Editor's Note: It’s almost Resurrection Sunday, aka Easter Sunday, aka Pascha. We have quite a few blogs coming down the line on the system of the antichrist and community response teams and supernatural powers, but we wanted to ship this one first. It’s about suffering. Because, if we’re going to thrive in a significant time, we’re going to have to learn to see it like the Apostles. We’re going to have to learn to suffer with God. We’re going to have to learn to announce the resurrection, on which all this depends. There are no pat formulas. But there is the story of God.
On the night of my best friend’s funeral, I was 5,000 miles away.
But I knew it was happening. I could feel it, like a hook in my chest, and I started to panic. There was a six-pack on the counter of the cottage we'd rented. The beer was called Life & Death, and I'd bought it up to raise a glass with my wife. Instead, I shoved a beer in my pocket and ran. We were in the country; there was no one around. Just me, and the dark, and the country road. The minutes before the funeral were ominous, the seconds like the strokes of doom. Garrett was leaving. This was it.
And then, all at once, the night went still. It really did. I knew from my watch that the service had started; in Colorado, his family was gathered. In the country, I felt the unsolicited presence of God. I could see Jesus. Not visible, just perceptible, and I knew that he had been waiting for me.
It was so strange, the pain and holiness riding together. The pain was not the holiness, and yet the holiness welcomed the pain and had a place for it. It was not purely good. It was holy, and it was mysterious. I poured the beer out for Garrett, and looked around to see where I was.
That was an unusual time.
Because most of the time, if I’m honest, don’t find God in suffering. I frankly don’t. Which is rough, in a season of suffering.
Two people in my world just discovered that their babies have developmental abnormalities. Many of my friends—both vaccinated and unvaccinated, because that’s what everyone wants to know—have been sick for eight weeks or longer. One dear friend has been mysteriously ill for more than a year. Another lives with a permanent background of pain.
Sickness has hit my family, too. And what else? Well, my wife and I have wanted to get pregnant again, and seen miscarriages again, and we’re still not expecting. My son’s gastrointestinal issues have flared up, and so we don’t sleep much. I can tell you, it’s hard to believe in anything when your son’s writhing in pain. I was sick, like I said, and then I recovered, and then I discovered some symptoms won’t abate . One day I rally. The next day I slump into bed with a headache so bad it feels like an ancient executioner is pushing my head onto a spike. My energy fails, like a video game character run out of food. Really. You can watch see the meter fall to zero.
And that’s only the physical suffering. Spiritual suffering counts, my friends. Psychological suffering counts. There’s the suffering of an uncertain future, or worse, of a future without meaning. There’s the suffering of a present without hope, and without security. There’s the suffering of a past without redemption. There’s the suffering of loneliness.
And so I find myself asking the question that people have been asking for millennia. What does God do about human suffering?
Many people who are smarter and more determined than I am have grappled with that question. The brilliant and extremely errant Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that reason could not reconcile suffering and love, which is true, for reason. In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, it is suffering—specifically, the suffering of children—that poisons the heart of Ivan Karamazov. Shusaku Endo couldn’t make sense of the apparent silence of God in the face of the martyrs, and that’s what he named his novel: Silence.
Among artists and philosophers, the jury is out. I bet you knew that already. Thus, I turn to the Scriptures.
If you were to read the Bible from the beginning, you’d see that suffering is the last place anyone should expect to find God. Adam and Eve rebelled and were driven from the garden. Cain sinned and was cursed from the ground. Humanity did the Tower of Babel thing, and God withdrew. Given all that cursing and separation, it would be reasonable to expect that suffering would make us experience less of God, a dearth of his love.
But that’s not so.
The psalmist identifies the mystery when he marvels: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there,” and later, “even the darkness will not be dark to you” (Psalm 139).
Or how’s about this one, from Isaiah: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (45:7).
Verses like that one have bewildered many a Christian. Are good and evil the same to God? Is suffering, like, good?
It’s not. That’s the first thing we have to get straight because it’s where so many explanations go off the rails. It’s tempting to lay out neat formulas. For example: humanity fell; thus, we suffer; God, however, uses that suffering to redeem humanity.
Now, that’s not wrong per se, but it's not satisfying. Suffering is not simply a tool in God’s belt. It’s not an illusion, and it’s not secretly wonderful. It is not good, is the thing. But God is.
Suffering is not a puzzle to solve. It is a mystery to experience, and that mystery can be put pretty simply: God descends.
Jesus does not explain suffering. He does not speak to it from a distance. He enters it to be encountered. He went ahead of us into death, thus to save the world. Though suffering is not good, Jesus is there, accessible to us. Indeed, waiting for us, and that is one of the mysteries with which the Bible resounds.
But we still have to learn how to engage it. And, since I'm not very good at suffering, I’ve become interested in handrails, in ways to suffer with God. I read some books about suffering. I asked my friends who suffer beautifully. I asked to experience more of God.
Here are a few things I’ve found.
Suffer with people.
Don’t isolate. In suffering, we’re meant to see and attach to Jesus, to receive his comfort and love. That can be hard to do, and so it’s important to have stable relationships to fall back on, like a relational net strung over despair. Find a few people to track with your story, to sit shiva with you, to tell you the hope of resurrection.
Of course, most people can’t do that.
