What's So Good About Suffering?
A few weeks ago, my father was hospitalized for heart attack symptoms that might have been stroke symptoms that then turned out to be symptoms of something utterly inexplicable. My father, who suffered a massive heart attack in January 2009, and, against all odds and by the grace of God (he flat-lined twice), went on to survive subsequent surgeries and procedures and scares — always against all odds and by God’s grace. Though my father continues to survive and in many ways thrive, every hospitalization is a reminder that life is precious and short and tomorrow is not guaranteed to us.
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This development has left me crying out to God, “Why? I know you don’t have to answer that, but … why?” This question reveals my heart: despite having known real and intense suffering in my life, I still live under the illusion that it is not normal. It’s been commonly reported, discussed, and parodied that those of us in the west, particularly in America, have no concept of how to deal with suffering. For many of us, even minor inconveniences — those “first world problems” like slow Internet access or traffic — feel like suffering in a relatively peaceful and easy world.
But as a Christian, I’m confronted by Scripture that reminds me that suffering will be part of our lives. And I’m confronted by the tendency — which I am sure that I share with many of my sisters and brothers — to shun it, preferring Gospels without suffering instead.
Yet, without being perverse, learning how to properly relate to suffering has deepened my faith — and my family’s faith — immensely. I know it’s been written by many others in more articulate ways, but I don’t know of any other way to develop character than through suffering. I don’t know of any other way to know Christ deeply, than to share in his sufferings. Yes, it’s wonderful to experience the “fullness of joy” and pleasures at God’s right hand. But experiencing that fullness of joy in the middle of the dark nights of wondering how I’ll live without my father or, when I was out of work, how I would pay my bills, has fundamentally shaped my character.
I have seen how my father’s recent suffering has shaped his character, though he was already a man of integrity. Yet there is now a very welcome gentleness to his often stubborn and fiery personality that has enabled us to have a better relationship. Before the heart attack, I’d rarely call home to speak to my father. Now, I find myself seeking prayer and counsel from him more regularly.
I have seen how God can be good in the middle of suffering. My parents have spent their lives serving the poor and marginalized in lower Manhattan. They do not have a lot of influence or even great health insurance, yet somehow circumstances have aligned for my father’s case to be repeatedly taken up by the best cardiologists and neurologists at his hospital. That goodness extends to the myriad people who have walked alongside us and helped to carry our burdens to God.
I have seen how suffering brought out my hidden fears and how God has calmed them. Facing loss forces you to consider whether what you believe about God is true or a comforting fairy tale. It is impossible to prepare yourself for a parent’s passing, and I confess that when God calls my parents home, those days will be among the worst of my life. But God will still be with me, and more importantly, I believe my parents will be finally with God, free of suffering, getting to see Jesus face to face.
I have seen how suffering has made me more compassionate to others who suffer. People who have suffered learn that the most comforting words must come from the Comforter. Nothing stings more in the middle of a painful season than hearing tone-deaf admonitions and vain platitudes. I’ve learned that it’s better to be quiet and prayerful and sit in the middle of the agony than to offer any kind of wisdom or advice. That’s how you comfort others with the comfort you’ve received and you can only learn it through suffering.
I have seen how suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope . When you see how life can go on, how it’s possible for joy and grief to exist at the same time, you learn trust, patience, hope. The constant test of our faith has taught us that hope remains until the very end — and even then, we hope in a God who calls things that are not as though they were and brings life from the dead. It is hard to forget God’s faithfulness when every day with my father is a reminder of it.
But mostly, I have seen how experiencing suffering shows God’s glory in ways in which were not possible otherwise. Perhaps it’s another American conceit, but we expect that with the right inputs, we’ll get the right outputs. That’s not how life actually works, and, in my experience, that is not how God works. In Scripture we’re told that when we partake in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory. Nothing shows God’s glory more than at the very least things not going to plan, than the outputs not matching the inputs, or at the very worst, a massive, heartbreaking snafu … and yet there’s grace. Sometimes God’s intervention is miraculous. Sometimes it’s ordinary, just God’s mind-blowing goodness showing up in the form of a friend or a “lucky break.” Suffering provides an opportunity for us and others to see God more clearly. Which is why I’m telling this story.
My father continues to live by the grace of God. He receives the best care despite not having the resources or influence or even the will to demand it. My pastor likes to say that God is terrible at meeting our expectations but is great at exceeding them. Our expectations were that God would keep my father in great health until he died. Yet what we’ve gotten instead are multiple opportunities to see God’s glory.
Juliet Vedral is press secretary for Sojourners.