Suffering as Opportunity

In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe - Flannery O'Connor
In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe – Flannery O’Connor

In his preface to Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster says that for a long time, he wanted to write on prayer, but thought it too presumptuous. “With many subjects it is perfectly acceptable to share one’s wonderings and wanderings,” he wrote, but when it came to prayer, he first wanted to learn more and to experience more.

Even more so, it seems presumptuous for me to write about suffering. I grew up in the relatively protected environment of my family with two parents, three sisters, and an extended family. I’ve never known extreme poverty, oppression, persecution, violence, or war. Sure, I’ve had my struggles, but next to the suffering of others, my own experience seems small. So at the risk of being presumptuous, I offer these “wonderings and wanderings” on suffering and Scripture as part of the MennoNerds synchro-blog on suffering,

It sometimes surprises me how suffering appears so matter-of-factly in Scripture. In 1 Kings 17, a widow and her son live in desperate circumstances, and the woman says to the prophet Elijah (verse 12), “I have… only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” The woman and her son are about to starve to death, yet it’s described calmly as a fact of life.

In 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, Paul describes his own life experience this way:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

Paul’s ministry had brought him terrible suffering, but he endured it all–apparently without even asking why.

In Scripture, being good or innocent offers no protection against suffering.  In his search for the infant Jesus, King Herod decides to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years old and under, whose only crime was being born at the wrong time in the wrong place  (Matthew 2:1-18). As an adult, Jesus commented on a terrible accident where a tower collapsed and killed 18 people. “Do you think [those people who were killed] were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” he asked his disciples. “I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:1-5).  Jesus himself said those people weren’t any more guilty than anyone else, but they and their families still suffered.

In fact, Scripture is quite clear that good people suffer. Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil,” yet still he suffered the loss of his livestock, his family, and even his own health (Job 1). Jesus himself was a good man–more than a good man, as he was “in every respect…tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), but that didn’t protect him from suffering the unfair criticisms of other people; the misunderstanding and betrayal by his closest friends; his arrest, torture, and excruciating death on the cross.

In his book on suffering, Can God Be Trusted?, John Stackhouse writes,

God suffers along with us, yes, and all suffering grieves God’s heart. But God also suffered directly in the life and death of Jesus. God experienced what we experience firsthand, in the flesh. We must never forget that when we argue with God about our own suffering or that of others. God has been there.

And then he quotes Dorothy Sayers: “For whatever reason God chose to make [us as we are]–limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death–[God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine” (Can God Be Trusted? 115).

Jesus predicted that his followers would also suffer. In Mark 10:30, Jesus promises his followers a new community of brothers and sisters, and they will receive eternal life, “along with persecutions.” In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11).  James 1:2 adds, “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds.”  It’s not “if” you are persecuted or “if” you face trials, but “when” you are persecuted, “when” you face trials.

So in Scripture, even for Christians–maybe even especially for Christians–suffering is not an option. It is not an elective. It affects everyone–from those humanly speaking that we might call innocent and undeserving, and those humanly speaking we might think of as evil and deserving of punishment. As Matthew 5:45 says, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Suffering is an expected part of faith and life.

We might blame suffering on the devil, we might blame it on the fallen nature of the world, we might blame it on humanity’s free will and our own bad choices. But in the book of Job and elsewhere in Scripture, these answers prove less than satisfying. In Job 38, God turns the tables and questions Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:4)  “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place…?” (38:12) “Can you bring forth constellations in their seasons….? (38:32) “Do you know the laws of the heavens?  Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”  (38:33).

Instead of a nice neat answer about the why of suffering, the book of Job focuses on the who.  It sets our limited understanding of who we are as human beings next to the great power of God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe. The central question is not why God allows suffering, but who is God and who are we in the suffering that is part of human life.

I appreciate the perspective of Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers (315f):

The early Christians…do not seem to be puzzled or even perturbed by evil as a theoretical problem.  When they encountered persecution or illness, they never asked, [Why did God let this happen?]….The burning question for them was not why but how: How has God used this evil for good?  How has God turned sin into salvation?  How has God triumphed over the Powers through the cross?

Likewise, persecution did not evoke surprised reactions of ‘Why me?’  The early Christians expected to be persecuted: they were surprised when they were not!  For them, the question was not why but how long.

One example of this is Revelation 6:10, where those who were persecuted for their faith “cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood…’”

If we understand suffering as part of life; that suffering comes to everyone, even to those who are as good and as innocent as humanly possible; that suffering is not so much about the why but about the who and the how–if we take seriously the example of early Christians who were not surprised by suffering but who saw it as part of their faith and life–then instead of asking why is there suffering? perhaps a better question might be, how can we meet suffering as an act of faith?

I’ve been challenged by the American writer and Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor, who was in poor health for much of her life. She lived with the chronic pain of lupus, and died at the age of 39. Out of her own experience of suffering, she wrote in a letter to a friend,

In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.

I’m sure most of us would rather take that long trip to Europe than be sick.  At least I would! And maybe Flannery O’Connor felt that way too at least some of the time. But somehow she also learned to see the opportunity in suffering, to understand it as instructive, to experience it as one of God’s mercies.

I’m no masochist actively looking for an opportunity to suffer. I believe that Jesus came to put an end to suffering and death as he says in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But where suffering is still an unavoidable part of this life, I pray for God’s grace to meet it as an act of faith–to receive suffering as an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to cultivate a new way of living, to see beyond the why of suffering to the who and the how.

2 thoughts on “Suffering as Opportunity

    1. I appreciate your affirmation here, Deborah. This article has also struck a chord with a number of subscribers who have shared personal stories or comments by email. I’m grateful for all of the responses.

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