One question that comes up very often in pastoral care is “Why?” More specifically: Why does God let me languish in a job I hate? Why do I pray and nothing seems to happen? Why did this dear person die? Why did that bad thing happen?
Sometimes even our best “theological” answers still fail to satisfy or even dress the wounds, let alone heal. But we must admit that the church in America often poorly addresses the ideas of pain and suffering in our culture and our world. The church has not adequately taught or dealt with these realities, leaving us with one bewildering question: “Why God?” In that void of any practical theology for pain and suffering sometimes it’s easy to find disappointment with God.
“The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not.”
― C.S. Lewis
I was fresh out of college and working at a sawmill for the summer while looking for my first professional job. A stock market crash had happened just a few months earlier; needless to say jobs were hard to come by, so there I was for about 6 months doing a hard and humble job, wondering about my future, and asking “Why?” There was an old man at the sawmill who often said something that stuck with me: “Life’s hard, but it’s fair.” I’ve never forgotten that. Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33), Job said “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10) Both passages tell us one thing. A world without pain and suffering is an unrealistic fantasy, at least at this current time.
In delving into suffering, we find accounts of those “Suffering Saints,” and they call them “Suffering Saints” for a reason. There almost always seems to be a paradox of miracles and suffering in the lives of the saints. We too seem to walk in this paradox. We see the hardships in people’s lives and yet we also see things from time to time that can’t be explained as anything less than a miracle. The biggest problem when suffering comes our way is that we are uncomfortable with it at best, or we seek to avoid it altogether, which includes avoiding or ignoring the person suffering, because we’re at a loss of what to do or say. There are no microwave answers. At their best, the experiences of the saints of the church are an example of patience and trust in how they lived as we endure our own questions and struggles.
So what can we do? As with the saints, one great attribute we can bring into helping others is our own experiences; this is one of the few benefits of getting older, losing a loved one, or suffering chronic pain. Any pain and disappointment we have weathered becomes useful in guiding others on their path of dealing with pain or suffering. After the sawmill I did get into my profession, first as a day counselor for troubled adolescents, then as a crisis counselor and social worker, and, finally, as a pastor and priest. I have found that some of my most effective tools have been experience and empathy.
J.I. Packer states
“God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your ‘thorn’ uncomplainingly — that is, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak — is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace.”
― J.I. Packer
The weaker we are, the harder we lean. Your own suffering is, perhaps, your best tool for helping others and teaching a healthy doctrine of pain and suffering, through empathy and understanding. Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Similarly, we might say “Blessed are they who realize things are not the way they should be…one day they will,” or “Blessed are they who trust God to chisel them, for they will be made into His image.”
As ordained and lay leaders we want to help others realize realistic and reasonable life expectations while also empathetically validating people’s disappointments and pain, teaching people that God is not angry at them but that everyone deals with difficulties, and modeling how to deal with disappointment or pain by drawing nearer to God, learning to trust, and practicing reliance upon Him in difficulty. Finally, we want to reassure others of God’s unfailing love, even in all circumstances, the kind of love that nothing can separate us from.
One useful reflection to help us do this is found in the second part of the serenity prayer associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. It does not answer all of the questions to pain and suffering, yet it applies to all of us who suffer grief and ask questions:
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Often I have to practice “taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it…” and, for many of us who struggle with suffering and hardships, following Jesus’ steps is our best pathway to peace.