is to miss a great opportunity to grow spiritually. I’m not saying we should want to suffer for spiritual growth, but suffering can give us a greater sense of meaning and purpose if we process it in a healthy way. First, suffering reminds us our temporal life is just that, temporal. No matter how hard we chase pleasures found in worldly things, they cannot stop our suffering. Suffering is a part of living in this broken world. All religions deal with suffering in some way but as we have established, Christianity provides a unique way to understand suffering.

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. In the book “Competent Christian Counseling” the authors explain suffering in the Christian life in the following way:

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 (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002).

The reason we suffer is a direct result of the fact we love in a disordered and improper way. 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 more than God made us vulnerable to the lies of evil encountered in the perfectly constructed reality of Eden. Our disobedience destroyed our access to paradise. Yes, God could have created a creature that only did as he asked but that would mean the creature itself could never truly love him since love requires an act of free will. God gave humanity that gift of free will fully knowing the ramifications of its misuse. When we did misuse our free will (Which we still do) the world became something it was not intended to be. Human beings did not love God first, one another in selfless acts of love, or care for creation in a responsible way. When you read Genesis chapter three you find the answer for why there is suffering in the world. We suffer because disordered love destroys relationships, people, and creation. It separates us from God – We are exiled from the bliss of being aware of his continual presence. Disordered love separates us from one another – We 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 and to be used as 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.

It’s important to recognize our personal sin causes suffering in our lives and the lives of others, but so does a general condition of sin which accumulates in our reality simply because the world is broken. 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.
While I have been proposing that God uses suffering in a way that leads us to spiritual growth, I caution the reader to note that 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 to him. 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. Later in this book, we will look at meaning making and how critical moments of crisis and suffering can become powerful moments of growth. 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.

To summarize what has been said this far, 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 world that is not as it was intended to be.

Next week in part 2 we will dig a little deeper into answering this important question.

Suffering Hurts You All Over

dreams.metroeve_suffering“A Holistic Creature Loves and Suffers Holistically” – Dominick D. Hankle PhD

Suffering, like all human experience, tends to get compartmentalized into one area of human existence. We think of suffering as being purely emotional and therefore only impacting us emotionally. That’s a real problem because human beings are not compartmentalized creatures, we are holistic creatures in which one facet of human life impacts the other. We can’t isolate emotional pain or joy from its impact on other areas of living. We have to recognize people are complete units consisting of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits. An impact in one area impacts the others. This holistic experience of human life reflects some key ideas of how Christianity views people.

The Christian religion is a sacramental or if you prefer “incarnational” religion. It’s not a religion of hyper-spirituality in which there is an overemphasis on the spiritual nature of things over other areas of human existence. Christians fought against the Gnostics and Neoplatonists to ensure creation (Our physical world) is recognized as “good” and essential to human flourishing. Christians find in the created order an importance equal to that of the spiritual realm.

Psychological anthropology defines the human person from a psychological, biological, and sociological perspective. This helps psychologists understand the complexity of human thinking and behavior. Physiology, cognitive processes, and personal relationships are factors contributing to what human beings think and do. It also reminds us that the experiences we have are not isolated to one facet of human existence. A number of Christian academics have broadened that anthropological definition to include the spiritual dimension thus advocating for a bio/psycho/social/spiritual model for understanding human behavior, particularly in regards to psychological abnormality (Yarhouse, Butman & McRay, 2005). In addition, secular psychologists such as Len Sperry (2012) have advocated for a spiritually oriented approach to psychotherapy demonstrating a continued need to include a more holistic approach to understanding human beings. This more holistic approach implies healing can be facilitated for emotional pain by helping the client explore relationships with others and caring for his or her physical health as much as exploring emotions in a therapy setting. I’ve advocated for a similar model, but instead of lumping emotional aspects of the human person into the general psychological category I expand the psychological describing human experience as more of a bio/cognitive/emotional/social/spiritual/ model, separating cognitive aspects from emotional ones. Emotions transcend the cognitive and physiological aspects of human experience, therefore, I believe they require a separate category for consideration (Hankle, 2012).

