For over a century now, scientists have been dedicating their labors to the alleviation of suffering, with such success that the average person in a civilized country today can go through life without ever experiencing severe pain. For example, the extraction of teeth used to be a form of torture, but I had a molar drawn a few weeks ago and felt no pain at all. Of course, there are exceptions. Child birth, for instance. And how about cancer, muscular dystrophy, and many other diseases that seem to be worse now than they used to be? Also we must bear in mind that while the medical doctors are working hard to improve the health of mankind, prolong life and relieve pain, another set of scientists are devising fiendish methods of destruction, by which the whole human race could be exterminated in a matter of hours, so that, in fact, life on this planet is more precarious today than it has ever been before.
Anyway, if you extend the meaning of suffering to include mental and spiritual pain, then we are none of us exempt. Suffering is one of the terms of our human condition. Our minds and spirits, as well as our bodies, are vulnerable. We can be hurt by our circumstances. Other people can hurt us, deliberately or accidentally. Our loved ones can hurt us. We can hurt ourselves, and it is surprising how much of our suffering is of our own making. The more sensitive we are, the more vulnerable.
The Lord does not want us to suffer – that’s obvious! No loving father enjoys seeing his children in pain. On the other hand, pain can serve a use, insofar as it is a warning sign that something is wrong. I remember hearing a story when I was a child, about a man who was granted a wish, and his wish was that he should never experience pain. Later, he was sitting by an open fire and fell asleep, and a red hot coal fell on his foot and burnt it away, and of course he never felt a thing. Too bad! Pain sends us to the doctor when something goes wrong; it is a useful indicator. But even when pain does not serve any specific use, it can, if properly handled, deepen our lives and give us opportunities for inward growth which would never come our way if everything was sunny and we never had a trouble in the world.
How true it is that, when everything goes well, we tend to ride lightly on the surface of life, and not put down any roots at all! In fact, we fail to be aware that there is a deeper dimension. I remember an incident in a movie where a father is trying to tell his son some serious item of information, but the boy is babbling away about his new girl friend and the party they are going to; till in the end the father slaps him on the face, simply to get his attention – to get contact with him on a serious level.
It has been pointed out that the Word of God came to us out of the agony of a nation taken into captivity. If all had gone well with the Israelites, would there have been any Isaiah? If Jesus had never been crucified, should we have had the Gospels? Suffering not only brings us inner growth and awareness, but it can stabilize and strengthen character. Compare Peter before and after the traumatic experience of the crucifixion. Before it, he denied his Master three times, saying “I know not the man.” Then, when the cock crew, he went out and wept. But only fifty days later, at Pentecost, this same Peter stood boldly before three thousand people, and lifted up his voice and addressed them . . . “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:14, 36)
“The Old and New Testaments are the words, stories and prayers of men who suffer. They do not try to hide the fact that they suffer. They find suffering integral to life. They resist it, petition God to remove it, question it, endure it, rebel against it, accept it. Then something happens to them – something as radical as New Birth.” (Elizabeth O’Connor, in Our Many Selves)
Having experienced suffering, and hated it, they eventually accepted it. That is the point. If you suffer, you must first try to discover what is causing your suffering; and, of course, you are obligated to do all you can to alleviate it. But if you cannot alleviate it, if you cannot ease it or do anything about it, you must accept it. Eat it up, digest it, extract the maximum nourishment from it, glorify it. Most of us cannot do this. When we are in pain, whether mental or physical, we bellow and scream. We become bitter, resentful, indignant. It hurts our ego most of all. If the pain comes from a broken relationship, we pour vituperation on the other person; it is all his fault! If we cannot blame an individual, we blame our circumstances, our society, our God.
I think one of the greatest tragedies in life is the loss of a child. The child is sick; the parents fight desperately to save it; they give all they have, but in the end the child dies. They look at the lifeless little corpse, and everything within them rises in agonized protest. “Where is God?” they cry. “There is no God!” I have heard of people who have become atheists because of such a loss. But, if suffering comes to you, and you accept it, live with it, make it your friend, you will find a kind of beauty in it. Superficial worldly ties will be cut, but spiritual realities will open before you in a new way, and the self-styled atheist may very well end up, in spite of himself, with a clearer conviction of the reality of God, than many who say their prayers daily but have never looked down into the depths.
The word “to suffer” used to mean “to bear with something,” “to allow it” – as, “to suffer fools gladly,” or “suffer little children to come unto me,” or “suffer me first to bury my father.” It might be a good thing if we could revive something of this older meaning of the word. In our western culture we say, “NO! Get up and fight against it! Resist! Tense your muscles! Grip hold of the arms of the dentist’s chair!” But is this the best way? Jesus, I think, would advise otherwise. He would say, “Relax! If anyone wants to smite you, let him! Offer him the other cheek!” Even in childbirth, I am told, it is best to relax, and, when the pangs come, to cooperate with them rather than to grit your teeth and try to resist them. “Cooperation” is the key word. If you want to float on water, don’t try to struggle, but cooperate with the water; see that you are in the right position, with your chin up and your face out of the water, then simply relax and float. A spiritually mature friend of ours is a bee keeper, and sometimes when he is mending the supers of his hives he accidentally hits his finger with the hammer. He does not resist the pain, but relaxes and lets it flow, absorbing it into his body; and he says it is amazing how quickly healing takes place. Also, of course, with bee stings.
