I have a few thoughts bumbling around in my head about suffering that I’ve been talking with friends around the table and over text with lately, and I wanted to open the conversation wider – to all of you. I invite discussion in the comments!
Many of us weren’t taught/raised with a robust theology of suffering.
Western civilization as a whole does not know how to hold darkness. Rather than teach a path of descent, Christianity in the West preached a system of winners and losers, a “prosperity Gospel.” … We are hardwired to avoid the human mystery—that we are all a mixture of darkness and light—instead of learning how to carry it patiently through to resurrection. – Daily Meditations
We see suffering, or most kinds of darkness within and without and impacting others as something to be avoided, or a sign that we or others are surely living wrongly, or worse yet, that the quality and strength of our/their faith is broken. We’re extolled we’re not praying hard enough, or trusting in or claiming God’s healing enough, or picking ourselves up by our bootstraps enough, or thinking positively enough (or any number of things you’ve told yourself or thought about yourself or someone else – and oh those cultural messages…!).
In this extended season of health challenges, I’ve learned a lot from sitting in my suffering and with others who are walking in their own long or short season of suffering. And it’s not a passive act. Rather:
I’ve learned to bravely embrace my suffering and the people in my life’s suffering for what it can teach me – for what God wants to teach me. And it’s a lot. In fact, I think it’s the depth and breadth of the gospel.
Darkness is a good and necessary teacher. It is not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. First, like Ezekiel the prophet, we must eat the scroll that is “lamentation, wailing, and moaning” in our belly, and only eventually becomes sweet as honey (see Ezekiel 2:9-10; 3:1-3).
Darkness is sacred ground. The God who calls us into darkness will also sustain us and lead us through it. “God . . . brings the dead to life and calls into being what does not yet exist” (Romans 4:17). Resurrection is the one and only pattern.
“Resurrection is the one and only pattern.”; I could park myself with that thought for a good long while and learn and learn and learn and not learn it all still. And I appreciate most the focus on God – HE who calls us into darkness will sustain us through it. It’s about the work that God’s doing, not what I’m doing or not doing or she or he is doing or not doing; Suffering is about the work the Holy Spirit can only do in me through suffering or walking in suffering with someone else. I need to be a participating actor, but God is bearing good-hard fruit through the very suffering culture challenges me to pick myself up from in my own strength or to sweep under the rug.
The way through is always much more difficult than the way around. Cheap religion gives us the way around, avoiding darkness. True religion gives us the way through, stepping right into the mystery.
Darkness is sacred ground. The God who calls us into darkness will also sustain us and lead us through it. “God . . . brings the dead to life and calls into being what does not yet exist” (Romans 4:17). Resurrection is the one and only pattern. – Daily Meditations
I have definitely felt a “calling into being” of what has not yet existed in me/my faith and life through sitting in and with my own and others’ suffering. These are precious somethings that didn’t grow in me when I was “highly successful” and independent/self-dependent, and can’t grow in us if we have “been able to avoid all suffering”, “move from success to success”, or “have never lived in solidarity with the suffering of others” (source).
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s not about the suffering itself, but keeping my eyes on God in the suffering that is the key to making it through suffering and soaking in all God wants to teach me through it, and then living changed in the midst of it and after differently than my life was without the suffering. I have felt stuck in my suffering, sat with others stuck in theirs, and see a system I’m complicit in that helps and elevates some and keeps others in suffering. And for me, lament & praise is what keeps me learning and connected to God through the suffering (I’ve written about that here and here), going through and not around, walking with instead of around, moving through instead of getting stuck and buried. And it ultimately leads me to a participatory faith-work with the Holy Spirit that builds Christ-following muscle and calls me into a different way of living, being and seeing. It helps me to live more fully and comfortably inside of God’s deep love, which is there for me and others no matter our suffering – other or self-imposed, or fact of life suffering from living in a broken world where free will is allowed to take its course.