All of this is to imply people consist of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits and that when something happens in one area of their existence it impacts the others. You can’t just isolate joy or pain in one area, it impacts all of them. When you’re sad it impacts how you feel physically, the things you think about, your interactions with other people, and your transcendent spiritual life. Your whole being experiences sadness. Because of that, suffering impacts all of who you are as well. If you’ve ever been so depressed or sad and said you can feel it in your stomach, you know what I’m talking about. Emotional pain is often described as having “A broken heart” to reflect the physical nature of the emotional experience. When we talk about suffering we often say things like “My spirit is troubled”, reflecting the holistic experience of struggling. All of this is to remind us when we suffer and grieve the loss of a loved one, a marriage, or any other tragedy, we suffer holistically. This is important to remember because when we begin talking about healing we’re going to do so from a holistic perspective. The idea that grief therapy works best by talking with someone about your emotions and healing only your emotional life is somewhat limited and reflects a very reduced view of what it means to be human. Grief is holistic and an important aspect of healing from not just the death of a loved one, but also the loss of a number of things. Before we move on we need a deeper understanding of grief, loss, and healing to broaden our understanding of what it means to suffer from the loss of someone or something important in our lives.  We will do that in the next post.  For now, understand that when we suffer we do so with everything we are and that’s why grief is so crippling.

Created for Relationships – Why Losing Someone Hurts

relationship-building-process-1-default-splashI’ve already shared with you that people are created in the image of a Trinitarian God and because of that we’re inherently created for relationships. Just as God is understood to be a communion of love so intense that the three persons of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) are one God, human beings are meant to live in relationships so connected to one another that we become one body (Romans 12:5). This inherent need for relationships is supported by psychological research. This research demonstrates people who become isolated from others struggle to survive while those who become part of a community flourish. Positive relationships are a key feature in studies on happiness. A longitudinal study completed by Fowler & Christakis (2008) found that people who have positive relationships with other happy people grow in happiness themselves. Related to our need to connect are the numerous studies demonstrating the negative effects of being isolated from other people. In psychology, being excluded from others is called “social exclusion.” Social exclusion impacts people in the same way physical pain impacts the body, in fact, your brain struggles to know the difference (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). When we feel like we’re being isolated from others, even when that experience is being simulated on a computer by playing a virtual ball toss game, our bodies exhibit the same response as if we were socially isolated by real people (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000). We begin to degrade physically, emotionally, and mentally. In fact, loneliness is regarded by some researchers to be as harmful to your physical well being as cigarettes, alcohol, and being overweight (Holt-Lundstat, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). The reality is we need to connect with other people. Even Christian monks known as hermits maintain some connection to their communities. While they may live primarily on their own they return to the monastery periodically to get supplies and participate in communal prayer throughout different times of the year. While they are isolated more than other brothers of the community, they do maintain some social connection. People need people.

A key psychological theory regarding the need for human beings to connect with others is called attachment theory. This theory was proposed by John Bowlby and was further explored by Mary Ainsworth. The theory basically states when a human being is born they have an innate psychological need to emotionally attach to a caregiver. This attachment becomes the way in which the child survives because it’s believed to evoke nurturing behaviors from the caregiver. Mary Ainsworth did a number of experiments and found people develop three different types of attachments. A secure attachment, the healthiest of the three, basically forms a sense in the child that it’s safe to explore the world, try new things, and grow in independence because their caretaker isn’t far from them and able to provide them with the security and soothing they need if things go wrong. They are confident their emotional and physical needs will be met. The other two types of attachments are less healthy and reflect a poor relationship between the caregiver and the child. One might develop a very anxious attachment always wondering if they’re cared for by their parent or they may develop an ambivalent attachment in which they become numb to the presence and comfort of another. These attachments are important because they form the foundations for our ability to connect with other people. If we are created for relationships as research and good theology propose then having a secure attachment style is exceptionally important. We want to be able to connect with other human beings and if our emotional style prohibits that we find ourselves isolated and alone. Isolated and alone, as we have noted, is not healthy. Interestingly, recent studies on attachment indicate only about 60% of the people walking around have a secure attachment (Shaver & Hazen). That means 40% of the people in the world are struggling with relationships.

