BY ANNA NORTHUP
Hurricane Florence’s devastating rip through the Carolinas has only sliced open the wound humanity has nursed for millennia:
We don’t talk about it often, at least not in a public context. Behind doors, maybe, with family or doctors or clinicians. These things just happen. Everyone suffers. Next, please. We find support groups, pursue professionally-designed self-improvement strategies, and seek clinical guidance – and while these can all be good and healthy in their proper place, I’ve come to realize that they’re just too simple. Indeed, they can tell us the how (don’t get me wrong, it’s important), but they don’t tell us the why. We focus on becoming incurable optimists, but I think it’s because we’ve been provided no basis on which to understand our suffering. We don’t talk about our problems, because we’ve resigned ourselves to never making sense of them. The best we can do is shrug – probably cry – and move on.
But what if knowing the answer to that question could change our world? What if knowing the why created life where there was death, healing where there was pain, and infused meaning into the most senseless tragedy? What if we’ve cheated ourselves with a counterfeit understanding of suffering – or lack thereof?
Why We Don’t Ask Why
In our desperation to keep living with the pain we see and experience, we’ve shoved under the rug that question that is fundamentally and intrinsically human. We ask why in science experiments, when our presentations are a bust, when our cars break down or the roof leaks. We ask why things won’t work the way we think they should.
Why won’t we ask it in suffering?
For many of us, suffering is nothing more than an interruption in our lives. A bump in a fairly smooth road. It can be easier to bypass the change and growth suffering offers us in our hurry to return to our old “normal” – especially if our new lives mean facing realities of our pain we’d rather ignore. But what if that “new normal” could create beauty from ashes? What if it transformed us into deeper, more beautiful people who love, and are loved, to a depth unattainable if things went according to plan? What if it takes suffering to rip back our pretenses and reveal that we are, indeed, made in God’s image?
The Meaning in Our Suffering
Reader, there is meaning. You can face your suffering. You can probe its depths and understand its beginnings. You can grow from it, and you can embrace it. There is, quite literally, a world of life for you beyond your pain. I’m enlisting Timothy Keller, author and pastor in NYC, to help us understand that world together with his book Walking With God Through Suffering.
1) No, this isn’t the way it was meant to be.
“Look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet…he is always weeping, a man of sorrows. Do you know why? Because he is perfect. Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world” (Keller).
It seems that if we truly allowed the tragedy of world’s suffering to hold full weight in our hearts, we’d be crushed by the pain. Why does the hurt of others touch us so deeply? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we look at the Holocaust, or the human trafficking system, or unexpected cancer, and cry, “that’s wrong”? If there really is no meaning in our suffering, would we have evolved to even ask that question?
There is brokenness in this world. It’s not the way it was designed to be. Christians believe that Christ was able to feel so acutely the pain of this world because he was perfect. He was not in denial of its tragedy, did not whitewash it with optimistic platitudes, but acknowledged its rawness in full. Our world as we know it is not what we would consider – or what Christ considers – good, beautiful, righteous, and perfect. Even God, the Creator of joy, laughter, love, and hope, wept deeply at Lazarus’s grave. We long for an ideal we can’t conceive, a perfect world we can’t grasp at this moment. So does Jesus. The difference is – he sees it. He’s making it now, and only he makes sense of these desires for us.
Attributing meaninglessness to suffering doesn’t change our humanity. What we dream for, long for, thirst for, at its very core, has never changed. On our own, we cannot conceive of the why of our broken world. But there is somebody who can.
2) You need suffering to grow.
“The best people often have terrible lives…Jesus — the ultimate ‘Job,’ the only truly, fully innocent sufferer — is [one example]” (Keller).
It sounds cliché, but it’s true. Take anyone who was a powerful force of good in this world. Mother Teresa suffered with the hurting in destitute cities, and her “dark night of the soul” is now emerging as a testament to her courage. William Wilberforce took scores of criticism and ridicule in his fight to abolish slavery. Interestingly enough, they were also some of the most loving, joyful figures in history. Why? Because, in a community that embraces God as the holder of our suffering – whether it’s cancer, or criticism, or failing our parents’ expectations – the floodgates of love open wide. Because God promises good in our pain, we’re freed to meet others in theirs. And we can embrace our own suffering not as beautiful in itself but as a pathway to an intimate relationship with our Creator, and with community. Like a surgeon, he cuts only to heal, and there’s a loveliness of character – of Christlikeness – that comes only with refinement by fire.
The secular idea of suffering relegates it to an annoying blight on our life-radar. But God brings promises something far more meaningful and beautiful through it.
3) Life is hard, but God is good.
“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy” (Keller).
Life is hard. But God is good. When we finally see the futility in looking forward – how fragile our A+ lives actually are – the only other place is up. When our suffering has purpose, we can acknowledge the pain, admit we’re hurting, and rejoice in the good to come. In Christ, the holder of suffering is for us and not against us. Whether you’ve been turned down on your twentieth internship application, or just broke your coffee machine, Christ’s call is to all, because we all suffer. He didn’t come for the incurable optimists who pain can’t touch; he calls those who admit that this life rocks them, and who want the antidote. Being human in a broken world promises us this pain, but God offers a way to face it with courage and hope instead of bitterness.
We are not in denial that this world hurts, and that individuals hurt. Did you know suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story? Christians should be the first to confess the brokenness and pain of this life – and the first to laugh at how it pales in comparison to the joy to be revealed. So if you have suffered much, don’t feel left out. You’re invited into a circle of joyful sufferers, and the presence of the One who thoroughly understands yours. Come on in.
And so, in the wake of the storm, let’s talk about our suffering and our pain, because we can face it, learn from it, and embrace it. Let’s be honest about our humanity and ask ourselves why, because there is an answer to that question. It is not so very far.