What I've Learned About Suffering


It’s been a long journey, hasn’t it? 

We embarked on the exploration of suffering on May 1, and I can hardly believe it lasted a month. Who knew the unsuspecting discovery of a poem would lead to such an intensive journey for us here? I hope it has been helpful for you.

As I mentioned yesterday, I know this month-long series has fallen far short of examining all there is to be found and learned about human suffering. I am still contemplating a personal writing exercise where I type out all that I want to say and explore about this subject — all that couldn’t fit on those pink plastic tasting spoons in this space each day — just for my own benefit.

Just to see what I see. 

In the meantime, I want to share a realization I’ve bumped up against over and over again throughout this journey: 

The turns in the suffering have so much to do with Jesus. 

At least for me, this has been true.

Every turn in my own experiences of suffering can be traced, like a single trail of red yarn, directly back to Jesus. What he taught me about myself. Ways he helped me see a bigger picture. Truths he helped me learn in place of lies. Love he showed to me in places of pain. 

So much of human suffering creates a monumental court case against God. How could he let these things happen? How could a good God permit so much pain? Did God make this happen, or just allow it? Why would he let that be? 

I have certainly been there. I’ve wrestled with the problem of pain and God’s responsibility in it a lot the last few years. Sometimes it feels like I bear a particular burden about these things, as I’ve chronicled a bit in another of my online spaces. 

But one thing I’ve noticed, at least for myself, is this:

Any healing and wholeness and strength I’ve ever found has come directly from Jesus. 

Whatever God’s role in the world’s suffering is, I know at least one thing to be true: Jesus heals me in my suffering

What have you learned about suffering?

A Turn in the Suffering :: When It's Bigger Than We Understand


I have felt so aware throughout this suffering series that this subject is vaster than any bits and pieces of a blog series — even a whole lot of those bits and pieces strung together in a month-long series — can cover. 

I told Kirk that writing this series has felt like offering a tiny taste of perspective each day on one of those tiny pink plastic sample spoons you get at Baskin Robbins when you want to try an ice cream flavor before ordering your scoop. Each and every post of this series has felt like a tiny pink tasting spoon like that, and I feel like I could write whole book chapters on each post — each post that examined how suffering can affect us, and each post that has examined ways we might hold the suffering and learn what it can teach us. 

Not to mention all the perspectives that weren’t included in either side of that exploration yet.

This subject is just so big and vast. 

And this morning, as I was walking along the beach in prayer with Jesus and talking with him about all this, I felt so aware of the truth of this. It was like he looked out across the vast ocean stretching out for miles beside us and swept his arm out toward it, as if saying, “See this? This is its vastness. It’s true.” 

Sometimes our actual experience of suffering feels like that, too. 

There’s a vastness to it. An imperceptibility because it can be so all-consuming and great. An inability to pull back and see or even comprehend anything rational when it comes to what we’ve suffered or seen others experience. 

Sometimes it’s just too big to understand. 

And I think, in those places, we sometimes just keep walking — that that’s all we can do. Keep holding the tension of what is hard and what seems necessary. Keep living. Keep feeling. Keep knowing God and ourselves. Keep trusting that something in all of this matters, even if we may never know why. 

I think there is dignity in this way of holding our experiences. 

Because just because something doesn’t make sense or cannot be held in our minds doesn’t mean our experience of it is less valid or that there’s no meaning in it at all. Who are we as we live inside that inexplicable complexity? What will we choose to believe? What will it make of our faith? What will it make of our lives?

These are some of the questions suffering’s vastness invites us to hold, I think.

A Turn in the Suffering :: When We Can Consider Forgiveness

Through the window.

It took me a really long time to get to forgiveness. 

I knew forgiveness was pretty important — Jesus makes that really clear in the Gospels. But I also had gone through enough of the process of learning my heart to know what was really in there. I couldn’t fool myself into believing I’d forgiven when I really hadn’t.

Besides, I knew that wasn’t what Jesus wanted, either. He’s the one who taught me the importance of the heart. He’s the one who helped me learn that our hearts are the key players in relationship with God.