Attachment styles also impact more than human relationships, they can also impact your relationship with God. Many people who have insecure attachment styles project this attachment style onto the relationships they share with God. There are two predominant hypothesis regarding how attachment impacts our relationship to God in the psychology of religion literature (Kirkpatric, 1992, 2005). The first is the correspondence hypothesis in which it is believed if an individual has a secure attachment to their caregiver than this translates into a secure attachment in their relationship with God. The opposite would be true as well; an insecure attachment to a caregiver would imply an insecure attachment to God. The individual would be anxious about whether or not God would be there for them in their time of need or might be ambivalent to the relationship with God. The main proposition of this hypothesis is that the attachment style you develop with your caregiver will correspond with your attachment style to God. The second hypothesis is the compensation hypothesis. This hypothesis states you will seek out in God the attachment that you lacked in your caregiver. The idea is your relationship to God “compensates” what was missing in your relationship with your caregiver.

Both hypotheses have research support and make sense. What will be interesting for the purposes of this book is to look at how our attachment to God impacts our ability to manage suffering and loss. One can already see if we are anxious about how God will care for us because of an anxious attachment style, we may have difficulty drawing spiritual strength and assurance from him. We will explore this further in the book at a later point.

As a final note regarding our need for relationships, consider that God has demonstrated it is not good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This desire for the “other” is exceptionally important for the human condition. We are drawn toward one another at the core of who we are. In Plato’s Symposium, he provides a speech by Aristophanes that describes how human beings came to have this longing for one another as part of their base nature. Socrates and the other members of the dialogue are discussing love. The story is as follows:

“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle, and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck, and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backward or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, running on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when we wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the women of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.

At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’ He spoke and cut them in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the center, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also molded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state. After the division of the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart: and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, – being the sections of entire men or women – and clung to that.”

Aristophanes echoes the same ideas about the relational nature of human beings found in Genesis (Of course the Greeks at this time did not have the benefit of divine truth revealed in the scriptures). God decrees that it is not good for man to be alone in Genesis 2:18 and then proceeds to create. He creates a myriad of creatures and presents these animals to Adam to see what he will name them. God delights in watching Adam take part in his creative work. God seems to do this to allow Adam to recognize that while he is somehow connected to all of creation he is unique and different from it as well. Adam reaches a point after naming each animal where he recognizes the existential reality that he is alone even in the midst of all God created. Adam recognizes he is incomplete. Then God does something special for Adam. Instead of taking the primordial material used to create the world and form a new creature, God does the following (Genesis 2:21-24):

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

The Christian discovers in this story that men and women were made for each other and share an intimate and connected nature. The Greek story above echoes the same biblical truth. We long for one another and desire to be together. We seek out our “Other half” and desire to be with another person because at the core of who we are is this communal relational nature desiring other people. We not only desire the general community to be with others, but we also long for an intimate connection with another person. Relationships give us that intimate connection and when they fall apart we suffer. If our significant other is no longer present it feels as if a part of who we are is gone and unavailable. We are like the people Aristophanes describes searching for our other half. If divorce, death, or distance divides us from the ones we love, we feel as alone as Adam did when God showed him all the beauty of creation and yet that beauty was not enough to make him feel complete.

I want to explore our suffering a little more before thinking through what it means to grieve the loss of another person, relationship, or key aspect of our lives. Regardless of the manner in which that loss occurs much of what we have discussed plays a part in the suffering that follows. Suffering as we have previously said is a reality found in this broken and difficult world. That suffering, however, is not merely an emotional experience, but one impacting our whole being.  Stay tuned as we explore suffering from a holistic perspective in the next post.

Loving Others Opens Us Up to Pain

imageLove is indeed a two-edged sword. Love requires us to engage in the life of others in such a way that part of who we are becomes part of who they are and likewise, part of them becomes part of us. It’s an exchange of persons and in that exchange elements of what makes us who we are get given to each other as a gift. This type of existence is indeed essential to who we are. As creatures created to give and receive love, we cannot truly love unless we’re willing to be received by others and to receive them. Our need to give and receive love comes directly from the fact we’re created in the image and likeness of God. For the Christian, God is understood to be a communion of love. That communion of love is an explosive existence in which love so permeates who God is that it pours itself out as a gift in the creation of the world. Human beings, part of that creation, have the opportunity to mirror the communion of love in our relationships with one another. One example of how this looks can be found in the gift of Christian marriage. Christian marriage demonstrates that in the act of a man offering himself to a woman and the woman receiving the man on all levels of existence, the two become one entirely, yet distinctly remain their own persons. Let me clarify how this human act is a direct reflection of the inner life of God.

