The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Conclusion)
Suffering is an inevitable event in everyone’s life. And death and dying presents each of us with an existential problem. How we make sense of these events makes all the difference in how we live through them. It is normal to dislike and fear painful experiences, so it is understandable that most of us learn to see suffering and death as things to avoid; and few of us learn from others that there can be any value and importance to be found in suffering. In fact, the opposite is typically the case, we learn that suffering has no value at all, and is just something you have to sometimes put up with; and we learn to spend our energy simply trying to fix these problems as best we can, and then get on with living. Our focus and effort is entirely spent upon getting out of the suffering as quickly as possible. But what if we could learn—and teach one another—that suffering, and even death, bring with them a wealth of value for those who understand them in a different way; and that we can do more than simply focus on the remedies for our suffering. In fact, we can actually do vastly more than just work on fixing the problem.
However, the notion that suffering can be valuable is so anathema to the world’s way of looking at it, that even bringing up that possibility can often be met by confused looks, and accusations that one is either crazy or maybe even masochistic. One can be accused of laziness if they accept suffering, or they may be told to ‘pull yourself out of it’ if they spend too much time struggling over death and its effects. These things can be so uncomfortable to people—and seen only as tragedies by them—that they admonish others if they don’t fight against suffering. It is as though the only acceptable way to see suffering is as an enemy. It is common to hear how valiantly someone fought against a disease; but rarely will we hear how valiantly someone sat quietly in their suffering and then discovered a new depth of relationship with our Creator. This isn’t intended to say anything against fighting for health and life—which are very good and desirable things—but only to say that suffering also provides more opportunities than we often give it credit. And without a concept, an intellectual framing of the potential merit that can be found within suffering, it will be more difficult for us to discover the positive possibilities it can reveal to us.
I would like to share several stories of people whom I’ve met that have suffered intensely and have responded in ways that illustrate some of the points I am making here. While volunteering in the neurological trauma wing of a rehabilitation center, I met a young man who had been in a motorcycle accident. After spending several months in intensive care at a local hospital he had finally been transferred for additional help at this rehab center, before hopefully being sent home. He had come a long way, but had a long way further to go in his recovery, and many skills and abilities he would most likely never regain. Among a host of physical issues, he also suffered severe trauma to several parts of his brain. He was no longer able to read or write, though he could still speak well, and remembered enough vocabulary to carry on a conversation. Over several months we became friends and he shared a lot with me about his life, the accident, and his subsequent recovery. He acknowledged that the abilities he had lost were significant but he never seemed to get overcome by despair or sorrow about his suffering. I came to admire him and found his overall cheery disposition in the face of his difficulties very remarkable. I asked him about this and his response was equally remarkable. He told me that the accident was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Prior to it he had been an angry and violent person; none of his relationships were any good. He could never keep a girlfriend because they would always argue, and he was a mean person. But, he continued, since the accident he had become kind and patient, and he was nearly always happy and grateful. His relationships had all improved, especially with his family. Even though his life was harder now, and he probably would never be able to do many things he took for granted before, he said he would never exchange what he had now, to go back to his life before the accident. For this young man, who had endured what would be considered a horrible tragedy, he framed the suffering he endured in a positive way and even saw it as good fortune. The suffering was more than simply something to get through—or to solve—but was the very thing that helped him discover a better life, and had—in his words—turned him into a better person.
In contrast to this response to suffering, there is another young man whom I’ve known for several years who struggles mightily against his suffering, and appears to add immense pain to his experience by his adverse reaction to his circumstances. He suffers from a number of chronic conditions which cause him constant pain throughout his joints, neck, and vertebrate; in addition, he has suffered with intense migraines for years, as well as pervasive joint dislocations due to degenerative connective tissue, the pain of which make work and socializing difficult. Added to these physical issues, he is also very lonely and isolated, with no close personal ties. With no siblings, and parents who suffer from substance abuse and have neglected him since childhood, he has no network of relatives, or friendships to rely upon. The circumstances of his suffering are understandably overwhelming and have worn him down over the years and yet thankfully he is blessed with an acute intellect and a fantastic sense of humor, along with a will to fight. However, due to other emotional challenges he is very prone to anger and reacts as though the world and everyone in it is to blame for his problems; and he is unwilling to accept personal responsibility for his life or his choices. For him, his suffering and pain is seen as completely unfair and unjust, with no meaning or purpose to it at all. He only sees the myriad ways in which his suffering deprives him of the life he wants—and feels he deserves—and he can see no positive potential in it. In many respects he is living in a delusion, somehow hoping that somebody will come and fix everything for him; and it is very much as though he is waiting to start living his life after he is healed of all his sufferings. He sees his suffering as the sole impediment to living his life, and he can’t seem to consider the fact that his suffering is likely to accompany him along his life’s entirety. So, in the meantime—until this fabled cure of all his problems arrives—he isn’t truly living in honest response to the reality with which he is faced.
