Grace in Suffering
Have you encountered someone who exhibited extraordinary grace during a season of intense or chronic suffering?
A filmmaker friend who had all but thrown in the towel on faith traveled with me and a few others to Congo just a few months after a surge in violence in that country. After meeting with several women who told us of their suffering and described how they had forgiven the perpetrators, my friend made this stunning statement: “I don’t believe in the God of the United States, but I believe in the God of Congo.” He had encountered people who spoke a profound message through their lives: “God is with us in our suffering, and that is enough. We believe.” For him, it took a journey into the heart of suffering to glimpse the heart of a loving God.
Encountering grace in the lives of those who suffer has changed me too — often profoundly. These experiences are wells from which I drink. We, too, can be wells of life when we experience the crucible of suffering. Instead of resisting, blaming, or fighting—all of which are normal responses in everyday life—we can purposefully accept the experience of suffering, embracing the wisdom we can gain from it without justifying its cause or trying to neatly explain the reasons for it. When we accept suffering, trusting that we will emerge from its crucible with more grace, more humility, and more love, we live out a theology of suffering that is rare, especially in the West. The idea that we can kiss the crucible, that we can make suffering an intimate friend, is a notion as old as our faith, but it is reserved for those willing to view suffering as an unlikely teacher, yet one dripping with wisdom.
But let’s be honest. When we suffer, poetry doesn’t help much. How do we learn to kiss the crucible?
First, do your best to embrace suffering, difficult though that may be. Years ago I spent some time with a friend who tends cattle as an avocation. One day we drove out to one of his fields, where he showed me a young horse, a foal born just a few weeks before. He spoke kindly to the horse, then leaned down alongside it and gently wrapped his arms around its front and back legs in a bear-hug fashion. The colt jumped and struggled for a few moments but then finally relaxed into my friend’s arms as it began to trust him.
Pain can be like that bear hug. It’s normal to resist pain; alleviating pain is always the right thing to do. Seeking help might take the pain away. Prayer might help us overcome. But often the pain remains, doesn’t it? That’s when we must recognize that God’s love hasn’t changed—that he hasn’t changed—and that we can trust him in the midst of suffering.
Second, don’t blame yourself. If your suffering is the result of your own actions, by all means take responsibility for it, but avoid self-blame and the shame that comes with it. Too often we fall prey to a false version of faith that correlates suffering with mistakes, poor choices, or personal sin. We do live in a world governed largely by the law of cause and effect, but Jesus refutes the notion that suffering is axiomatic proof of a badly lived life. For example, in Jesus’s day, a tower fell and killed eighteen people. People apparently drew the conclusion that those eighteen were “worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem.” But Jesus emphatically repudiated that idea and the logic behind it. (Luke 13:4-5, ESV)
Third, make suffering your teacher. While we may not understand why we go through seasons of suffering, we can allow them to shape our lives. God is very near during times of suffering. Someone said, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God.”
Finally, be honest about your journey. We too often talk only about success in our faith communities. We avoid honest conversations about our challenges. We hide our suffering. Perhaps we feel ashamed or without favor. Or maybe we don’t know how to be vulnerable. Worse, perhaps our community doesn’t allow vulnerability. In an interview with Eugene Peterson, Bono praised the raw, brutal honesty, sorrow, or confusion displayed in the psalms. The singer said that he finds a lot of dishonesty in Christian art and exhorted artists
write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how
they are pissed off . . . because that’s what God wants from
you — the truth . . . and that truthfulness will set you free. . . .
Why I am suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of
realism. And I’d love to see more of that — in art and in life and
For all the mystery surrounding suffering — its causes, asymmetry, and purpose—there are moments when we glimpse the heart of God. For example, in a quiet corner of Boston Common, just off the tourist path, you can find a monument to the discovery of ether. On one side of this tall obelisk are these words: “Neither shall there be any more pain,” from Revelation 21:4 KJV. On the opposite side is a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “This also comes from the Lord of Hosts who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working.” (paraphrase of Isaiah 28:29 KJV) William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist from Massachusetts who trained in Baltimore, first demonstrated the use of either as an inhaled surgical anesthetic. His epithet reads:
Inventor and Revealer of Inhalation Anesthesia:
Before Whom, in All Time, Surgery was Agony;
By Whom, Pain in Surgery was Averted and Annulled;
Since Whom, Science has Control of Pain.
The date was 1846, the year in which surgery was refined, sparing millions from the agony that all before them had endured. That the God of the universe would reveal the properties of ether to humankind says we serve a God who is ultimately committed to overcoming our suffering. One day all suffering will end. The promise is clear, and our hearts crave it. We long for that day. But in the meantime, on this side of eternity, kissing our crucibles will awaken us to the astounding nature of grace. And as we encounter grace through suffering, we are drawn close to the heart of the living God.
Grace and suffering are inextricably linked to form a bedrock of truth: that God’s grace is available to the least likely people and in the least likely ways. This truth comes furiously knocking, in surprising ways, calling you and me to rise above our fear.