I am the first to admit that my visual arts skills are pathetic. It goes way back to second grade when I stunned my teacher with a watercolor painting showing Godzilla destroying a city. I improved considerably after taking drawing and painting classes in college. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep using my newfound skills, and I regressed. I know what I need to do to improve: I must continue putting into practice what I learn.
Likewise, if we’re going to make any progress in the midst of suffering, then we have to apply ourselves. Sitting in the corner and moping about how bad we have it isn’t going to change anything. So what can we do?
Twelve Steps to Finding Relief in Suffering
In this article, I’ve put together twelve steps we can follow to aid us in finding relief in suffering. It’s not a complete list, but each of these steps has made a difference in my life, and I believe they can help you, too.
I’ve already written about many of these topics, so I’ve added hyperlinks to these past articles if you want to explore them further. If I haven’t previously blogged on the subject, I intend to write on it in the future. I’ve also included a few Bible verses to ponder. You can read through the whole article in one sitting, or you can look at each topic separately as a daily reflection.
There are many ways to deal with trouble in our lives. Two of the more common approaches I’ve seen make things worse instead of better.
The first is to act out our conflict while we avoid facing our pain in a constructive way. For example, people can act out by taking their frustrations out on innocent bystanders.
The second approach is self-focused rumination, where we mentally chew on things over and over again. Rather than leading to meaningful action, however, we continue to replay past conversations, thoughts, or memories and drag out the pain.
Both of these options get in the way of what we really need to do: to reflect. Reflection is a healthier alternative that can serve as a launching point for us to deal with the issues we face. The first step is to become aware of what is going on inside and around us. By attending to life, we begin to form questions. Next, we “dialogue” with God, His Revelation, our past experience, and our religious tradition. As we progress, our reflection can lead to adaptive changes.
Suggested Scriptures: Prov. 4:20-27; Luke 2:19
One of the damaging effects of our distress is that we often become vulnerable to other problems: temptation, diminished faith, spiritual dryness, and a loss of meaning and purpose. Instead of drawing nearer to Jesus, all of these push us farther away. That’s why, more than ever, people who are suffering need to be intentional about prayer.
We can express our prayer in one of three ways—as vocal prayer, meditation, or contemplation. We should try to use all three.
Through vocal prayer, we express our needs and concerns to God. We pour out our heart to Him and ask for His help.
Meditation is listening, and through it, we come to know both God and ourselves better. Self-knowledge is a pre-requisite for conversion of heart.
Contemplation is being with God. We sit, lay, or kneel before God and stay with Him. We recognize He is present to us during the events of the day. Through contemplation, we enter into communion with our Lord.
All prayer opens us to the work of the Holy Spirit, who transforms us.
Suggested Scripture: Ps. 46:11; Phil. 4:4-7
We frequently use defense mechanisms (e.g., denial, projection, magical thinking) to avoid facing the consequences; to avoid facing the truth. Sometimes we’re so blinded by pain and loss we can’t see anything else.
Truth is a remedy for all of these, but we avoid it because it seems to us it might make things worse. But avoiding the truth sets us up for even greater suffering in the long run. God is Truth, but He is also Love, and He cares for us. The sooner we come to see things as God sees them, the better off we’ll be.
Suggested Scriptures: John 8:31-32; Rom. 12:2
Forgive, and seek forgiveness.
Holding on to anger, bitterness, and blame never eases our pain—it only prolongs and intensifies it. Failing to forgive others injures our soul. Jesus made it clear that we need to offer unlimited forgiveness to others. It does not mean, however, that we can readily let go of our memories and their attached emotional baggage. But we choose not to dwell on the wrong done to us or hold on to bitterness.
Sin is always destructive to our well-being. Rather than dealing with it and urging us to change behavior, secular culture adds a warped twist to sin by shifting the emphasis from the damage caused by it to blaming the guilt we feel as the cause of our misery. Anyone who falls for this lie is putting their soul at risk. Guilt is an adaptive mechanism, just like pain, that alerts us to a problem. It can become excessive, but in the Catholic Church, we have a remedy ready at hand: The Sacrament of Confession. If you sin, then repent, seek forgiveness, and make restitution.
Suggested Scriptures: Matt. 6:14-15; Luke 7:36-48
Connect with others.
By others, I mean both professionals (i.e., physicians, counselors, and pastors) and non-professionals (family and friends).
Sometimes in our distress, we tend to pull away from others. The cultural emphasis on individualism pushes us to try making it on our own. Men, in particular, avoid asking for help until they reach a point of desperation.