God within himself is a communion of love. There are three distinct persons within the Trinity. The Godhead consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these are distinct persons, they are not one person wearing three separate masks, but rather each is a divine person of his own. However, Christianity does not see three Gods, rather it understands that these three divine persons, consisting of the same divine nature pour themselves into such a relationship of love toward one another that the three are one. We do not have three Gods, we have one God. Likewise, a married man and woman become one in their entirety in their mutual exchange of marital love. A man leaves his family and clings to his wife. In marriage that clinging is more than just a physical act, it involves giving his whole self to his wife. That’s what makes marriage unique, anything else is just sex. For a person to give themselves holistically to another means they give their body, mind, emotions, relationships, and spiritual selves to the other. We are more than a body and mind, we are wondrously created as incarnational creatures made to transcend the physical world while still being a part of it. This is what a man offers his wife when he clings to her ( Genesis 2:24). He tells her, “My body is yours, my thoughts are with you, my relationships with others are formed and directed toward your well being and mine, my emotional life is connected to yours, and ultimately my spiritual life and yours are now one.” This gift of self is received by the wife and in a like way she repeats back to him those same words. In this way, the two become one flesh and from that union, humanity participates in the creative acts of God by having children and being leaven and light to a dark world transforming it to be an act of praise and worship to God.

For this to happen love must bind people together. Marriage is not the only institute in which human beings are drawn together. By our very nature as Christians, we recognize we are a community of love when we gather together. We are told we are the body of Christ, a mystically united group of people that become the very presence of Christ (1st Corinthians 12:12-14, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 3:6, Colossians 1:18, etc.). Love is the blood that flows through this body and the Christian community gathered together is again an incarnational expression of the triune God present in the world. Love pulls people together.

Because we are innately created to give ourselves to others we must be vulnerable to them. Love requires us to give ourselves over to another human being with some level of abandonment. In love, we communicate to another soul that we are theirs, that they have access to our emotions, and that we are in some way united with them. Loving someone is giving them access to the most profound parts of who you are. It’s intimacy at a deep level. Research on love has shown there are 12 core characteristics constituting love (Fehr, 1988). All these characteristics are factors leading to the experience of intimacy. These core attributes are trust, caring, honesty, friendship, respect, concern for the well-being of others, loyalty, commitment, acceptance of the other person, supportiveness, a desire to be with the person, and a real interest in one another’s lives. When we love someone we’re saying to them I trust you; I allow you to care for me and I believe you to be honest with me. We are saying to them I know you’re a friend who cares and respects me and someone who is interested in my well being. We are telling them they’re someone we long to be with and are inviting them into a deeper level of intimacy with us. Intimacy is believed to have four key features (Hook et al, 2003). These key features are affection for the other, personal validation, trust, and self-disclosure. Intimacy is the way we go deeper and deeper into one another’s soul. This level of depth and this level of openness is summed up in one word. That one word is “Vulnerability.” To love another person is to make ourselves vulnerable and give them access to the very core of who we are. Being vulnerable means being open to the potential that this relationship can cause us pain.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts and the topic being discussed was human emotions. One of the people they interviewed was an anthropologist who lived with and documented the Igorot people of the Philippines. The podcast was mostly about how this anthropologist captured the essence of the various emotional experiences of the community. What captured my attention was his description of the Igorot word for love. The word they use actually translates into something like “I hurt for you.” That definition struck me because of how it uniquely captures the many dimensions of love in such a concise way (The podcast is “Invisibilia” produced by NPR).

When we think about romantic love we think about an all-consuming passion for the other individual. That passion causes us to “hurt” for the other person because we just can’t be with them enough. Yes, this feeling will dissipate over time but it’s a very real feeling for those initially in love with one another. This hurt is part of the romantic experience but if the relationship matures, that hurt transforms into something other than unbridled passion. The hurt doesn’t go away, rather it becomes a different kind of pain we experience for the other person. It becomes empathy and compassion. While we may not feel the hurt of longing associated with the absence of our romantic lover, we certainly hurt for them when we see them struggle in life, suffer from an illness, or experience disappointments. We hurt for them because we love them and this love causes us to be uniquely connected. Painful longing for one another, birthed from romantic passion now becomes compassionate sorrow, a pain experienced by two souls that have somehow become entwined with one another. As the relationship continues the hurt for one another does as well. This love that hurts for the other continues to be a part of our experience when the ones we care for pass away. This isn’t the pain of romantic passion that can’t be quenched nor is it the pain we feel as compassionate and empathetic partners journeying through life together. This is the pain of emptiness one feels because the person they loved is no longer with them. The Igorot people have beautifully captured the holistic experience of love by associating that word with the definition “I hurt for you.”

