Christian Living

Room for Suffering

Anybody else glad July is over? Picture me cheering. Not that July wasn’t awesome for getting stretched and practicing handling stress, but I’m glad it’s over. I love fresh starts! There’s just something about having an extra opportunity to reground in who I am and what I’m passionate about, to let go of the past.

This past week I have been so thankful that Christianity has room for suffering. It’s actually one of the things that drew me to Jesus. There seem to be two main strategies (apart from God’s) to handle suffering: pretend it’s not that bad (for example, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff–It’s All Small Stuff”) or drown in how awful it is.

God, on the other hand, says that He bears our sorrows (Is. 53:4). Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). He’s not aloof from suffering. The incarnation is such beautiful proof that God is in the middle of our suffering. Jesus got hungry and tired and weak (e.g., John 4:6, Mark 11:12). He dealt with emotional hurts–being betrayed or not trusted by His closest friends (Matt. 16:21-23). Being alone. The list goes on and on. God doesn’t downplay our suffering. Paul says that they were pressed beyond their ability to bear to the point of despair (2 Cor. 1:8). Don’t you love that we don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip?

But we don’t have to stay in the “it’s awful” stage because Jesus transformed suffering from the inside out. Without the cross, suffering is awful and purposeless, senseless. With God’s redemption, He is always working. He says that He’s always working His children’s best (Rom. 8:28). As far as the rest of the world, I believe that suffering showcases God’s gracious gift of free will, that it proves man’s sinfulness and justifies God’s condemnation of sin, and that it provides people with opportunities for change–opportunities to cry out to God.

There is room for suffering in Christianity without falling to one end of the spectrum or the other. It’s a beautiful thing. On a practical level, it means we can mourn and weep and get stressed, etc. while still taking that to God and letting Him redeem it. As Paul says, there’s hope. I don’t know about you, but that reality gives me room to breathe even when things are hard.

Romans 5:2b-5: And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Literature

The Hawk and the Dove

If you’ve never read Penelope Wilcox’s triology, The Hawk and the Dove, well, you should. It’s one of those books everyone should read, especially anyone who has ever suffered or struggled with the problem of evil. I just happened to be given a copy of The Hawk and the Dove in college and it changed me. The book is comprised of a series of short stories that take place around the 15th century in a monastery. The main character, Father Peregrine, comes on the scene as a self-possessed, capable monk with strong hands. He is artistic, does beautiful illuminations, intelligent, able to debate theology…. yet somehow in the midst of this, his very self-sufficiency keeps him at arm’s length from the rest of the monks. Shortly after becoming the Abbot, enemies of his family find him and beat him, shattering his hands and kneecap. He spends the rest of his life as a cripple. Initially, he tries to maintain his self-sufficiency, to deal with his grief and fear alone. One of the brothers breaks through to him and beholds his suffering. The rest of the stories are about how the Abbot becomes the hub of the community. His weakness enables him to relate to the brothers on an intensely deep level, to soothe their fears and their weaknesses. He becomes truly a father to them all. And in the midst of his suffering, he falls in love with Jesus as the suffering savior.

I could never understand why the Catholic church portrays Jesus on the cross, until I read this book. Yes, I want to continue to celebrate His resurrection as verification of all He promised, but beholding Jesus as the suffering Savior has changed me in ways I can’t even explain. The Gospel is Christ crucified… God’s love revealed through sacrifice and suffering. He is not unfamiliar with our pain. He is not putting us through hoops, as though we’re rats in a maze. His suffering can comfort us in the midst of ours. Our suffering can connect us with Christ. Stop and think about that for a moment. Just turn it over a few times. Jesus is the suffering Savior and our suffering can connect us with Him.

He has empathy, not sympathy, for us in the middle of our suffering. As we suffer, we have empathy, not sympathy, for what He went through for US. for us! Jesus went through suffering for us. As I suffer, I come to a greater appreciation of God’s love for me–the cost He paid for me. This is the answer to the problem of evil–the cross.

Our suffering can connect us with others. This also blows my mind. I love how Wilcox shows the transformative power of suffering. Before his infirmity, Father Peregrine is self-sufficient and is able to command the respect of his brothers. Afterwards, he is broken and needy and earns their love. Before, he is able to guide them on an intellectual, surface level. Afterwards, his brokenness opens doors into their hearts and there is deep dealing experienced. It’s so easy for me to gloss over this concept. Maybe it’s the performance-oriented, perfectionistic part of me. I don’t know. But in my weakness, my first reaction is to conceal it, and when I can’t hide it, I try to minimize, and over the past few years, when I can’t even do those things, I feel isolated and like dead weight, dragging everyone around me down. Father Peregrine doesn’t hide his weakness–he can’t. And he’s a better Abbot because of his weakness, not in spite of his weakness. Just as Christ is a better high priest because of his weakness.

What would it be like if we all lived with our weaknesses and brokenness in the spotlight? Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? But maybe we would be more intimately connected with God and with others, maybe we would have healthier souls. Maybe we would be better tools for the good works God’s prepared in advance for us to do. Maybe I am a better wife, a better mother, a better friend, a better sister, a better daughter because of my illness and brokenness, not in spite of it. Maybe you are too.