Charles Ringma, a Companion in Community from Brisbane, shares his thinking and experiences of suffering.
Joining the Suffering God
If ever there was a topic that is common to all humanity, it is the theme of suffering. We have all suffered and continue to suffer in various ways. Suffering is part of the human condition. Suffering occurs when our basic sense of well-being is interrupted or violated.
And if there ever was a topic that is difficult to deal with in a satisfactory manner, it is this one. Suffering is universal, but it is also intensely personal. No one else can fully understand our own suffering. In suffering we are often most alone.
Furthermore, suffering comes to us in so many different forms – one may suffer neglect, abuse, misunderstanding, victimization, the terror of war, the destructive force of an earthquake, the pain of illness, or the injustice of an entire social system. These things come to us despite our faith or status. They come our way despite the goodness or otherwise of our lives.
Suffering impacts all of us differently. Some seem to cope with suffering and grow through it. Others are over-whelmed by their suffering and remain broken and wounded by it all their life. There is no magical route from suffering to well-being. There are only surprises and resurrections.
And suffering is so paradoxical in that some people seem to suffer so much more than others. This for many seems to be so unfair. And for persons of faith it can raise questions about the goodness and protection of God. Where is God’s power when I am suffering? Life just does not seem to be fair!
In this article, some of these matters will be touched on. But our key theme will be the invitation in suffering to move closer to the suffering God.
Making Sense of Suffering
As creatures of God’s good creation we are called to live in relationship with God, to live the gospel virtues, to seek the common good and to bless the neighbor. We are also called to think God’s thoughts after him and to make sense of God’s word, God’s way with us and to understand and to engage with our world. We are thus ‘meaning-making’ creatures. And as such, with also try to make sense of our own suffering and that of others. This may be like trying to make sense of a wildflower or the whirlwind.
We seek to make sense of suffering in order that we ‘don’t waste our sorrows’, that we understand life better in the light of suffering, that we better understand God’s way with us in and through suffering, and that we may more adequately understand the reality of our world – a world full of the goodness of God but also marred by sin, folly, wrong-doing and injustice.
The most basic biblical framework here is that the good created world of God through human disobedience became marred and broken; that God has provided for healing of this waywardness and brokenness, but that the fullness of this restoration awaits us in the new heavens and new earth where there will be no more suffering (Rev. 21:3-4). In the meantime, we who ‘live between the times’ experience both the brokenness of humanity, our own stupidities, the reality of social injustice, and the power of evil forces (Eph. 2:1-3). And we experience the grace and goodness of God, the blessings of family and friends, the sustenance of the faith community, and the goodness of the common good in our world. In the midst of this powerful dialectic, we are not immune from suffering. There are no magical safeguards.
Over the long centuries of the Christian church various rationales and explanations have been given for the reality of on-going suffering –  Free-will theodicy which suggests that we are responsible for much of our suffering because we misuse and abuse our God-given gifts and responsibilities. Thus suffering is a mirror in which we can recognize our waywardness.  God’s justice which calls for our punishment due to our on-going wrongdoing. Here suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure.  Redemptive suffering which highlights that this is a way in which goodness and redemption can come to our world and to our own lives. Here suffering is the invitation to transformation. To this theme we will return.  Developmental suffering which underscores that suffering is inevitable in the formation of a new world (Rom. 8:22-23). Here suffering is the key to creatively moving forward and becoming what we were destined to be.  Remedial suffering where suffering is a purgation to renew us or a test to strengthen us.
All of these explanations find some resonance in the larger biblical story. But while we may move between the ‘blessing’ of suffering to the ‘curse’ of suffering, from the embrace of suffering to the need to resist suffering, we will always come away from all explanations with a sense of disquiet. The explanation does not explain! Suffering in so many instances remains a painful mystery. In suffering we inevitably walk the desolation akin to the ‘dark night’ of the soul. As with Job, we may finally be invited to bow before the mystery of God’s ‘strange way’ with us, rather than to receive neat and tidy answers. Thus suffering calls us to a great existential surrender as a preparation for the finality of our embrace of death.