It would be easy to twist this idea into something ugly. Someone might argue this association of hurt and love perverts the idea of love into this concept that to truly love someone is to cause them pain. However, if you look closely at the way the definition is stated that’s not what’s being said. The phrase is not “I make you hurt” but rather “I hurt for you.” It’s pain I feel because of an empathic sense of love I have for you. It’s a sense of empathy and compassion I have for your situation because we are connected together in love. In the end, it’s the sense that because you’re gone I’m no longer with you and I miss you. Passionate Love is the connecting force drawing human souls together. It matures into companionate love that intimately connects people with one another allowing them to share one another’s pain. And in the end this love leaves us with hurt, reminding us when the one we love leaves us, we’ve lost the presence of a good friend. Love truly is complex and requires us to be vulnerable to one another. Vulnerability sometimes means we hurt for those we love.

A researcher I enjoy reading who studies human love is Helen Fisher. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who has done extensive work in understanding romantic love, the many psychological, sociological, and biological features of it, and how it grows into other forms of love and impacts our lives. She and her fellow researchers have found romantic love is very similar to being addicted to drugs such as cocaine and other opioids. In fact, they note that many of the same brain systems (Ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus, insula, prefrontal cortex activity, nucleus accumbens, etc.) activated through the addiction process are activated when someone falls in love. This also means when we lose someone we love the pain is much like the pain an addict feels when they’re denied the drug they crave. When someone does not reciprocate the romantic feelings we share for them, and particularly when they once did share them with us and no longer do, we go through “love withdrawal.” In fact, the brain once again reacts in ways associated with severe painful experiences. To quote Dr. Fisher:

Brain activations coupled with romantic rejection occurred in several regions of the brain’s reward system. Included were: the ventral tegmental area (VTA) associated with feelings of intense romantic love; the ventral pallidum associated with feelings of attachment; the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate associated with physical pain, anxiety and the distress associated with physical pain; and the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex associated with assessing one’s gains and losses, as well as craving and addiction.
She later notes several of these regions are correlated with cravings in cocaine addicts and those who abuse other types of drugs. Romantic love means making oneself vulnerable to what could become an addictive habit with negative consequences. However, it can also mean becoming vulnerable to one of the most profound experiences of love a human being can have. When love goes well, Romantic love presses itself into the same brain systems that create attachment love. Attachment love creates that deep emotional connection we have with other human beings, the very thing we were created for! What Dr. Fisher has discovered is how deeply the need to connect with others resides in our very body and how vulnerable we make ourselves to others when we fall in love with them. This connection is not just limited to romantic love. We will see throughout this book attachments are an essential part of numerous types of relationships.

Love comes at a cost. We must give ourselves away to someone else and become vulnerable to their human frailties if we are to really fall in love. At times that means being hurt by them and sharing their pain. It also means when they leave us, whether it’s because they’ve died or they wanted to leave the relationship, we suffer. Yet to suffer for love is worth the cost. I’ve never met someone who spent decades in a loving marriage say they wish they never met their spouse while grieving for them after they’ve died. I’ve never met an adult child mourning their deceased parent wish they never had their mother or father (At least not one who shared a loving relationship with their parent) in their life. I’ve never had a parent tell me they wish the child they lost in an accident or from a terminal disease was never born. Of course, these thoughts reflect the feelings of people who lived in a loving relationship, but even those who had poor relationships with a parent, child, brother, or sister deep down mourn for those connected to them, even if that mourning is for what the relationship could have been. Sometimes the mourning starts years before the physical death when the relationship fell apart, but it’s a still a type of mourning. We mourn the loss of others because we were created for relationships and that’s something we need to discuss further to answer the question of why we suffer.