I’ll never forget these words from The Road to Assisi and a prayer I read shortly thereafter:
“Joy had returned to Francis. During a night of sleeplessness he heard a voice saying to him, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you would say to this mountain, Be removed from here, and it would move away.’ Was not the mountain his sufferings, the temptation to murmur and despair? “Be it, Lord, according to your word’ Francis replied with all his heart, and immediately he felt that he was delivered.
Francis might have perceived that the mountain had not greatly changed its place, but for several days he turned his eyes away from it and had been able to forget its existence.”
“But for several days (Mel/you/we) turned (our/her) eyes away from (her/our suffering) and had been able to forget its existence” and be able to let the Holy Spirit work in her/us instead. For God to be bigger to her/me; the biggest; the only thing she/I need(s).
From Common Prayer:
Lord, you are a God who heals and calls forth life. Keep us from the pitfalls of self-pity and despair, lest we ridicule your grace and power, and forsake our own healing. Amen.
Suffering has been my greatest invitation to be still and know that He is God and that I am not. To watch for what He is doing and will do through my suffering. To know my suffering is not in vain. And maybe even, that our suffering is something so much more. And I believe it:
Our suffering, my suffering, is important and necessary.
It seems all God wants are useable instruments who will carry the mystery, the weight of glory and the burden of sin simultaneously, who can bear the darkness and the light, who can hold the paradox of incarnation – flesh and Spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering – at the same time, just as Jesus did.” – Father Richard Rohr
I am not a useable instrument if all I want is to live and move and breath and work in the weight of glory, the light, Spirit, the divine and joy without the rest of it.
James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, describes God as “the infinity of the unforeseeable; so we know that [the unforeseeable] is trustworthy, because in everything, God is trying to move us into Christ consciousness. If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.” Perhaps this explains the mysterious coexistence of deep suffering and intense joy in mystics. (source)
I just texted two of my friends, saying the above “gives words to what I was trying to say at the table about surrendering (to our suffering) and questioning our definition of what God’s love and working in our suffering looks like. ‘If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains all things, then we can face all things…” That’s what I’ve experienced. My circumstances don’t change; (despite my efforts) my suffering exists. Yet God sustains me and that’s the only promise I have. He alone can make heavy yokes easy feel easy and burdens light (versus promising to take the yokes and burdens away.)” Even now, from cane and shower chair, to walker, to sometimes wheelchair, to more diagnosis, to no clear end in sight He is present and good; I am learning deeper each day to live abundantly and love God with wide open arms and embrace His love with wide open arms right where I’m at and even if nothing changes.
Feeling the same? Wanting to move in this direction of admitting your suffering and walking through it with your eyes on God, seeing his full and unchanged love for you and others? Then pray these prayers with me:
From the Common Prayer:
Broken, we kneel; humbled, we cry: help, – Jesus! Raise us gently on high.”
And from The Divine Hours, the Greeting (based on Psalm 71:14):
“I shall always wait in patience, and shall praise your more and more.”
I’m here, clinging to God and finding joy and meaning and growth and greater solidarity with those who suffer as I sit and look to God in my and their and our suffering. When I least feel like it, you will find me sometimes throwing a tantrum or at my best praising God more and more. Because you truly need Him when you’re suffering and/or walking alongside the suffering!! Oh Jesus, how sweet it is to be loved by you! How sweet it is to know that you use suffering to teach us resurrection truth and to see ourselves in kinship with all who suffer.
Feeling different or the same or have more insights to share for the benefit of us all? Please engage in the comments! May this be a safe place to wrestle together in our diverse sufferings. And bear with me for any typos and oh the run on sentences, my new fave (as a good friend says, I’m loquacious – ha!). My particular suffering comes with extreme exhaustion and brain fog. And if I wait until I’m sure I can make complete sense, I’ll be sitting on my words all day. So here they are, imperfectly imperfect and out there, just like me.
Peace to you, friends! ~ Mel