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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Three Essential Approaches to Suffering

There’s an overwhelming amount of beauty and awe in the world – from midday eclipses to bounding monkeys in jungles to the perfect curl of newborn baby toes. 

At some point, though, we all encounter suffering. Sometimes it appears as physical pain; sometimes it’s in the form of prolonged waiting; sometimes it’s mental or emotional distress. Sometimes suffering occurs through our perception of loved ones’ suffering: others’ pain multiplies our own distress. If there is loss, there is the suffering of grief.  

When I was in college majoring in Christian Ministry, I walked into a classroom one September morning to be told by a classmate that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked. My brain struggled to process the news; like many, I was bewildered, at a loss. Throughout the fall semester of 2001 I grappled with feeling completely overwhelmed by the pain and need in the world. How could I possibly figure out what path to take? There was pain at home, pain abroad. Need around the corner, need on the other side of the equator. I signed up to go on an international trip the next spring, flying for the first time months after watching repeated footage of jets slam into Manhattan skyscrapers. 

Sometimes our gut reaction to suffering is to sign up for a trip to Mongolia (maybe not, but maybe your reaction is to drive to Houston and help with cleanup, or donate money to help people suffering from catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh). Sometimes our gut reaction is to turn our face, finding oblivion in addiction, numbness, or denial. Sometimes our gut reaction is to raise the drawbridge, hunker down, and protect our own at all costs. Therapists can have fun teasing out why humans behave the way we do. 

But beyond our emotional reaction shaped by our individual experiences, personalities, hopes, and fears, what postures can Christians have towards suffering? In other words, beyond behavioral tendencies, how does faith shape our approach to suffering? 

1. When you’re depressed, troubled, and hopeless, you are called to shape your own response to suffering – your own suffering or others’ – by Christ’s suffering. This Christocentric response is essential for grounding your belief. It does not deny the realities of clinical depression or anxiety disorders: rather, it reorients pain so that it is placed in the context of the God who suffers. In Isaiah 53 we read: 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, 
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. 
Like one from whom people hide their faces 
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Surely he took up our pain 
    and bore our suffering, 
yet we considered him punished by God, 
    stricken by him, and afflicted. 
But he was pierced for our transgressions, 
    he was crushed for our inequities; 
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, 
    and by his wounds we are healed. 

Christians believe that, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness,” but that Jesus genuinely suffered when he sobbed with Mary and Martha after Lazarus died, and that he genuinely suffered in the garden of Gethsemane when he struggled to accept what was coming. The portrait of Christ as the “suffering servant” is a familiar one, and whether you meditate on an icon of the crucifixion or rest in passages of scripture, it is crucial to form our response to suffering from the starting point that the Word who Became Flesh, God Incarnate, comprehends suffering, even if we cannot fully comprehend God. 

2. When you’re grappling with why suffering exists, persistently explore the intellectual satisfaction that will form your feelings and emotions. Sometimes Christians look for their emotions to be shaped by inspiring worship, emotional testimony, or the good feelings that come from being accepted by a group. At the same time, sometimes using emotions as the starting place can be unsatisfactory.

One time in seminary a fellow student ran up to the philosophy of religion professor who was standing nearby. “I just need to say thank you,” she said. She explained that after losing her mother to cancer, she had struggled deeply with grief and anger, even in the midst of preparing for ministry at seminary. She had been to therapy, talked to pastors, but could not find peace – until she took a philosophy of religion class. During that semester, the problem of evil was addressed (how can an all-loving, all-powerful God coexist with suffering and pain in the world?), along with various perspectives responding to it. Part of her anguish had been mental, alongside the grief of bereavement. When she understood that philosophers had grappled with the question for centuries, and saw some of the reasoned response to the problem of suffering – including the role of human free will – she received some peace.  

As a Christian, you do not need to be able to comprehend everything about God or everything about the world in which you live. But even if you cannot know exhaustively, it may be possible to know truly, and if that is the case, you can receive intellectual satisfaction even if you don’t hold all the answers. 

This means that your approach is shaped by the realization that sometimes the best thing you can do is to allow your thoughts to shape your feelings.  

A vivid example of allowing subjective perception to shape your thoughts and decisions is the tragedy that occurs when a pilot doesn’t use a horizon instrument, gets confused, and believes that he is flying even with the ground, when in fact, he is flying straight at it – what experts believe happened when John F. Kennedy, Jr died in a plane crash. This “spatial disorientation” occurs when there is no visual reference point. Similarly, our emotions can mislead us, shape our perception so powerfully that our instincts are tricked into faulty convictions about who God is or where meaning comes from. But sound theology and the resources of Christian philosophers can help guide our thinking when all our instincts point toward hopelessness and despair. 

3. When you’re overwhelmed by the sheer scale of pain and need, allow the Holy Spirit to guide your discernment on your immediate path of actionThere is a great temptation to become overwhelmed by the trauma and tragedy in the world, and because of the inability to do everything, to then do nothing at all. But Mother Teresa is famously quoted as saying, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” 

Christians’ posture towards suffering cannot be to internalize the burden and responsibility for everyone else’s pain; this kind of unhealthy response leads to burnout, bitterness, and depression.And it does not trust the prevenient grace of God that is already working in places we cannot reach. 

What we can do confidently is to trust that if we ask God to show us where we can go and what we can do through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will be faithful to show us what our part can look like. God may not unfold a giant map showing what your part will look like in 20 years, but in this season, the Spirit will put on your heart new ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Look to the example of Jesus Christ, shape your thoughts deliberately so that your feelings will follow, and trust that the Holy Spirit will give you the joy that comes from doing what you uniquely can do as you explore how to be a witness to the beauty of God’s love in a hurting world. 

Featured artwork by Vasily Perov, “Christ in Gethsemane.”