As a new pastor (many years ago now), I welcomed my church to a Sunday evening bible study. Only a few people showed up at first, but we had the occasional visitor. A tall, red-haired man and his wife showed up, and sat down listening while slightly uncomfortable. The subject that night was the New Testament teaching on suffering, and how suffering is seen as beneficial, for it develops character.
We read Romans 5, “Tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” (Rom 5:3-4). And Paul in Acts, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22) And James, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
The red-haired man finally spoke: “That is a load of crap. I have suffered pain for the last five years, a degenerative condition in my back and neck that leaves me immobile for days. I function as well as I can, but often I can’t do anything. And I’m here to tell you, my pain and ‘tribulation’ hasn’t improved my character one bit. In my suffering I am only more irritable, irrational, frustrated and hateful. My wife hates who I’ve become and no one visits me because I’ve become a miserable wretch. So don’t give me some fairy tale about suffering developing character. That’s naïve bullshit.”
It seems that I gave him some platitudes and unsatisfying dogmatics that night, but I don’t really remember much about my response. I’ve never forgotten his honest evaluation of the text, however. It’s easy for a young person who hasn’t undergone chronic suffering to quote and evaluate texts in the Bible and to express an opinion, but until one has actually suffered our opinion doesn’t count for much. We should listen to Paul, Jesus, James and others in the NT because they knew what they were talking about. They understood suffering, and knew the consequence. But they gave us little more than summaries of their experience. Not enough for a person unexperienced with trauma to comfort anyone.
Since my experience with the red-haired man, I have had a number of encounters with suffering. I’ve suffered chronic, deep pain with gallstones and an inflamed appendix. I’ve had sciatica which shot pain through my leg for weeks at a time. I’ve experienced a decade of depression. I’ve been rejected by my friends and co-workers, accused of all kinds of immoral and criminal activity. I’ve had the police, the homeless and the mentally ill scream threats at my face. I’ve encountered the deaths of too many of my friends and seen my wife suffer because of a lifestyle that has been hard on both of us. I don’t say this in order to obtain sympathy, but to establish my qualifications: After the last two decades, I have gained the right to draw some conclusions about suffering that I was unable to say as a young pastor.
1. Suffering benefits no one if it disregards our responsibility
Often when we suffer, we are looking for the cause of our anguish. That makes sense, because if we find the cause of pain, then we can often resolve it. All too often, however, we think that the cause of our anguish is the final trigger of us snapping, rather than the chronic precursors. It is easy to blame my child’s noise for my anger, instead of my overwork or the constant pain in my back. I blame my child, not because she is the real cause of my suffering, but because she will accept my blame and agree with my evaluation. If I blame causes that have no real solution, or no easy solution, then I cannot give myself the temporary satisfaction of having “solved” the problem. Suffering can allow us to misjudge the source of our suffering because we find the true source to be difficult to find. This is self-deception, and perpetuates our mental anguish.
When we suffer, our natural response is to pass that suffering on to others. We don’t mean to cause others to suffer, we simply want to reduce our own suffering by controlling others’ actions. In our mental anguish, the only way we find to control others is by increasing their suffering. As if our suffering excuses our causing suffering in others. What we don’t understand is that if we increase others’ suffering, then those around us will be miserable, isolated, and respond to us with increasing our suffering in turn. This cycle of suffering producing suffering comes back against us, and we end lonely, bitter, and angry. This end result of this cycle is that we become a small, shriveled, black mass of hate.
3. Suffering is a benefit if it teaches us to lessen ourselves
The first lesson we must learn from our anguish is that we are weak. We are not failures, we are not corrupt, but we are weak and we can accomplish nothing in and of ourselves. We need to stop thinking that we are the power in our world, that we do our work of our own power or ability. Suffering teaches us humility. It teaches us the need for rest, because we are unable to function without a Sabbath. It teaches us the need for community, because we are unable to function without others to support and take our place when our suffering is too great. It teaches us to depend on God, for only God never fails, is always strong.
4. Suffering is beneficial if through it we accomplish God’s will
An acquaintance of mine has suffered with fibro myalgia for years. For those who do not know, FM is daily pain, some days worse than others, where the cause is unknown and it is incurable. She is also the mother of two, one of whom is autistic. These children are her life, and she has the most remarkable parental wisdom I have ever heard. She is not a perfect parent, but she is an amazing person because of her focus on her children. For a person in great pain, she is full of love and is so inventive. Her suffering sometimes limits her because when she has a bad day, she is unable to function at all. But she has others who help her, her husband and a small group of friends. She is an inspiration to many, not just because of her pain, but because she knows what God’s will is for her life—raising her children—and she pours her energy into that work, not allowing her ailment to stop her. This gives her a strength of character and wisdom that without her suffering and work she might never obtain.
5. Suffering is beneficial if it drives us toward empathy
I have seen a wrong attitude toward the poor cripple people. Many people have a poor view of the homeless. Some think that the homeless are criminals, lazy, worth nothing. Many of these people become homeless themselves. Some do not change their opinions. Some homeless steal, and they think that all homeless are like that; some homeless leave piles of trash and they think they all do that. In that way, they also hate themselves, because they see themselves as a part of this horrible group. Others become homeless and it opens their eyes. Suddenly, they understand that the homeless are a compassionate, supportive group, struggling to survive against the odds. These homeless use their suffering to empathize, to have compassion, to understand others’ pain and struggle. When I was in the depths of my depression, I stumbled into a pornography addiction. This allowed me to understand the addiction of many people that I knew, and gave me the compassion to deal with them gently, to have the wisdom and strength to help them make better decisions. Suffering can help our neighbor if it increases our love.