As a final illustration showing the importance of our response to suffering, I have known a middle-aged woman who for decades has suffered through a number of chronic health issues. They grew so severe that she was eventually forced to quit her job, and they have also greatly impacted her daily activities at home, as well as in her social settings. Her entire life has been drastically impacted by these circumstances and she has struggled to try to maintain living life in the way she feels she should—in the ways which others expect her to live. Because of societal pressures to be ‘normal’, she has often discounted her own experience with her suffering, and has tried to maintain a false façade of health instead, in order to be more acceptable to others. She also misses her old life and what she could do, and who she was, before these chronic issues began. Because of this, she has spent a great deal of energy trying to rid herself of her suffering, by a wide variety of means, at an additional cost to her mental, emotional and financial well-being. She also internalized, to some degree, the notion that her suffering was her own fault. So, she also felt obligated to fight it in order to prove to others that she didn’t accept it and hadn’t given in to it. But since she could find no ultimate victory over her suffering—in the sense of full physical healing—she often felt even more defeated and unhappy, and even despaired because of it. Sadly, much of the pressure to shed her suffering and to fight against it, has come from within the Church. Other Christians have failed to offer acceptance of her, or to express understanding of the role of suffering; but rather they have seen her suffering as an indication of something wrong, possibly a lack of faith, or even as a sign of rebellion against God. Thankfully however, the traditions of the Church, the life of the saints, and the example of Christ have all been a great guide to her as she has navigated through all of these challenges. Recently, she has expressed to me a deepening understanding of the role of suffering in her life. She now expresses a wisdom and understanding of the value of suffering, which would be beneficial for everyone to discover. She has this to say about it:
“Through the example of Christ, the Church, and the saints I’ve learned to agree to suffer for the sake of my continued upward ascent into theosis. First I agreed to submit to it. Later I learned to be grateful for it. Now I am learning to be at peace, with whatever comes, whether health or infirmity. Once I accepted that suffering was inevitable and realized how useful it was, I actually started to experience joy in the midst of it and a gradual movement away from my focus being on my sickness. In a way the sickness has moved to the background of my life. It has become a mere backdrop on the stage where my life story plays out. I am actually grateful for it now because of the things it is teaching me.”
It is clear from these illustrations that we need a better working understanding of the role of suffering in our lives, and the beneficial role it can play in our relationships with others and with God. As Renos Papadopoulos says, “[Suffering] can aid us to transform and widen our epistemology to locate us in the wider context of God’s creation. And this is, in effect, what metanoia means…changing our nous…provided that we open our hearts and follow his will and not our own will, that expands our perspective and time-frame. Then adversity not only will not harm us, but actually it will enrich us.” (Papa, Compliance & Resistance) If we are focused only on the here and now, and if we are convinced that only this world has value for us, then it can be impossible to expand our understanding to include all of God’s creation, including eternal life; but suffering can provide just such an opportunity to widen our perspective. “The pain of suffering can lead us to greater patience, and also deepen the bonds of love between us and others…consolation rises in our heart and can offer a deeper intensity of experience even than that of our suffering.” (cf. Nikolaos, 80) Understanding the role of suffering can help us to refrain from fighting against it quite so much, and to allow it to do its work within us, even as we may also work to alleviate it. “Suffering, death, and the destruction of the life we’ve known, all can yield a new life that is truer, relationships that are more authentic, and a more profound communion with God.” (cf. Nikolaos, 64)
Even though most of us would profess that we desire to live lives that are truer, have relationships that are more authentic, and have a more profound relationship with God, the fact is that most of us like living our lives in this world as we always have, and have little desire to really change. We live in fear of death and we struggle against suffering in order to maximize our pleasure and our other desires in this world; in effect, we live greatly alienated from one another and certainly from God. In order to break free from this alienation, this exile from the kingdom of God, we often need the sort of involuntary help that suffering and death bring. To make the journey out of our isolated and self-centered existence we need the help of God, because most of us would never turn and take such a journey if we weren’t confronted with no other good option. It would appear that our salvation requires sacrifice (but only in the cause of love). “Love corrupted into selfishness or self-centeredness shatters the unity of a single nature from which grows genuine communion. The biblical fall brings about the ruin of the original imago Dei.” (Guroian, 115) To find our way back to our original love means the death of our old nature; as scripture says, our old man must die and be reborn in order to live anew. This process of rebirth, is a transformation of our whole being, “Inasmuch as God is purging the soul according to its interior and exterior faculties, the soul must be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty, and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness.” (Sakharov, 182) As Soren Kierkegaard says: “The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate to powers beyond itself….to the Ultimate Power of Creation which made finite creatures.” (Becker, 89)