I couldn’t just play lip service to forgiveness. Neither Jesus nor I would be fooled. 

So what do you do when you know forgiveness is important but you just aren’t there? 

You ask God to help you get there, and you be with the truth of the mess in the meantime. 

I’m serious. This is what I did. For years — literally, years — I consciously asked God to help me learn forgiveness. And then I would look at the reality of my heart and know that forgiveness wasn’t in there yet. I was still reeling. Still in shock. Still picking up the pieces of brokeness. Still learning what happened because of all that brokenness. 

Still learning what Jesus could do with all that brokenness, too. 

I read so many perspectives on forgiveness over the years, and none of them penetrated me.

Forgiveness is a choice, they said. It’s a choice you keep choosing and choosing and choosing each day. Or they said, Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what happened or saying that it’s okay. It means wilfully choosing not to hold that against someone anymore. Or here’s another one: Unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the other person to die. 

These things may be true, but none of those declarations or platitudes meant anything to me. They just didn’t compute. And they annoyed me. 

What got me to forgiveness was being with the pain. Examining it. Learning from it. Figuring out how it had formed me. Allowing Jesus to take me on the long journey of reckoning

And then getting to a place where I saw new things. 

The thing that helped me the most with forgiveness was having been with Jesus through that long season of darkness and scratches at healing. That long season helped me realize Jesus could handle everything that had happened to me. Even more, he could bring me through it — teach me new things, make something new.

I became more identified with Jesus and what he was making of me and my life than with the broken circumstances that had brought me to him in the first place. 

That’s when I could finally consider forgiveness.

When I didn’t need to hold the wrongdoings so close to my chest anymore. When Jesus had given me something more.

A Turn in the Suffering :: When We Become Less Identified With the Circumstances

Captiva sunset.

Do you know what it’s like to feel so identified with your suffering that you don’t know how to tell your story without it? 

I do. 

I know what it’s like to be so connected to all the ways I’ve been broken that I can’t see anything else anymore.

Living in the anger. Living in the sadness. Chafing against the injustices. 

You feel like your suffering defines you. It’s the only identity you have.

I also know what it’s like to come out on the other side. It feels like slowly waking up, or watching the misty fog clear before your eyes.

Suddenly, there’s more to see.

For me, each time this has happened, it has been akin to realizing God was able to handle all that happened to me. It didn’t surprise him or faze him. He let me come to him with it and said, “Yes. It’s true. I know.” And then he sat down beside me or walked next to me in the aftermath, attending to the process of carving out a new identity, showing how these things would be connected to bigger pictures

I became less identified with what had happened and more identified with what God could, would, and was already doing with it. 

It makes for a pretty monumental shift.

I’ve experienced a shift like this a few different times in my life, and each time it has felt like a huge boulder being removed from around my neck, and the connecting rope along with it. Instead of being submerged at the bottom of the ocean anymore by the weight of it, I found that I could stand upright in the water, my feet sure on the sandbar beneath me, feeling the cool water and its buoyancy against my skin, surveying the waves and the horizon and the light … free, now, to play.

A Turn in the Suffering :: When It Creates a Reckoning

Welcome into the light.

I’ve shared here previously that I walked through a marital separation and divorce in 2003-2004 and that it was an experience that created a heavy cloak of shame that I wore the length of my body every single day. 

I remember sojourning back to California from the Midwest, where I’d been living the previous year, with all that belonged to my name packed in the backseat and trunk of my little white Volkswagen Jetta. I arrived at my dad’s house, which would be my new home for the first part of that new season, and stepped into the tiny guest bedroom feeling all out of sorts and wondering what, exactly, my life had become. 

I was starting over. Starting from scratch. Re-entering the familiar context of my hometown, surrounded by people I’d known my whole life, but nothing was the same. 

Those first few months created a cocooning of sorts inside my soul. I would hole up in my room at the end of each day and play Sarah McLachlan’s new album over and over and over. I sat in that room with the door closed tight behind me. It was the safest place I knew.

And it was grief. Disorientation. A place where I pulled my shame cloak just a little tighter about my shoulders each day. 

