In meditating on suffering for these posts, I’ve concluded that suffering is one of those topics that defies analysis. While the works of Joni Eareckson-Tada, C.S. Lewis, Lee Ezell and others* may help one understand why suffering exists, it’s only when one actually experiences suffering that the explanations become meaningful.
A wonderful friend of mine recently told me about being diagnosed with MS a few years ago. At the time her salary earned her six figures a year. She and her husband owned a home in the East Bay, plus two rentals in Florida. They decided to move to the Sierra foothills as a means of downsizing, thinking the rentals would serve to support them financially when she was forced to retire. Then the housing market took a dive. You can guess the rest.
My friend struggled tremendously with why God had allowed the domino-tumbling effects of their losses. Why, why, why?? Why had God allowed the MS? Why had God allowed them to get caught up in the housing crash, which affected their home and their Florida investments? What would tomorrow bring? After years of questioning, my friend, a lovely Christian woman, found an answer. “I didn’t pray before [all the calamity]; why pray? I had everything…I didn’t need God.” But the suffering they experienced forced her to turn to God. Lewis’s “megaphone of pain” made her pay attention to the health of her soul and its Creator, rather than her material life, which the Bible teaches is dust. While I know my dear friend still suffers, she now prays. And her new-found, deeper communion with God helps her get through the tough days.
Setting the intellectual responses aside, where is God when we suffer? My friend came to the truth of “Immanuel, God with us” honestly. Another honest pilgrim, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, tells a story in his book “Night” that concurs with this personal, actual, and very biblical response. In chapter 4, Wiesel tells of a young boy in the concentration camp who is hung for stealing a loaf of bread. As the prisoners are forced to witness the boy’s death (a “deterrent,” according to the commander), a voice in the crowd cries out, “Where is God?” The answer also comes from the crowd, “Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”
There are probably as many responses to suffering as there are people who suffer. For those who trust in Yahweh as Job did, however, two responses seem to flow naturally from that spiritual relationship. One is acceptance of what comes to us through the sovereign wisdom of God. The other is thanksgiving for the provision with which He will continue to sustain us. Both responses are summed up in Job’s classic response to his own catastrophe:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
I want to be careful here not to sound glib. Scripture should never be used as a pall to gloss over someone’s pain. But when our priorities are tweaked, as suffering often does, the results can be surprisingly uplifting. Knowing that Christ suffered for us can help us bear our own suffering. Knowing that Christ often prayed prayers of thanksgiving in the face of his pending arrest, trial, torture and death, shows us a dimension to suffering we would otherwise never know existed.
I want to share one last book, that has fast become a favorite. Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts” places life’s hardships in an entirely new light, and invites us to eucharisteo, a way of celebrating all that Christ does in our lives with thanksgiving:
Thanksgiving — giving thanks in everything. … The act of sacrificing thank offerings
to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares
the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives
and from all sin that estranges us from him. —One Thousand Gifts, pg. 40
Let us give thanks.
* Philip Yancey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Randy Alcorn, and Kay Arthur have all written excellent books about suffering.