Absorb the pain. Absorb the suffering and misery of life. Don’t be so concerned with your own sensations. Don’t resist the hurt, but accept it, whether it is physical or mental. This may take a period of time, varying with the individual and the nature of the suffering. Don’t try to hurry it unduly, whether with yourself or others. The would-be comforter at the funeral of a child, goes to the bereft mother and says, “Don’t be sad! The baby is in heaven, better off and happier than he would have been here!” The mother groans in her spirit and turns away. She is not ready yet for such advice. We need time to absorb our suffering if it is to benefit us. We must go out into the darkness alone and wrestle all night with the angel before we can get a blessing. The best way to help people when agony strikes is to sit quietly with them, listen to them, love them, help to ease the tensions, and just show that you care.
So far I have been speaking of suffering that comes to us unsought, as part of our human condition. We cannot avoid it, but we can control the way we react to it. And the way we react to it will make all the difference between whether it takes us to hell or heaven; whether we “curse God and die,” or “bless God and live.”
As we study the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we realize that, humanly speaking, His crucifixion was not inevitable. The gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus could easily have avoided any confrontation with the authorities in the first place, and Pilate would have been only too willing to release Him if He had been a little more accommodating. The early Christian martyrs could have avoided agonizing death, by compromising with the official requirements – throwing a pinch of incense on the flame burning before a statue of the Emperor of Rome. But Jesus had said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” “Submit to crucifixion, if need be, rather than compromise the high ideals of your faith.” The conscientious objector who submits to a prison sentence rather than go out and kill his fellow man, is “taking up his cross and following Jesus.”
Personally I have never had to suffer for my faith in any spectacular manner. But there is a kind of suffering we must all face, if we want to grow spiritually. It is painful to die unto self and be born again from God. The easy and pleasant way is to continue as we are, living according to the mores of our culture, accepting our society’s values, going along with the establishment, applauding when everyone else applauds, and condemning what everyone else condemns; being indignant with everyone outside our group who doesn’t think and behave as we in our group
think and behave. It is pleasant and easy to go with the herd, and do everything we are expected to do. On the other hand, if we begin to think for ourselves, and accept different values from those of our herd, we are snarled at, even bitten by our former hunting mates – and that’s not nice. But it is what we must face up to, if we are to follow in the footsteps of our crucified Lord.
Evidently, then, pain and suffering will come to us as a result of our efforts to grow spiritually, because we shall have to accept and adopt values which are higher than those of our society, and are therefore unacceptable to our society. We must have the courage of our convictions, and “face the music” – not feeling superior to our society, or condemnatory toward anyone, but just quietly doing what we believe Jesus Christ would have us do, for the eventual building up of His kingdom. As more and more people act in this way, the conscience of society will be stirred, new values will be adopted, and the general level will rise. This is actually happening around us today; it is part of the coming of the New Age.
What if we try to do God’s will but fail? The conscientious Christian who strives to live according to his faith but is frustrated by circumstances, suffers even more, perhaps, than the one who achieves his end but is crucified for it.
Frustration can produce real anguish, especially when we are frustrated in doing God’s will. The husband or wife who sees so clearly what is best for his or her spouse, and tries so hard to force God’s will upon the other party, but cannot do so . . . this is misery indeed! There may be two possible reasons for this situation. (1) You may be mistaken in thinking that what you want is God’s will; it may be only your own will, and it is your failure to get your own way which is so humiliating to your ego. Or (2) God may have a greater tolerance for the other person’s free will than you have. Or your timing may be wrong. God may be trying to get the message over to you, that at this particular time you should step to one side and let things be! In this connection I would remind you of our Lord’s own words: “Resist not evil,” and “Be still and know that I am God.”
To stand back and do nothing, is often the hardest and most painful discipline in the world, especially when blows begin to fall on you which might have been avoided. However, what we suffer in this way can be creative in the highest degree. It brings us into oneness with God Himself, who suffers anew at the hands of His children every moment of every day and night. He is still on the cross in this sense, and the nails are being driven through His unresisting hands. Creation itself is like the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12, who is “travailing in birth, pained to be delivered.” Suffering is all around us, and so long as it is creative, it is good. Death is all around us, and, so long as it is the doorway to heaven, it is good. Light and shadow are necessary for every perfect picture. There is no picture at all if the canvas is all white or all black; the harmonious contrast of light and shade brings out the beauty.
Participate wholeheartedly in the light and the shadow; accept them both, and rest content in both; and your joy will be full, and no man will be able to take it from you.