We should never try to go it alone. But not everyone can help us in the same way. Some people are there to give us a hand in solving problems and overcoming obstacles. Others may be there solely for spiritual and emotional support.
Suggested Scripture: Sirach 6:5-17; Matt. 18:20; Gal. 6:2
Let go of what?
In suffering, we have a tendency to get stuck. We feel overwhelmed and want to hold on to what is comfortable, familiar, and secure. Even though our actions may not help our situation and might also make things worse, the security and sense of control we feel reinforces doing the same thing over and over again.
Letting go first means releasing the things we can’t change and working to improve those we can. At the spiritual level, we let go of attachments, distractions, things that lead us to sin, and anything that comes between God and us.
Suggested Scriptures: Luke 18: 18-30; I John 2:15-17
To trust in God is to believe in His truth, character, ability, and dependability.
In the last two blogs, we looked at two different obstacles to developing this trust. When we have faulty expectations, we hope for particular outcomes and responses from others. We expect God to fix our problems the way we want them fixed.
Then, we have our need for control. It’s not surprising we want to control things because when we’re suffering, things are often out of our control.
Fear is often at the root of these. On one occasion, when all seemed lost, Jesus told a synagogue official, “Fear is useless; what is needed is trust.” (Luke 8:50 NAB) I think Jesus would say to us the same thing.
Suggested Scriptures: Prov. 3:5,6; Matt. 6:25-34
When we’re hurting, giving thanks is one of the last things to cross our mind. We’re more likely to feel cheated, angry, or bitter. We have an unconscious expectation that life should be relatively free of trouble. When trials arrive, we develop a tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing God and the good in our lives. We focus on ourselves and become obsessed with what we don’t have.
A lack of appreciation starves and poisons our heart. If suffering is tied to loss, then gratitude becomes an antidote. Gratitude reminds us how wonderfully we are blessed; that the trials of this world are nothing compared to the glory to come; and that God can make something good come out of the worst life has to offer.
Suggested Scriptures: Psalm 136; James 1:2-3
Bloom where you are planted.
When hurting and depressed, we can feel as though part of us has died. We want to escape the time and place we’re in now and go somewhere where life will be better.
Sometimes changing location is a good idea. The problem comes when we expect something of the new situation that it can’t deliver.
No matter how devastated we feel, we still have life within us. We need to share this life, no matter how small the act may be. Give others a smile. Share a kind word. Show interest in someone else.
Wherever you find yourself, seek to give what you can, even when you must depend on others. Bloom (give of yourself; give life) where you are planted (today and in the place where you are). Don’t wait for tomorrow.
Quotation: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
Compassion seeks to understand others and bring relief to their suffering.
It’s natural to want to dwell on our own pain and misery, but doing so magnifies our problems so much that we can’t see anything else.
Showing compassion for others does the opposite. It gets the focus off ourselves and helps to shrink the enormity of our own struggles. It shows us that we still have something to offer. Through it, we participate in God’s divine life, for He is love. Finally, our difficulties can help us understand the suffering of others, and at times, makes us uniquely suited to help them.
Suggested Scriptures: Luke 6:27-36; Luke 10:29-37
When we stretch, we take something to its natural limit and then go just a bit further. We might think of this in the physical sense, but we can stretch spiritually, too. Stretching is just the kind of “exercise” we need when we’re hurting.
When we’re in distress, we tend to fall into survival or maintenance mode. In the spiritual life, however, there is no staying the same. Either we go forward and grow, or we fall backward.
In times of suffering, we can feel defeated, and our thinking can become self-defeating. We also can let the object or cause of our pain become so dominating that we allow it to define who we are.
There are many things we can’t control. Let’s not worry about them. Instead, we should work with the things we CAN change and try to go a bit further than where we are today. By stretching, we metaphorically stand up and say, “While this disease, event, or trial is now part of my life, I will not let it define who I am—because God made me and in Him, I know who I am!”
Suggested Scriptures: Matt. 15:21-28; John 16:33; II Corinthians 12: 7b-10
Make your life an offering.
The needs of the moment can appear overwhelming and the possibilities in this life so few. Despite our best, it seems we can go no further. Should we give up?
No! Instead, let everything you do or that happens to you become an offering to God. Even if what you have seems so small and insignificant in this world, know that the tiniest of offerings are pleasing and acceptable to God when they are made well. Follow the example of the widow who had only two small coins to offer yet offered them with all her heart. Like her, set your eyes on the Eternal.
Suggested Scriptures: Luke 21:1-4; Rom. 12:1; II Cor. 4:7-11
Finding Relief in Suffering: Part III is third of a three-part miniseries on suffering and part of a larger series on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.