Federal Employees can take sick time off to mourn. They’re allowed 13 days. Most private businesses give five. People don’t want suffering to last. They don’t want to see it, and they don’t want to hear about it.
That’s understandable, because suffering is scary, but we still need witnesses. So ask Jesus for a few. Pray for people who can bear witness to your pain. When we can’t receive comfort directly from God, our friends can still represent him. That’s part of humanity’s job. It’s a huge relief, like taking communion, or any other sacrament. Your friends can listen. They can hold you. They can make you food, or drop off a book, or recommend a song. They can express the comfort of God. And when we remember that it is indeed the comfort of God, our hearts can soften toward him again, which is the first step of experiencing Jesus directly.
Don’t escape through despair.
A decade ago, some friends of mine got married. They were great people with a great community. And yet, in the way that can happen, it imploded almost immediately. The husband, in this case, went AWOL. He fought with and then rejected and then abandoned his wife.
Even with a good community around her, it was brutal to behold.
And yet—and yet—there was the mystery. The wife suffered so much, and suffered, it must be said, beautifully. Again I use the word.
I spent a lot of time wondering about it, since not everything that happened was beautiful. She wept, she raged, she went stone cold, she hit all the necessary ranges. What she did not do, at least not all the time, was try to escape it. She did not go out the escape hatch into hatred or despair. She felt it.
Now, when I’m suffering, getting out of it is usually Priority 1. The problem is, there’s not always a way out. The way through is to live into it. And that usually means grieving, lamenting, going stone cold for a while. I don’t know anyone who can avoid despair all the time, but everyone can choose not to despair every time. We can choose to mourn instead. In my case, not despairing has meant feeling nothing, feeling sick, feeling discouraged. That’s instead of saying “whatever” and then trying to ignore the experience to get on with my life.
And of course we need a good theology. We need to know that our enemy is real, that free will matters, not everything that happens is the will of God, etc. We need effective prayer, better diets, and epsom salt baths.
But the point of this post is that sometimes those things don’t work, and we need to learn to suffer with God.
So one other thing.
Announce the resurrection.
In suffering, the resurrection really matters.
I know from experience that it’s easy to give lip service to the resurrection, to sing the songs, to say the creeds. It’s harder to believe in it when a dream is going into the ground. It’s harder to cling to the resurrection when we lose a friend, or a season, or a future. When my horse died three years ago, we buried him. That was hard to do, but there was no other way to honor a companion of 16 years. I can tell you: when I bent down and untied his halter one last time, releasing his service, and laid his head on the ground, it was hard to take hold of the resurrection. It was hard not to see death as the end of all things, even wonderful things.
And yet in this life everything we receive lies on the far side of a death.
That’s part of the mystery, too.
“Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:43).
The resurrection is a part of the Good News, a lynchpin without which nothing holds together. Paul says it himself: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Those are strong words from a guy who knew what he was talking about. Eventually, Paul’s allegiance to Jesus cost him everything. It only holds together if the resurrection is real.
Sometimes, we get a foretaste of this: we bring forth life from death. We lose a job, and yet, through a season of struggle, we take on more of the nature of Jesus. We get a future we didn’t imagine.
Sometimes, we don’t. I think of my friend Garrett—I won’t get to hug him again, to feel his angular shoulders. Not in this life. On the resurrection this depends. That hope is our lifeline. It is confirmed to us when we experience God’s heart for us.
Remember. God isn’t doing this to you, and he wants it to go well for you. Ask to see Jesus. Ask, if you don’t have capacity to say a longer prayer, “Jesus, get through to me.”
This year, about once a day, my wife and I put on a worship song (we’ve been digging the “Love Note” album by UPPERROOM) and practice receiving the comfort of God. We ask the question: if Jesus came in the room, right now, what would he do? Where would he sit? We let our hearts fill in the details, and the Spirit, who reveals Jesus, color our imaginations. The other day, I saw Jesus come over and put his forehead on my wife’s forehead and cry with her. He remained that way a long time. It made a heck of a difference for me.
Or my son: I mentioned his GI issues. They have effected his sleep almost every night of his life. The other night, he was pretty desperate, and while my wife held him, I asked myself, “What would I do if Jesus came in the room?” The desire to punch Jesus evaporated. I knew what I would do: I would fall at his feet and beg him to heal my son. That’s what I did. And that particular night, I heard him say, OK, and my son slept. The next night, he didn’t. He struggled a long time. But there was a difference in me. Less anger, more compassion. Less reactivity, more sorrow. I’ve found that pain and grief increase and anger decreases in the presence of God.
Jesus has gone ahead of you, into suffering. You can begin to experience him there.
I’ve lost the first part of this year and much happiness so far. I wanted to start seeds, to get the gardens ready, to write better and more often, to take more hikes with my kids. I wanted to host a family birthday party, and so did my wife. It’s only been a quarter, but it’s taken a toll.
And this is what I tell myself: Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead. One day, all these things will be raised: my winter, my future, my body, my writing. A dream that goes into the ground yields much, in God’s economy. And so I give this to you, Jesus. I don’t think I suffer beautifully or anywhere near it, but I want to suffer with you, and to see you, even as I ask for deliverance.
That’s my blessing for you, too, my friends. May your suffering overflow with meaning. May you be comforted. May you see Jesus and have your heart addressed. May you know and anticipate resurrection. May you be guarded from torment. May you indeed be delivered.