Suffering is simply the difficulty in life that we experience, which is not the result of our personal sin. It is the fall out of living in a broken world with fallen people.
One problem (among many) with suffering is that it is such an intense experience. It is the epitome of “UNFAIR!” While we are wrestling with what to say and do in the midst of what should not be, we miss the messages that we are learning. We miss the messages, because most often those messages are being taught implicitly (like a child learns whether a stranger is safe by monitoring the mood of his/her parents, not explicitly (like recognizing the letters of the alphabet or multiplication tables).
In some way, we begin to assume that “what is” is “what will always be.” From this, we adapt our expectations (both of self and others), our level of hope or pessimism, our accepted social practices, and even God.
We don’t really assess these beliefs, because in the midst of suffering one is more concerned with surviving than evaluating. The few times we did dare to speak up we were likely “put in our place” and the few times we girded up the hope to think about what should be it only made the suffering more difficult.
Yet this becomes its own trap. Once we quit assessing life and merely accept suffering, we begin to accept lies (i.e., you deserve this, there is no need to try, no one can be trusted, if you ever show weakness you will be taken advantage of, it is always better to be quiet, fairness is a fairy tale, etc.) as truth.
After we accept these lies as truth, we (by default) surrender to their influence on our life. The only responses left are cynicism, anxiety, depression, or bitterness. These dispositions are so entrapping that we miss the significance of changing life events (moving out of a home with abusive parents) or new life opportunities (going back to school, the perspective of a new friend).
Eventually, we even begin to fear that our lies might be proven false, because then we would have to learn a whole new way of life. All of the ways we have made sense of things would be taken from us. That almost seems worse than the suffering.
These thoughts are not meant to multiply despair, but I hope they do make the following points of application make more sense.
- The road out of suffering can be as scary as the road into suffering for the person walking it.
- It is hard to put the lies of suffering into words because they were not taught that way.
- Great faith is required to denounce the lies of suffering because they have often been a means of survival.
- Patience is required for those who will help people coming out of suffering. The freedom of being able to walk at their own pace is part of getting their voice back and learning to trust their newfound freedom.
- Resistance is not always rebellion in the aftermath of great suffering. Often it is merely the mustering of courage to step out into this “new” truth.
These five points will not fit every situation, but I think they are worth considering for Christians who are befriending, pastoring, or counseling those who are experiencing or coming out of significant suffering. As you reflect on these points it might be good to read Exodus, Job, the grief/depression Psalms, and 1 Peter – books that address the subject of suffering, oppression, change, and endurance.