What Role Does Suffering Play in our Life?
I want to talk today about suffering. Now that’s a cheery topic. But let thank David for the suggestion for this topic. I just hope he doesn’t feel he’s suffering from this.
To be human is to suffer. It is part of who we are as humans. We spend much of our lives seeking to do what we can do to avoid it, but we can’t seem to get away from it.
The moment we are welcomed into this life, we scream as we adapt to the uncomfortable life outside our mother’s womb. Our physical life peaks at about twenty-five and for the rest of our life we manage the physical suffering of our physical body leading to our death.
That’s just the physical suffering. We all have some degree of mental suffering. We are worried about “what ifs” and “what will they think” “what’s the purpose?” and “how will I afford it?” Younger people today report that they are suffering from stress and mental health issues to an unprecedented degree. A friend who is a college president told me they could not keep up with the number of mental health counselors to meet the demand of students
I’ve witnessed a paradox to physical and mental suffering. Those with their physical needs met often suffer more internally, while those who suffer from their environment often have better mindsets and suffer less internally.
In my work to bring AIDS drugs to Africa in the mid-2000s, I encountered the worst physical suffering I’d witnessed in my life. Yet, the people I met were more joyful, loving, and spiritual than anyone I’d met ever before. The contrast was striking to me.
In my work in the social venture sector, I encountered some of the wealthiest families in the world seeking to invest in social good. Yet, the people I met were often the most anxious, unhappy, and stressed of any group I’d met before.
Both physically and mentally, both young and old, we suffer. Some more and some less. We’ll do anything we can to avoid suffering, but it finds us. None of us are immune.
“Why is there suffering?” For most of history, suffering was explained in terms of causation. Some sin you or your parents did either in this life or the last caused your suffering. Repent and change your life and the suffering will go away.
It is very human to try to explain what we don’t understand through some sort of cause and effect. We think if you suffer you caused it.
In my own pastoral counseling people who suffer horrible health conditions very often ask me, “What did I do wrong to have this happen to me?” Our desire to find a cause for our suffering is wired within us. The idea that bad things happen to good people seems unfair so it must be a punishment from an angry God.
That’s not how God works.
Jesus taught something different about suffering. When he was asked by the crowd what parents did wrong to cause their child to be blind, he said there was no causation. People tried to blame those killed in a tower collapse on some sin and Jesus again pointed out that bad things happen to everyone in their life both to the wicked and good he asked,
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”
Everyone suffers in this physical world and it can happen randomly, but he calls us to transform our inner life in the midst of this.
Jesus proved that suffering happens to good people He lived this out. He was blameless, but he suffered on the cross both physically and mentally, crying out “God why have you forgotten me?”
Through our spiritual growth, we, like the people I met in Africa, might face physical suffering, but spiritual peace knowing that God is with us and there’s a plan we cannot see.
Swedenborg calls the divine plan for our life divine providence and he says it never makes sense at the moment, but when we look back it makes sense. He speaks of people who after death and in life, review see how their suffering was used for good.
What’s the reason for this suffering in our theology?
We understand humanity was created with the ability to love God and one another or the freedom to just love ourselves. This option to choose evil requires that on this earth there will be evil. If there were no evil and no suffering, but we would essentially be robots who love God and each other without a choice. Introduce freedom to choose and you introduce evil. Introduce evil and you witness suffering.
That’s a theological answer, but it is not a pastoral one.
When someone is facing deep suffering I don’t lecture them about the importance of freedom. Instead, I seek to simply support through the crisis. Trusting in God through suffering is what defines our faith. There is a bigger plan than we can see at the moment and we know God is with us in it.
Suffering can serve a purpose.
We grow our spiritual life more often in adversity than when we are comfortable. In the same way, our physical bodies gain muscle and strength through working against themselves, so to, our spiritual body grows through how we deal with and overcome suffering.
The Old Testament story today tells the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. It’s a strange story, but I believe it represents an important lesson about suffering. There will be times in our life when we are wrestling or fighting with God. Through that doubt, anger, and questioning, we can eventually, come out of that moment with a new blessing in our life. We can ask:
“What good can come from this? What is the blessing from this difficult time?”
The great psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, coined the phrase, “Wounded Healer,” where he suggested that the best therapists were people whom themselves had wrestled with the wounds of their own suffering and now could help others.
My professor at Divinity School, Fr. Henri Nouwen, also wrote a book called “Wounded Healer,” suggesting that the only way to minister to others was to come to terms with your own suffering and transform that to good use.
As Christians, we are reminded of how the suffering of Jesus leads to the resurrection.
I believe this concept of understanding our suffering and transforming it for good is powerful. A friend of mine who is a world-class leadership coach named, Jeffery Van Dyke, and I spoke this past week. He shared a large part of the success of his practice is to help clients understand the wounds of their childhood and use that to become transformational leaders for good. At the last minute, I asked if he might join our discussion time and I’m thrilled he’s agreed to share his wisdom.
What a profound spiritual paradox that whatever we see as our greatest suffering is also our greatest gift to the world. When we are wrestling with suffering we must look for the blessing. Most times we cannot see it, but we can trust it is there and it will be revealed.
I experienced a taste of this recently in my own life. I’d say that maybe my greatest suffering as a kid for me was the secret of knowing I was gay and feeling like I was always on the outside. The church was no help because of its condemnation of homosexuality. But my faith in Jesus transcended what the church taught and gave me strength through the suffering.
Recently in speaking to a young person who was asking questions about our church and about me, one woman declared, “Wow, a gay priest. That’s cool. I just never thought that was possible. Just hearing that heals me. I had long ago given up on ever setting foot in a church. But knowing this place exists is healing. I’d like to come to hear you preach one Sunday.”
She hasn’t come to church but there was no doubt a wound had been used for healing. My wound of exclusion had been turned into a blessing of inclusion.
How about you? What was your wound? With God’s blessing, the suffering you experienced can be transformed for good. And the suffering you are experiencing right now could one day make sense.
This past year has been a year of suffering for the entire world. Many have lost loved ones. Many are more isolated and alone. Many have fallen behind in school. Many face long-term health consequences. Many have lost their jobs. In each case, we must not ignore or pretend away that this very real suffering. And, yet, also, with the power of a loving God, we can also believe that good can come from this past year in ways we never imagined. I believe that’s true.
Whatever you are suffering with now, know that your angels are there with you working for the good. Look for other human angels to enter into your life on the physical world to help you too. I hope you can look to this community as a source of strength. And as you are wrestling, keep an open mind to God’s blessing so that can help you to be a blessing to others.