But I’ve also shared that, eventually, I began to rethink all the beliefs that had been stamped into my soul through that experience. That was I worthless and thrown away … but no, I was beautiful to Jesus. That I was a single girl on her own for the first time … but no, I was now the bride of Christ. That I was less than desirable … but no, Jesus found me to be lovely

And then, in what was one of the most pivotal moments of turning around inside that season, there was the belief that my shame was merited because my new life as a divorced woman was counterfeit … but no, God sees me as Christianne, his daughter, not Christianne, his divorced daughter.

It became a season of reckoning. 

My suffering brought me face to face with what I truly believed about myself, others, and God. And by leaning into what those beliefs really were, God and I could look plainly at them together. In the context of that painful honesty, he could begin the work of reforming my crumbled foundation. 

A Turn in the Suffering :: When It Connects to a Broader Scope

Sun over trees.

I mentioned yesterday that my first turn in the suffering happened about 10 years into my heart’s journey with Jesus. One morning, I was sitting in a session with my spiritual director and was presented with the invitation to revisit a particular wound. 

I could see myself in that scene I shared with you already of being nine years old and given responsibility that was way beyond my years and then being held responsible for the disaster that resulted. I saw myself in the room of my sentencing, and my spiritual director gently invited me to explore whether Jesus was in that room with me that night.

Where was he? What was he doing?

He was sitting right there next to me, and he didn’t lift a finger.

It really angered me to see that — to see him sit calmly by while injustice happened to me. What’s more, as I’ve already shared, that night had far-reaching ramifications on my life, and Jesus did nothing about it. 

That really, really hurt. 

I sat in my director’s living room, eyes squeezed shut and tears streaming down my face. My thoughts raced with anger and sadness, wondering what Jesus could possibly say to me, wondering if he could say anything at all that would begin to help me understand or make what happened — his inaction — okay. 

I didn’t think it was possible. I’d lived with that wound far too long. 

But then slowly, like an onion, I felt him unraveling the cloth strips that were wrapped around my head, covering my eyes, the cause of blindness. 

Slowly, he unwrapped them in order to let me see. The weight of the cloths began to fall away. Dots of light began to shimmer on my eyelids.

And quietly, gently, I heard him say to me: “My daughter, it is true. I did allow that to happen. I was there, and I did not lift my finger. But you see, I had a greater scope in mind. I saw a vision beyond the story you could see. There is the greater story of your life, and how I’ve planned to use you. Because of what you’ve carried, you can come alongside those who also carry these burdens. You can touch them, because you know how they feel. You know what it feels like to be where they are.”

It isn’t that God was absent. It isn’t that he was uncaring. It’s that he had a different aim in mind entirely.

Sometimes our suffering connects to a broader scope that we cannot see. When we are in the woundedness, it pains us to even hear that. But when we are ready to heal, Jesus can lead us through.

A Turn in the Suffering :: Let It Take as Long as It Takes

Afternoon sun and shadows.

When I think about “turns in suffering,” my mind immediately flies back to the first major turn I encountered in my own experiences of suffering. 

I had been walking in a very intent way with Jesus for about 10 years. Ten years was about how long it took for me to find myself steeped in my belovedness, to be rooted and grounded in that identity of love. I’d spent many long years encountering the truth of my heart — learning what my heart even was, and then learning what was true of it — and then combining that with the process of learning who Jesus was and how to bring the truth of my heart into relationship with him. 

In those 10 years, I’d discovered and acknowledged the wounds in my heart. I’d been through the anger mill. I’d grieved a lot of losses. I’d allowed myself to admit what I didn’t know. I’d allowed myself to learn.

And it wasn’t until about 10 years into that sacred journey that I experienced my first turn in the suffering. I guess healing — or preparation for healing — just takes that long sometimes. It did for me, at least. 

And when it did, I was ready to receive some new perspectives. 

Let it take as long as it takes. I’ve learned from experience that the wait is worth it.

What is it like for you to let the suffering and healing process take as long as it takes?

A Turn in the Suffering :: No One Reason Fits All

Let's experiment, shall we?

