Some Thoughts on Suffering

No one needs to describe it. We have faced it many times in dark nights, lonely crowds, and flashing memories. We’ve even gotten pretty good at it, or so we think, until the next bout hits like the flu and makes us wish we were dead, and the next minute fearful that we would die. From the blinding pain of smacking a toe on that stupid shower door track as we leap out, to the heart-wrenching gut-ripping, mind-numbing pain of personal loss, we’ve been there. Some of us have suffered more than others. If anyone hasn’t yet visited this “state” of existence, you’d best study the road map and at least be forewarned that not only are there chuck holes in the road, the road has probably washed away, or been made impassable by a landslide. No one can map the exact boundaries of the state, no one can borrow another’s map. You’re on your own, baby, but thank God, you’re never alone, because God has promised to walk every step of the way with each one of us (“I will never leave you, nor forsake you!”).

For nearly three years I lived in Las Vegas, Nevadea, and worked as a Hospice Chaplain. During many encounters with suffering people I learned lessons in God’s own graduate school. It took hearing the same or similar phrases over and over before it dawned on me, “Listen to the cry! There’s something here you need to learn.” Eventually God got my attention when I’d heard for the umpteenth time, “God will never put on you more than you can bear.” It was always said to someone drowning in a breath-taking loss, not always a death. The tone was very sure, sort of sing-songy, and the accompanying facial expression very serious and knowing. These words bespoke wisdom, gems of truth, don’t you know? Why, some even said, “The Bible says,” or “God said”. That was the clincher, boy-howdy, and you better believe it! I know people said it with the intent to comfort, but to one who knew they were drowning, they’d rather have had something more tangible to grab onto! Maybe a friend, or a friendly shoulder.

Well, finally I paid attention. Know what? I don’t believe God “puts on us” whatever difficulties we experience. I do believe that God allows us to experience difficult circumstances. Why? I don’t know the answer to that, probably no one does. However, I believe God does allow us, at times, to feel or actually to be overwhelmed with agonizing suffering. God probably has many purposes in this process. I discovered two very important ones: (1) so that we learn to look to God, and lean on God for help, and (2) so that we look to, and lean on one another.

The Psalmist, David, cried (61:2) “when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” He knew swamping sorrow. He knew how to find his way to God who sheltered him. He knew how to lean on God for help.

We are encouraged by Paul to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is love. Love does not take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position. Love does not go into a situation with any thought of “what’s in it for me.” Love means wanting the best for someone else, for what they need, not for what you or I want to give, or think they need.

If we never experience a need for God’s help, or others’ help, we will never know all that God and others can be for us. If we allow God and others to help us, we will find all the resources we need to get through the difficult days and come out again into the sunshine of life in better days. When you, or I, go through “hell and high water” or our own “valley of the shadow of death” we can’t believe there’ll be better days. That’s exactly why and when we need someone to tell us the sun will shine again. We need to be reminded often till we get on our feet again.

When my soul-mate and partner who’d promised to love me “forever and always” suddenly upset our life together by falling in love with another woman and leaving my life in shambles, my heart devastated, my mind numb, I couldn’t believe there would be life again. For weeks it felt like I could barely breathe. I thank God for real friends who held me up, soothed my brokenness, and brought music into my world, and hope to my heart.

A comment about the question, “Why?” First of all, with God (and God’s true children) its always okay to question. A major problem for us lies in the fact that, very often, no one knows the answer. We are looking for logic and reason where, from our vantage point, all is chaos and ridiculous! Absurd! Stupid! Crazy! Mind-boggling! And on and on. A wise woman said, “God always answers: sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, and sometimes, wait awhile.” However, even that response doesn’t seem to fit as an answer to “Why?”

This was another one of those cries I had to hear many times. Finally, it occurred to me one day that even if God, or Jesus, or someone you respect, could walk into the room right now, and give a clear, specific answer to “Why?”, we’d still be left with the dilemma of our response. Since this is where we are anyway, how do you choose to respond? What attitude do you choose to have in these circumstances?

Maybe you’re thinking, “You mean I can choose my attitude?”

Yes. You can. Vicktor Frankel, who survived a death-camp and wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, says, “Everything can be taken from a man (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I heard Elisabeth Elliot speak on a tape once. She and her husband were missionaries in Ecuador back in the ’60s, and her husband was killed by Auca Indians. She made the point that “Faith is a choice, you choose to believe that God is Who God says God is, and that what God says, God means!!” Wow. Circumstances can rip, tear, stomp on, blast, and devastate, and change our lives forever. We can choose to grab onto God who never changes — something, SomeONE solid while all else whirls about us.

Faith is our choice to trust God. I loved hearing that. It somehow made faith seem so simple, something even I could grasp. Christians sometimes make things of God sound so complicated when we are supposed to come to God as children, which I take to mean, “uncomplicated.”

“Oh, if only I had enough faith,” “oh, if only I had a brain,” “Oh, if only I had a heart” — if only. Well, in the question of faith, and “enough” faith, we all have that! Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed. . .” meaning, it may only seem very small, but great things can come of it if only you choose to believe, choose to trust. You see, we sometimes hold the false notion that we need great faith. Or, that somehow, what happens depends on our (my) faith, or, what happens is the result of a lack of my faith. Neither is completely true.

Yes, we need to choose to trust, but then it is not our faith that accomplishes anything, but the great God in whom we trust! We choose and the rest is on God’s shoulders! Some days I’ve had to voice my choice hour after hour. God didn’t need the reassurance, but I sure did!

It is this same God Who loves you and me immensely, walks every step of the way with us through dark nights, agony, misunderstandings, stupid behaviors, arguments, and black thoughts. God lets us lean on God. God is always there to offer comfort and help. We need to remember that help often comes by reaching out to God in prayer, by listening in the quiet, or by reaching out to someone who has offered to help us through these difficult days. Be careful not to push away someone’s offer of help, it may be part of God’s saving grace for you in these present circumstances.

Suffering has visited some of our heart-homes so often it feels like an old friend. Let it be a guest, learn from it all you can, it will often teach you more wisdom than the good times will. Remember, one of sufferings purposes is so that you will know how to comfort others with the comfort you have received. So, take note of your comforts, and cultivate a grateful heart.