A couple of weeks ago, I found myself trailing behind a young couple with a school-age child as we all headed toward the entrance of a department store. It was impossible to avoid hearing the couple arguing. The woman seemed determined to ridicule the man for the music he played on their way to the store. She also littered every sentence with profanity. To his credit, the man didn’t strike back but instead offered reasonable arguments for his choice. Besides her partner having to put up with the woman’s verbal abuse, does this story have anything to do with suffering?
Expanding Our Perspective
In his book, The Light Shines On in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith (Ignatius Press, 2017), Robert Spitzer presents an alternative way to look at suffering. He proposes that suffering is anything that blocks us from our true self as defined by our Creator. Not only does this perspective expose a whole new dimension to suffering, but it also suggests that while we might be aware that something is out-of-order in our lives, we may not recognize what’s missing or readily identify the cause behind our distress.
In the situation I presented, the woman would likely not have thought of herself as suffering. She may even have felt a bit superior and empowered. But I would argue that she was, indeed, hurting.
Finding fault with others is like poison to both our soul and healthy relationships. People she knows might avoid her because of her unpleasantness. Her approach is antagonistic to developing and communicating compassion and love, and it certainly would distance her from God. Her example might teach her child a dysfunctional way of relating to others that could lead to future behavior problems. This woman’s actions could lead to a great deal of loss and suffering in her life without her ever recognizing what was happening or why.
The God Connection
Last week, I outlined a three-part, naturalistic strategy that we can use to relieve suffering (Finding Relief in Suffering: Part I). Today, we’ll look at what happens when we add in the spiritual dimension.
Strategy #1: Recognize and treat the cause.
We live in a sin-damaged world, and most of the time the trouble we experience is due either to our actions, the actions of others, or to the effects of nature. Yet, how often do we hear people blame God for the trouble they experience! God loves us and cares for us, and He does not bring harm upon us as punishment for our sins. Nor does He give us trials just to toughen us up.
Blaming God not only misses the truth, but it also adds to our suffering by driving us away from the One who can provide relief to our misery. If you really want to know God’s attitude toward us in suffering, read the story of Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24).
While God may not cause our difficulties in life, He is able to use them to transform us. God uses our hardships and stress to strengthen our relationship with Him, to heal us from the spiritual effects of sin, and to deepen and purify our love. Our fleeting moments of suffering here on earth can shape us into the people we are meant to be for all eternity. Suffering is a means in the present moment that can help reverse the effects of sin in us; and through us, change the world around us.
Strategy #2: Address the contributing factors.
Goals and expectations. Your physician can show you how to set goals to maximize your physical health. A counselor will help you set realistic targets for behavior based on your stated objectives. What you won’t find too often is either of these professionals telling you the path you should follow if you want to live according to God’s design.
God showed us the healthiest way to live and what really matters in life. He can do it when no one else can because He’s God. We can tap into this wisdom through Sacred Tradition and Scripture. Church teaching helps make the content of both sources explicit. On our own, however, we still get easily confused, especially when we’re under duress.
That’s when a pastor, spiritual friend, mentor, or spiritual director can help. The word on the street is that we’re not supposed to tell someone what to do, even if we see them headed toward the edge of the cliff. While on the one hand we are told to take a hands-off, support-only approach, we’re then expected to get all interventional when it looks like our friend might commit suicide or homicide. I think this is one of the reasons we hear so many stories of people ignoring cries of pain and threats of violence. Because secular society lacks a consistent view of what is truly healthy, it is unable to show us how to recognize and help each other when we’re on the path to destruction. With God, there’s no imaginary cliff edge. We’re to live with love and compassion, and telling our friend the truth is part and parcel.
Even though God tells us the best way to live, we don’t have to do it. He leaves us free to choose a path that leads to life or death.
Love and support. God has given us the gift of other people who can help us. That is part of the beauty of the Church. We live, however, in a broken world, and sometimes it can seem we are all alone. But we are never alone, for God is present to us always, and nothing can separate us from His presence and His love. God can use our afflictions to help us become the kind of people who can love others through their suffering.
Meaning and purpose. How we long for our life to mean something and to prove our value! But in this world, a sense of worth and purpose can easily elude us, for it is so dependent on what other people say and do.
I once had an elderly patient whose husband had died and her family gone. She had lived an active and productive life, but her physical limitations now necessitated a move to a long-term care facility. At this point, she thought of herself and her life as worthless. It was an understandable conclusion for someone living in a world where our value is determined by what you have, what you look like, or what you can do. On the world’s cash register, her number came up as a big zero.
Thank God, He’s not that way. He values us regardless of what we have or can do. He gives us both purpose and destiny. He calls us to know and serve Him, to become like Him in holiness, to love others, and to share in His divine life for eternity. Even when we seem to have nothing left to offer except pain and suffering, God receives these as a gift for eternal good. In this way, no suffering need be seen as meaningless, and we should not see ourselves this way, either.
Anxiety, fear, and efficacy. Oh, how much we want to stay in control! We love to watch stories about heroes who have special powers that enable them to overcome all obstacles. We say things like, “You just need to believe.” For some, the need to stay in control even extends to the process of dying, where people hold on to the irrational and bizarre belief that it is better to kill themselves (i.e., assisted suicide) than to surrender their lives to God.
For the Christian disciple, death is not the end, but it is a definitive point for us. By comparison to eternity, our temporal life is only a momentary passing, but it defines our life after life. Having gained a share in divine life through faith in Jesus Christ, we know there is no defeat or annihilation. We have an ultimate victory that nothing can take away from us. We can, however, choose to refuse it. Through Jesus Christ, we will overcome all things, including everything that seemed unstoppable in this life.
Strategy #3: Realize gain from loss.
This differs from the third strategy of the naturalistic treatment plan: to treat the symptoms. In the natural world, that may be all we can do when we hit the wall and run out of options. Unlike us, God doesn’t need to limit treatment to symptoms. He can go right to our heart and help us change in ways beyond our control. As the Creator, He made something out of nothing, and as our Savior, He makes us able to realize gain in our loss.
The Resurrection: The end of suffering. Jesus’ Resurrection showed us that God will replace all suffering with joy and eternal happiness for those who turn to Him. This includes:
- The transformation of our bodies.
- The perfection of our spirit.
- An end to all suffering as creation itself is redeemed.
- Eternal life.
While our understanding of the Resurrection gives us invincible hope, it still can leave us with the view of suffering as something we have to endure until payday comes.
Realizing gain from loss. Suffering can build virtue and compassion and love for others. It can help us to recognize what really matters in life and give us a clear sense of purpose. It makes it easier for us to let go of selfishness and self-focus. Our relationship with God grows. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, suffering is not only reparative, but it can make us into something better and more whole. That may seem crazy to someone whose trials have led them to feel broken, worthless, used, and unwanted. But remember, we’re talking about God here.
We know that Christ gave His life for us as an offering for the forgiveness of sin and our redemption. The apostle Paul also saw his life as a sacrificial offering that he gladly gave for the salvation of others (Phil. 2:17; II Tim. 4:6). Similarly, our suffering in this life also can serve as an offering and one in which we share in the suffering of Christ.
All of this might sound too good to be true. Or perhaps you’ve struggled in your situation so long, and it seems you’ve gone nowhere. How then, can we tap into this spiritual well of life and find comfort in suffering? We’ll look at twelve steps we can take to find relief in suffering in the next and final blog of the mini-series.
Finding Relief in Suffering: Part II is part of an ongoing series on practices that promote spiritual and psychological health.