Guest Post: Musings on Suffering
One day, I’m going to write again.
Today is not that day. I’m into my second trimester now, and everything is healthy and well. I even have my energy back (most days). However, we are planning a move to Dallas in November because we are allergic to stability, and I’ve got a couple of writing projects I’m working on, and honestly, I’m just relishing these days with my two sweet little boys. I promise, I’m coming back.
Today I want to introduce you to my good friend, Darlene Seal. She wrote this post on a Facebook note yesterday, and it was too wonderful not to be public, so I asked her permission to repost it. Everything she writes here is such an echo of my own experience of a long, dark time in my life. Darlene is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and is currently a seminary student at Denver Theological Seminary, and she is one of the most brilliant women I know.
Over the last several years of my life, I’ve thought a lot about suffering, as I struggled to have faith through the darkness, or even to figure out what being faithful looks like in such situations. If I had to summarize the things I’ve learned and have come to count on as a reliable foundation in the midst of turmoil, it would be this:
1. Grief and faith aren’t mutually exclusive. I was raised in a tradition that had many ideas about piety, and one of the unspoken ones was the idea that faith basically amounted to gritting your teeth and bearing suffering (you probably deserved it, after all), or stoically proclaiming Romans 8:28, or attempting to escape or numb the pain of loss with escapism, fatalism, or general grief avoidance. Underlying all of it is the false assumption that to grieve or mourn is to doubt, lose faith in, and even deny, the Lord. I went into depression with this idea. I felt devastatingly guilty for being sad, for not being able to conquer it by sheer will power, for wondering whether God could really be good or care for me at all.
But I got to the point eventually, and by necessity, when I began to pray—really pray. I prayed my heart out. I cried. I pleaded. I sat in silence. I found refuge in the Psalms, comforted by their cries of brutal honesty and gut-wrenching emotion. Through this process, I began to pray the Psalms and write some of my own. Slowly, the Lord shattered the idea that he expects me to pretend like everything’s okay or stoically proclaim that suffering must just be God’s will and that any negative emotion or unanswered question placed me in lightning territory. I realized that God is much less concerned that I feel a certain way than that I seek him regardless of what I feel, in the midst of whatever I feel, go to him with whatever I feel. Grief and faith aren’t mutually exclusive, as though sadness is an attempt to usurp the throne of God. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, far from grief’s being evidence of a lack of faith, it actually demonstrates true faith. Grief, taken to the Lord, is faith: not faith in circumstances, control, or my own will power, but in a God who has promised to make things right in the end and has the power to do so.
2. The Incarnation. I’ve lost count of the many times in which I felt lost and asked God to give me some evidence of his presence, his faithfulness. Give me something to go on, I would say time and again. It’s so hard to trust someone who claims to love me and has all power but chooses not to heal me. Give me something to go on. Lord, I need something tangible. I prayed this same prayer countless times, variations on a persistently recurring theme. The word “tangible” usually surfaced at some point, when I got down to the nitty gritty of what I felt I truly needed in order to go on.
One day it hit me that the incarnation is the answer to my plea, given 2000 years before I asked for it. Tangible.The incarnation of Christ often gets slighted or reduced to a cute little manger scene, with no one considering the implications of the event. Or it gets skipped over in favor of a more streamlined gospel presentation, rushed through as though merely an inconvenient prerequisite necessary for the story of the cross to make sense, like the prologue of a book that everyone flips past to get to chapter one where the good stuff begins.
Yet the incarnation is important in its own right. Its beauty is simple, yet profound: we have a God who understands. Jesus Christ, flesh-and-blood, fully God and fully man, walked around Palestine during his ministry and had no permanent residence. He felt the pressure to be something he knew he wasn’t supposed to be in John 6 when the crowd intended to make him king, and then his heart ached as he watched the crowds walk away and leave only skeptical stragglers behind. He knew the pain of not meeting everyone’s expectations. He knew well the pain of constantly being misunderstood by those who knew him best. He felt the pain of betrayal when Peter, once so confident and bold, denied him three times, and Judas was paid off with a jingle of money in his pocket. Our Lord prayed his heart out in Gethsemane, an event that in some ways would be as difficult as the cross itself. Praying—begging—to avoid a pain which he knew was his alone to bear. With every fiber of his being searching for another way, yet knowing fully what was to come, he submitted himself to the will of his Father, to willingly be abused and humiliated at the hands of those whom he himself had created. And then he endured the cross, with his body already frayed and mutilated, and then slowly suffocating, in such mental and emotional agony that he felt abandoned by the other members of the Trinity. Yes, we have a God who understands, a High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses. That is the beauty of the incarnation. It doesn’t get more tangible than that.
3. The Cross. I hate clichés, especially those fired at hurting people to make them feel guilty for having emotions. Don’t grieve, just trust God. Or If you really had faith, God would heal you. Or You just need to pray more. The worst is when well-meaning Christians tell people that their lost loved one is “in a better place” and that death is really just another part of life, as though Death were just a long lost friend who simply showed up unexpectedly but was then met with a warm embrace and invited to stay for dinner. Death is beyond a doubt a foe, and it is evil precisely because it is against nature, separating holistic beings into parts, cruelly dividing body from spirit. Death is the “last enemy to be defeated.”
I cannot trust a god who asks me to believe that death is a thing to be cherished, or even a thing to be shrugged off as inevitable. I cannot trust a god who tells his followers that the state of the world really isn’t that bad, and we’re all just overreacting. I cannot trust a god who mitigates evil and suffering. Thankfully, that isn’t what God says or does. Jesus’ brutal death is the evidence par excellence that God refuses to mitigate evil or suffering or the dire state of our world and even our own hearts. The cross demonstrates that God himself is willing to suffer at the hands of his own creatures rather than mitigate pain, suffering, sickness, divorce, abuse, war, depression, and death. And so we are free to grieve, and to grieve freely. And by grieving—really grieving—for our own pain and for that of the world, we are following in the steps of our Father, who refuses to shrug it off as though it isn’t really all that bad. And his redemption is more beautiful, his victory sweeter, and his power more manifest, because rather than simply turning his head and pretending not to notice evil, he will craft something glorious out of ruins and ashes. I can trust a God like that.
How can the Church help people to grieve better?
What do the Incarnation and the Cross mean for your sufferings?