As we begin our turn in the exploration of suffering, I want to share right from the outset that I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all response to it. 

I’ve noticed this on even just a small scale in my own experience as I’ve been holding this exploration in my heart the last few weeks. I’ve gone back to key moments in my life history that created shock-waves of suffering, and here is what I noticed: 

  • The way those situations impacted me often differed from one to another.
  • The way God met me in the suffering of each often differed from one experience to another.

Each experience of suffering meets us in a unique way.

Each time, the effect of suffering has to do with an amalgamation of so many factors — our life history up to that point, what certain relationships meant to us, what we believed about the world at that point in time, what we believe about God, our specific hopes and dreams, and so many other factors, too.

How something affects me at 5 years old is different than how something else will affect me at 25 years old — even if both are real experiences of suffering.

Who I am, how I take in the world, and what I understand about myself and the world around me will be different in each instance because they happen at different points in time. My understanding of reality has changed in the space between them.

Therefore, the way each instance of suffering impacts me will differ in both.

And the same holds true when it comes to making meaning out of the suffering and finding healing in some way. 

Each case is unique — and this holds true inside the scope of our own suffering experiences as well as from another person’s experience compared to ours. 

In this series, wherever we range in the exploration of suffering and how to hold it, I want you to know this is my heart toward you and where I’m coming from. I will share some of my own meaning-making and healing experiences with you, but these will not be meant to be prescriptive — just descriptive. Descriptive of my own unique experience and what helped me understand or led to healing, and descriptive of just one of the many possibilities that exist in the realm of suffering and how we might hold it.

This is my heart toward you: making room for your own unique experiences and needs. 



A Turn in the Suffering :: What Does It All Mean?

Curiosity workshop.

When I was in Nashville last week, I attended a conference hosted by Donald Miller. During one of the conference sessions, we spent time talking about negative turns in our life stories, and specifically, in that context, the work of Viktor Frankl. 

Frankl was a psychotherapist with a background of success in helping individuals on suicide watch move away from their desire for self-harm. But he is most famous for his work Man’s Search for Meaning, which was based on his experiences and those of his fellow prisoners in the concentration camps of World War II. Specifically, the book shares his observations on the nature of suffering, how it affects our humanity, and the importance of meaning-making in the midst of it.

I’ve not yet read the book, but I’ve just placed a copy on hold at our local used bookstore and look forward to learning from it and sharing any insights gained from it here.

But what struck me most about what we learned of Frankl at the conference was his incredible conviction about all this — about man’s search for meaning — by believing it is meaning that fuels hope and life, even in the midst of horrific suffering and even death. 

Does this resonate with you? 

Is the search for meaning important in your own experience of suffering?

A Turn in the Suffering :: It's About the Heart

Leaf heart.

Hi, friends. 

That turn in our exploration that I mentioned previously is here.

We’ve spent a long time wading into the deep marshes of pain, haven’t we? My heart has carried two realities at once as we’ve journeyed together: sadness at the heaviness of the pain, and a fierce emboldenment to make room for the reality of it and protect this space to honor it.

Today, as we begin to shift our position to look at suffering from some new angles, I want to go back to where we started. What began this exploration? 

It was a poem about the beauty and intricacy of the heart: 

I Promise

Has not the Architect, Love, built your heart 

in a glorious manner,

with so much care that it is meant to break 

if love ever ceases to know all that happens 

is perfect?

And where does anything love has ever known 

go, when your eye and hand can no longer 

be warmed by its body? 

So vast a room your soul, every universe can 

fit into it.

Anything you once called beautiful, anything 

that ever

gave you comfort waits to unite with your 

arms again. I promise.

— Hafiz

Suffering comes from a brokenness of heart. A marring of the perfection of love we once knew creates a detachment, a fracturing, a shattering, a disintegration of being. 

It’s pain.

The pain of suffering can be experienced in the body, yes. But even the pain of bodily suffering affects us at the heart level. It crowds our hearts with questions of love, worthiness, significance, meaning, care.

Let’s explore, together, how the heart might subsist in suffering, and how the heart might mend.