Suffering is a difficult topic. There are so many questions and theories and it all runs off of very delicate and wounded places in people’s live. So I want to give some absolutes. Today, I am going to talk about everything I know without a doubt about suffering. Here we go:
1. Suffering is not an abstraction.
2. Suffering is going to happen.
There. That’s it.
These are the only two things I can say with confidence about suffering. But I actually do think they are important things to think about when we talk about suffering.
The first point is part of what makes suffering so difficult to talk about. Because let’s be honest, a good theology of suffering means very little when you are in the process of suffering. When the hurt and pain and grief comes unbidden into our lives, one of the last things we want is someone to theorize and theologize about the nature of suffering.
When we theorize about suffering (or anything really) we remove it from the actual people and circumstances of life. We talk about it in clinical or academic terms. And there is a place for that. We will hear some of it this week. But the lived experience of suffering is far from removed or detached. It is as real as it gets.
And it’s painful and awful and confusing when it is actually experienced.
So we try to avoid it.
Unfortunately, this is the one thing we cannot do with suffering. Suffering is going to happen.
I heard Tiger McLuen once define suffering as the gap between what you wish God had handed you and what life actually did.
Part of living in a fallen world damaged and broken by sin means we will be disappointed and hurt and suffer. We tend to try to compare suffering but doing so is rarely helpful. Anytime life turns out in ways we wish it wouldn’t have, we suffer. Diminishing suffering is a lot like ignoring it.
Yet despite the fact that suffering is inevitable, so much of our lives are built around controlling and manipulating whatever we can so life turns out our way. We want to avoid suffering however we can.
I recently read my first Wendell Berry novel, Jayber Crow. The novel is about a small town barber reflecting over his life and vocation during the 1940’s-60’s.
One of the things I loved about this book was how he deals with doubt and grief (or you might say suffering).
He talks about how often we try to stuff down these two experiences, avoid them, explain them away, or ignore them. But what Jayber says he learned to do is accept them and live in the tension.
There is a lot of wisdom there.
As Christians, we believe the world is marred by sin. Yet at the same time, we believe Jesus is doing something in the world to set it to rights and all of the hurt and pain and destruction of sin will eventually be fully redeemed.
So to be a Christian is to live in the midst of this tension. We accept the reality of suffering. But we hold on to hope and redemption.
Perhaps this can help us, not in better understanding suffering, but in better living suffering.
We accept. We live in the tension.
Accepting means we are honest with it. We accept it as it is – with all the grief, pain, hurt, doubts, anger at God, anger at people, sleepless nights, and tears that accompany it. This is a part of what it means to suffer so accepting suffering is accepting what goes along with it.
Be sad. Grieve. Mourn. It’s okay. It’s healthy. It’s needed.
But we do so in tension.
We don’t give up hope. We trust. We keep going. We find the will to get up again the next day.
When we live in tension, our trust and hope do not ignore our deny our real feelings and hurt. Yet our suffering does not get the last word. Suffering does diminish the hope we have. We are open to the doubts and hurts when they come, we deal with them, we acknowledge them, we experience all the awful things that accompany suffering, but we hold to a reality which holds more sway than they do.
Lent is a practice run for this reality. We accept the difficult of the fast, but we know a time of relief is coming.
We accept and we live in tension.
Then, in yet another paradox, we begin to trust that in the moments God seems the most distant and far away, God is actually moving towards us and embraces us and gives us the grace to take one more breath, and have one more day.