Thoughts on Suffering & Hope

In response to a comment below (italicized) referring to my last post, I offer not an answer, but some thoughts. I write humbly, as I am certainly no theologian or expert in these matters: 

Let’s see, how can I ask this without sounding, I don’t know, cynical? I am genuinely wondering: How does it help to know that Jesus is with us when we are going through a tough time? We always say this during tough times, but if the situation doesn’t change, as in a death or a mentally ill person or a broken marriage…how does it make one feel better to know “Jesus is with me.” Mind you, I have been in tough, painful situations where I have distinctly felt peace, the presence of the Lord. And have even gotten signs or I have felt my heart speak to me and I feel that’s God. But there have also been times where I don’t feel that. How is the knowledge of Jesus with me supposed to make me feel better? I guess I should ask: What am I doing wrong?

There are no easy answers to this question- sometimes knowing that Jesus is with us through suffering just doesn’t feel like enough. Sometimes that fact doesn’t reach from our heads to our hearts. We don’t feel the inner peace or reassurance that everything is going to be okay, because, well, maybe it’s not going to be okay. Maybe our situation is unchangeable, or feels hopeless, is downright tragic- like those situations mentioned in the comment above.

I think this question needs to be asked, though, because so often in the Christian world, we don’t acknowledge it. We are uncomfortable acknowledging or admitting pain or hopelessness. We think we are doing something wrong when that peaceful feeling isn’t there, when we’ve run out of hope. We think it’s our fault. We think we should have pat answers to everything, or that we have to come into church smiling from ear to ear. I believe that this is a fallacy in many churches- especially in the U.S.- the idea that once we are Christians it’s all easy and nothing bad happens to us. Or that we at least have to pretend that nothing bad happens to us. (Note: I am not going to delve into the question of why suffering exists…because then this will turn into a book, and there are already plenty of books on that topic…like The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis, for one).

The truth is, Christian or not, life isn’t perfect. It is a constant journey. There are days when we feel it, there are days when we don’t. There are days when it works out, and there are days when it doesn’t. We don’t receive life wrapped up in a beautiful, sparkling, perfect gift box and handed to us. Life can be (and often is) messy, scary, unpredictable, difficult to handle. Tragic things happen. We all have times where we feel hopeless, which is when we need Jesus in the form of a friend, a significant other, a therapist or counselor, even, to sit with us in the suffering, to remind us of the truths that we can’t hear or feel.

And the greater truth that I believe is that even in the midst of our moments (or weeks, months, years) of hopelessness and suffering, God is working. We can’t see the bigger picture all the time, and sometimes not at all. But God is constantly working through us and in us to redeem this broken world. God is changing us individually, even through suffering at times, if we are open to it.  Even our view of suffering is transformed by God’s presence. Franciscan priest, author,  and speaker Richard Rohr says, “Suffering and solidarity with the suffering of others has an immense capacity to ‘make room’ inside of us. It is probably our primary spiritual teacher.”  (From Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent- a little book I highly recommend!)

Not to say that God causes suffering, but that God uses suffering to make us into who we are to be.  And the more we become who we are meant to be, the more God can use us to help heal this broken world.

That is the truth that the song about Emmanuel reminded me of in my last post. Jesus is present, Jesus has walked through the pain and suffering that we experience now. Jesus felt hopeless and abandoned at times. But ultimately, Jesus knew the truth that God has put in Him: God was and is redeeming us and this world and creating something good out of something broken. God’s kingdom is at hand- as Jesus told us- it is now and it is constantly coming. The Bible is full of detailed explanations of this promise (Check out Isaiah 25:6-10, for example).

So, it’s not just that Jesus is standing with us in our pain, though sometimes that’s enough. But Jesus’ coming into this world was a sign that God is not only present, God is working in the world and there is goodness and hope.

I love how Richard Rohr puts it: “The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now on another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves. We are able to trust that he will come again, just as Jesus has come into our past, into our private dilemmas, and into our suffering world” (also from Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent).

So much easier said than done, of course, but it is a process. God (and also my husband) knows I certainly haven’t gotten it down…I wail and complain like all the rest of us at the tiniest bit of pain, or when things don’t go my way. But I know we don’t arrive all at once. We gain a little faith, a little more hope, and then we backslide a bit. We makes some more progress, and then feel hopeless yet again. That is the Christian journey, and we do our best to take it one day at a time, giving ourselves grace along the way.

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About micalagh

I am a writer, a social worker, a therapist, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a soon-to-be mother...I am continually growing and learning in each of these roles. I am seeking to learn how to love others better and to enjoy the small things of life, to see God in everything and everyone around me.
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6 Responses to Thoughts on Suffering & Hope

  1. Jim Davis says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve thought about your reader’s question as well: Does knowing God make a difference when we’re hurting? I agree that it absolutely makes a difference.

    To take a silly example, assume a Christian and a non-Christian, otherwise identical, are hit on the head with a hammer. They are both going to have ferocious headaches. Knowing God wouldn’t make the hammer any less heavy or the skull any less brittle. However, the Christian doesn’t hurt alone; Christ lives in him and hurts with him. The Christian knows the day will come when there will be no more suffering. And the Christian’s suffering comes with the knowledge that he is secure in the love of Christ. Moreover, the Christian can trust that God can use his pain for good: to draw him closer to God, to mold him more into Christ’s image, to glorify the name of God, to equip him to minister to other people with headaches, and even to make him more joyful.

    The unbeliever has no such assurance. Suffering to him is meaningless, profitless, random, and lonely.

    I know I’m going to get hit on the head with a hammer in this life. Avoiding it isn’t a choice. The choice is whether I’m going to suffer with God or without Him. I choose with.

  2. I LOVE this post, Micalagh – what a well-articulated way to capture how we are to live in the tensions of life, the unanswered questions and heartache, while still believing in Hope. Thanks for that…a lot of truth there 🙂

  3. Excellent Micalagh! I so appreciate your sharing, teaching, thoughtfulness, and resources. Wow…and I love that God is not only with us, He is working!!! Such hope in that…

  4. Micalagh, we do so often want to AVOID pain. We try to avoid feeling it whenever we can.

    There also seems to be a myth out that there that Christians – “good Christians” who are right with God will be successful, prosperous, and avoid sickness, pain, and trouble. Somehow a magical God will give them everything that a successful American wants. If bad things happen to you like sickness, you lose your home, business, children, marriage – you are “right” with God. YOU, or maybe GOD is to blame. ACK! I get so angry at that thinking.

    As you, Jim, and others have said, being a Christian, believing in God is not a magical formula to make sure we get what we want or that our heads won’t be broken by hammers. Oh no, those things will happen to the “good” and “bad” alike. But for us who are believers it simply means we have a path through the pain, we have community/community with us through the pain, and we have hope.

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