Because rationality, rather than the embrace of mystery, still characterizes so much of the contemporary Protestant and Evangelical ‘worlds’, these two groupings of Christians have generally not done too well in helping their members to process the reality of suffering. In my brief life-time I have heard many clichés regarding suffering both in the churches of the West and in Asia. Here are but a few examples-
- ‘You are suffering deprivation because you have not received the baptism of the Spirit.’
- ‘God sends typhoons because the land is full of churches with images in them.’
- ‘You are ill because you lack faith in God’s healing power.’
- ‘You are sick because you have committed a sin that you have not acknowledged.’
This list is endless. And I am sure that the reader may well have heard statements that are much more painful than the ones listed. It is staggering that we can be so judgmental and pastorally insensitive.
What should be clear, however, is that making sense of suffering is much more complex than using simplistic black and white categories. ‘Goodies’ are blessed and ‘baddies’ suffer is a hopelessly inadequate way of dealing with life’s complexities and challenges. The righteous suffer (Ps. 88:3-7). Jesus went to the cross (Phil. 2:8). Christians are persecuted (1 Pet. 4:15-16). And throughout the history of the church there have been those who have not only been baptized in water and in the Spirit, but have been baptized in blood. At the same time ‘baddies’ don’t always suffer. And the psalmist cries out to Yahweh about the prosperity of the wicked (Ps. 73:3). The psalms of lament are both a powerful reminder that the people of God suffer but also that we can express our grief to God (Ps. 79; 80).
What makes all of this much more challenging is the recognition that good can be brought out of evil. What Joseph’s brothers meant for evil by selling ‘the dreamer’ into slavery, God meant for good in the salvation that God would bring to the entire household of these ‘evil’ brothers (Acts 7:9-16; Gen. 45:5). Moreover, God not only blesses his people but God also bruises us (Hos. 6:1).
Our own suffering and that others, therefore, cannot be reduced to simple categories. Suffering calls us to careful and prayerful discernment. It should always call us to be gentle with ourselves and especially with the suffering of others. Suffering should pull us away from quick answers and instead bring us with tears to the footstool of God.
Hearing the Invitation
It is my belief, that while there may be an element of judgment in our suffering, this is not its major key. There is another melody line. This is the music of invitation. This concept is key to many of the major spiritualities of the Christian church where a question is pushed to the fore, rather than an answer. Simply put, the question is: what am I, what are we, what is the church, what is our society being invited into through this suffering?
Allow me to use a personal and a more general example. I have suffered a number of major illnesses in my life. In the earlier illnesses there was no movement towards discernment. No silence to hear an invitation. There was only the quest towards healing so that my ministry could continue. Thankfully, healing did occur, showing the graciousness of God. But no deeper reflection occurred which could have led to a deeper inner transformation. My last illness was very different. The quest there was not healing but becoming a renewed inner person. In this illness I heard the invitation: what would it look like for you to live on the other side of being close to dying? This has profoundly affected me.
A more general example is from Latin America. There pastors, formators and theologians heard an invitation: what does it mean to move to the side of the poor and to share in their struggle for life? What does it mean to enter into the suffering of the poor? What does it mean to become the church of the poor? These deeply challenging questions led to a new evangelization of the poor, the formation of the Base Ecclesial Communities, and the formulation of a Liberation Theology that has had a world-wide impact.
Many other examples could be used that illustrate the power of an invitation that comes as a whisper from the edge of eternity where the veil between heaven and earth becomes shroud- thin, so much so, that one can hear the sighing and singing of angels.
Suffering then, in whatever form it may come, opens up for us an invitation:
- To hear its whispered wisdom
- To hear its gentle invitation
- To discern its hidden purposes
- To embrace its difficult processes
- To learn its challenging lessons
- To resist its ‘death-dealing’ temptations
- To bow before its ever-present mystery.
Let me hasten to add that the above is not a neat methodology. Suffering, whether that is an experience of personal rejection or the Holocaust or Stalin’s purging madness, does not know the logic of rationality. It is much closer to the unexplainable, a dark madness, a poetic frenzy. Suffering continues to be an intrusion, a violation, a disruption, a wounding. Suffering, despite the good that may come out of it, is a blight and a scurge on our inner and social landscape.