As scripture says, there is a time for everything; there are times for comfort but there are also times for discomfort. Jesus speaks about making our burdens light, and yet we are also called to bear our cross for his sake. In our selfishness, most of us desire to increase our comfort and extend the times for our leisure, while decreasing discomfort and minimizing our time spent in suffering. But God desires deep communion with us and will continue to reach out to us, to draw us out of our self-imposed exile here. Jesus Christ does not only offer to make our burden lighter, but he promises to be our way into the kingdom of God. He offers Himself as the persona of truth, and the essence of home. Christianity and Christology is not so much a doctrine of comfort, and is not intended to be mere comfort, but more importantly it is an existential truth about life and death. (cf. Nikolaos, 210)
“Christ died for the sins of all to remove the curse of guilt and abolish death, with its sting of emptiness and desolation. Through his dying and our participation in it, death has been transformed into a passage to eternal life. Death that was the wages of sin becomes the end of sins. God does not remove all the pain and anguish of living or dying—Christ himself experienced much pain and anguish—but the resurrection means that God reaches even into the hollowness of nonexistence…to confer life.” (Guroian, 100)
Suffering is able to bring many of us to heights of love and faith that we’d otherwise never consider attempting. And “…faith in the divinity of Christ and in His resurrection is the best way to interpret suffering, the best tool for dealing with death, the best instrument of consolation and support.” (Nikolaos, 212) Even Ernest Becker, who lived and wrote from a non-religious and secular point of view agrees with the ultimate value of a religious framework for addressing our existential problem of death and dying:
“…religion solves the problem of death…religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach…it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter….Religion takes one’s very creatureliness, one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope.” (Becker, 204)
Seeing suffering, death and dying through the lens of Christ can open the doors of our heart, which enables us to see with the eyes of our soul. From this vantage point, temporal life in this world can be seen within its proper context, in relation to our ultimate eternal life with God. As our heart opens in faith, we can begin to heal from the estrangement, alienation and disorientation of a life lived focused on ourselves and this world, and this brings us into deeper relationship with others and with God. Vigen Guroian writes the following beautiful insight regarding this healing:
“The Son brings the love of the Father into this world, and the Holy Spirit inspires this love and spreads it among all who believe in the Son. The gift of the Holy Spirit reduces not only the gap that sin and death have brought about between God and humanity, but also remedies the division of humanity into selves who are existentially alienated from one another and die spiritually for want of love.” (Guroian, 110)
It is a role of suffering and dying to help us open our hearts to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to allow the gift of God’s grace to live within us, making His home in us. And suffering can stimulate the reconciliation within us which helps us to turn away from this worldly place of exile, away from our ‘old man’, and to turn back to ourselves and back to God as a new creature. St Sophrony had great hope in the ability of suffering to help transform the world, as an aspect of mankind’s redemption. He writes:
“…desolation and the tragedy of suffering may well contribute to a vast and widespread spiritual renaissance in a great multitude of souls. The light of this hope is all the brighter in that suffering opens up the way for mighty prayer….Prayer of this kind is worthy of God, and it continually moves man to greater knowledge of God and His action in the heart of man….Prayer of this kind becomes a conductor of divine revelation, redeeming the temporal life of man…” (Zacharias, 79)
Attaining to the love that heals—the God of love—is the goal of man’s life in this world. Most of us live estranged from this truth and are lost in seeking myriad of other ends. Suffering and death can reorient us and bring us into true relationship with the truths of life that are found in the God of truth—Jesus Christ. And this reconciliation is the beginning of a new life lived in the dwelling place of God. “Reconciliation is the most crucial thing for the dying, irrespective of whether or not the person is religious or secular….Forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial for [the] healing process—both reconciliation with others, and reconciliation with one’s own past.” (Guroian, 87) And I would add reconciliation with God as well—the source of all healing.
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