I am newly realizing what our suffering can become. It is a substantial fiber in the weave of our lives. Constantly, I look around and see suffering. I read about people all over the world who are victimized mercilessly at the hands of evil. War, trafficking, oppression, suppression, racism, hatred. Or I see the coverage of natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, drought and famine. I watch friends deal with miscarriages, children with cancer, homesickness, divorce, depression, infertility, loneliness, confusion. I myself regularly struggle with insomnia, which affects my energy, perspective, joy.
Suffering is all around us and in our own lives too. Sometimes it takes us down dark paths in our hearts, or through whole seasons of doubt and fear. It can bring on self-pity, often as a reflex if you grew up in comfy America, and there we can sit, nursing wounds, even for years. It can cause us to use blame and accusation as weapons, see the world through a lens of pain and pessimism, be afraid to step out and chase our dreams, or become brittle and bitter. In some of us, it can do all of the above, and wreak havoc, not just on our memories, but our future plans too. Suffering can push us to become stubborn, shell-shocked and critical. It is a powerful agent. A shaper. An active ingredient.
And a good tool, in the right hands.
Because suffering is what also causes people to start non-profits, plant churches, and volunteer. It is the motivation for many a good book, excellent teacher, or effective self-help group. Twelve-step programs have been built on the shoulders of suffering. Homeless ministries, marriage counselling, prison outreaches. It causes people to adopt children, give thousands of dollars for clean water, and become doctors. I lost a house once, and seven years later I got it back, and in all that suffering and confusion, I learned how to pursue true Home (which is a Who) and I continue to learn how to help others find it (Him) too. Suffering unites people. I worked alongside volunteers to remove debris after the 2013 tornado that touched down in Moore, OK, and witnessed a coming together of those from all different backgrounds and denominations and schools of thought, to help people who had lost their homes.
Suffering motivates us, inspires compassion in us, calls upon our mercy. We see others suffering, and because we have suffered, we reach out to help. Because we have overcome addiction or divorce or the death of a child, we want to show others how to do it too. Because we have known the darkness, we want to share the light. And what is meant for thievery, death, or destruction in our lives, actually becomes something beautiful.
I’ve talked with people who question the existence of God, His validity and scope, because of the tragedy they have witnessed. It is sometimes hard to understand God’s role when we have suffered. I realize that I have defined God by my experiences, whether good or bad, and that he is far bigger than that. But this kind of realization took over 30 years. We often fail to realize, when we watch others make decisions that seem ridiculous to us, that suffering has many different results. We also seem to forget that we are not the only ones who have suffered. It would behoove to remember this when we talk with others, or watch the news, or read someone’s Facebook feed. Everyone is on a journey. Some of us are lost in the country of suffering for a while.
Marcy Craig said “the only cure for suffering is to face it head on, grasp it round the neck and use it.”
Things change when we suffer, sometimes permanently. Our landscape changes. Our navigation changes. But though there most definitely are dark nights of the soul, it does not have to end badly. For we are accompanied as we travail. Your Father has been with you in every moment. Even as terrible things took place, His mercy sustained you, His hands wove grace into your moments, and beauty, and He led you on. If you look back through your life, and ask Him where He was, and listen, He will show you. He can redeem your suffering.
There is, in anything we go through, an invitation to know true love and to trust. There is a way to let go of control and fear. By knowing Jesus. It takes a lifetime and it is a road that leads through this world – with traps and holes and mishaps and tragedies. But it is a road that always points Home and a journey that ends well.
Suffering is a game changer. We can let it lessen us, and chip away at our clarity, identity and faith. Or it can deepen us, compel us toward a greater understanding, a readier compassion, a quieter humility, a better prayer life, a well-rooted joy.
No pain, no gain is right. I know this personally, as I run mile after mile, ever so slowly, and attempt to chase down a lifelong dream of running a full marathon. The process of transformation is messy. The pain of suffering in all its forms is acute. Sometimes our dreams undergo revision. Or detours. Things take time: healing, wholeness, forgiveness, wisdom, perspective. But we get a choice in how suffering leaves us. It is a force that can be controlled by steering our hearts, by steeling our hearts through the inevitable storms. By acknowledging an Anchor that will never leave us.
We don’t have to be afraid of what has happened, is happening, might happen, in our lives, our friends’ and family’s lives, or the world. Corrie ten Boom showed us this truth, in a Nazi concentration camp. Jim Eliot and Nate Saint, as they lost their lives to the misunderstanding spears of Aucas and Amy Carmichael, as she spent years bedridden, writing book after book. We can fight for what’s is good and true and beautiful, but suffering in this world is a given. And when placed in the hands of God, it is a tool. Jesus showed us. It is a hammer to a nail. It is building something. Yes, it is wretched and painful and so very much not what we wanted. It is not Heaven’s original plan either. We can ask for Him to take it away. Lots of times He does. Sometimes, He doesn’t. But He can use it.
Jesus showed us that suffering has the potential to be a catalyst that can change the world.