And the lesson of all of this from the biblical story is clear. Suffering continues to be the wound of the world. But suffering in this life does not have the last word. Instead, the paschal mystery is the clear anthem. Death and suffering have met their end point in the death and resurrection of Christ so that the grand theme of God’s final future will not be suffering but abundant life (1 Cor. 15:50-58).
The Why of Suffering
Even though we have emphasized the mystery of suffering, the ‘why’ of suffering is a question that simply does not go away. This ever-pressing question is linked to a whole gamut of related issues:
- How do we understand the good world that God has made
- How do we understand the incursion of sin
- How do we understand the sources of evil
- How do we understand the scope of God’s redemption
- How do we understand God’s healing intervention in our world
- How do understand God’s sovereignty
- How do we understand human choice and freedom
- How we understand our sinner/saint status
- How do we understand the forces of demonic evil
- How do we understand structural evil.
The reason why there are so many related questions is because suffering cannot be looked at in isolation. It is a matter deeply linked to who God is, who we are, and to the nature of goodness and evil in our world. Suffering is therefore a theological, relational, personal, social and spiritual matter. Suffering has to do with the nature of sin, the brokenness of our world and the forces of spiritual evil. Suffering has to with human failure and madness and has to do with the way in which God has chosen to work with us and inspite of us.
Here then with great reluctance I give some possible dimensions of the ‘why’ of suffering:
- It acts as a mirror regarding the true nature of the human condition
- It acts as a damning reminder of the folly of human idealism and pride
- It functions as a most difficult pathway to seek and find the grace of God in Christ
- It acts as a wake-up call to resist certain forms of evil
- It is reminder of how far we still have to travel to the ‘promised land’
- It is a form of purgation to bring us to repentance, renewal and healing
- It is an instrument in shaping us into the likeness of Christ
- It is a call to suffering identification with the poor
- It is a bearing/carrying of the burden of love.
Joining the Suffering God
So far we have touched on something of the complexity of suffering. It is now time to highlight that the God of the Bible is one who responds to suffering. God is the great deliverer (Deut. 5:15). God is also the great healer (Ex.15:26). And God’s way in this, most definitively, has been that God in Christ has entered into our suffering (1 Pet. 2:24). Christ’s suffering has gained new life for all who believe in him (Jh. 3:16). This means that Christ’s suffering was beneficial for others – for the whole of humanity.
But what is remarkable in the New Testament reflections on the Christ event is that those who have been set free in Christ (Gal. 5:1) are now called to a radical identification with Christ and are called into his sufferings (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 1:29). Paul speaks of wanting to know Christ’s resurrection power so that he may enter into Christ’s sufferings (Phil.3:10) and highlights the way in which this kind of suffering produces virtues in our lives (Rom. 5:1-5). And Peter suggests that we are to follow the suffering Christ into the world (1 Pet. 2:21-25).
Paul pushes this so far that he believes that his suffering for others completes what is lacking in Christ’s own suffering for the church (Col. 1:24). This does not mean that Paul thought that Christ’s death on our behalf was insufficient (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:12). What he seeks to highlight is our willingness to suffer for the sake and well-being of others.
Here we are invited to join the suffering God, the groaning Christ, the grieving and ever-brooding Spirit, in the Trinity’s great longing for all of humanity to come into the full goodness of God and for the restoration of all things. In joining God in this great longing we are invited into prayer and costly service. In this way we become ‘midwives’ for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
The reality of our own suffering and that of others does not so much call for debate, but for prayerful reflection and radical identification. God’s suffering for us and the suffering that continues in our world calls us to silence and to grieving. And out of the great silence that may grow within our being, we are called to ‘carry’ the suffering ones with tears to the throne of God. And having carried them there, we may wash their feet and anoint their heads with oil.
Professor: Regent College, Vancouver; Asian Theological Seminary, Manila; The University of Queensland, Brisbane. The author of Seek the Silences with Thomas Merton (SPCK) and Hear the Heart Beat with Henri Nouwen (SPCK), his forthcoming book is Hear the Ancient Wisdom (Cascade).