Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Defeats Hope

Mysterious heavens.

Early in our series, Kirsten shared in a comment her experience of suffering: 

It leaves me expecting the worst. It leads to distrust. It leaves me always waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a way, it defeats hope.

I’ve been thinking about her response a lot these days, and I really resonate with it. It’s a lot like what I wrote about how suffering can shut us down on a heart level. It leaves us protected against life. Our guard goes up, and we’re just waiting for the next hit to come.

There’s something about hope that always conjures itself in my mind like a bright point of light ahead. That’s what hope looks like to me. And in receiving Kirsten’s words, I connect suffering to a response of turning away from that bright point of light, turning away and crouching away from it, eyes closed tight against its invitation. 

We become crouched against life … against possibility … against openness … against hope

In what ways has suffering defeated hope in your life?

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Invites Guilt

Let it go.

On Friday, I mentioned that I sensed a turn in our exploration of suffering toward some alternative perspectives. But I realized over the weekend that’s not true.

There is still more sifting to be done.

There is still more sitting in this place of taking the suffering seriously and giving it its due weight. So today, we’re continuing forward into the painful realities of suffering. 

A dear friend of mine shared an aspect of her own struggle with suffering that invites guilt:

“I think one of my biggest struggles with suffering is the idea that it’s my fault, that I’ve done something wrong,” she said. “Not that I’m being punished, but that I’ve been unwise or imperfect and done something to cause my own suffering.”

Isn’t this the truth?

I can just see so many of us working and re-working events in our minds. If I’d just done this one thing differently … if only I’d said or did this instead … if only I had all knowledge and perfect action, perhaps this suffering never would have come about, or perhaps it simply wouldn’t hurt quite so much. 

We begin to feel responsible for our suffering. And then, as my friend so attentively noticed, “Not only am I suffering, but I am bad for having caused it.” Suffering compounds suffering.

Has suffering caused such an effect in your own life?

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Invites Grief

Dusk light.

Hello, friends. 

We’ve been on a rather intense journey these past two weeks, haven’t we? I didn’t see an in-depth exploration of suffering coming our way when it did, but I’m really thankful for the chance to have slowed down the metronome of life for a bit to say, “Wait. Let’s look at this. This is real. This is hard. Let’s give it its worthy due.” 

I’m sensing that Monday will begin a new turn in this exploration. We’ll continue to look at suffering, but from different angles than we have been. For instance, it has felt really important to me that, thus far in our exploration together, we just sit with the reality of the pain — not gloss over it, not move too quickly to the consolation, not try to look on the positive side or potentially redemptive aspects of suffering just yet. 

That’s been really important to me here because I want to honor the reality of our pain. 

I’m coming to believe the deepest, purest healing happens when we let ourselves go into the depths of pain, when we allow ourselves to see and acknowledge the truth of it and how it is affecting or has affected us.

And so today, although we have not by any means exhausted all the ways that suffering impacts us, I want to take a minute to look at what we have noticed:

And in the midst of those glimpses, I want us to notice this truth: 

Suffering invites grief. 

Do you allow yourself to grieve how you have suffered?

I really respect what one of our readers, Bonnie, shared in a comment earlier this week. She shared that she is in a season of suffering right now and said this about her experience: “I know I need to sit with it, I cannot hurry it along and no one else can either … I cannot be cheered up right now, and in fact, I do not want to be.” 

Grief is so painful. And yet, it also dignifies the pain. It pays respect to what was lost: something of great value to us.

How does your own suffering invite you into grief? 

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Exposes Injustice

Moonlight mystique.

I’ve been wondering if all suffering exposes injustice at its root. 

Would it be called suffering if the pain was merited? 

Like, if someone did something deserving of consequence, would the pain of their consequence still be called suffering?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. 

In any case, a great deal of suffering exposes us to the reality of injustice. 

I think often about the Holocaust these days, as I’ve shared elsewhere — a whole race of people persecuted and herded off to they-knew-not-where to encounter they-knew-not-what, simply because they were Jewish.

What sense is there in that? 

On Tuesday, while driving home from a conference in Nashville, we drove through Alabama — straight through Birmingham and Montgomery, where several pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement took place. I couldn’t help but hold my breath at the holiness of those places as we drove through them, my heart continuing to be pierced by the suffering of our African-American brothers and sisters, simply for the color of their skin. 

It makes no sense to me.

And then there are the unjust sufferings closer to home.

Kirsten, for instance, shared in a comment last week these words about her response upon learning her son had a heart defect: “I knew people who had smoked and drank throughout their pregnancies and ended up with perfectly healthy babies. And here I was, having taken such good care of myself, and I was the one with a desperately sick child. It’s not fair. I did everything right.”

How has your own suffering exposed injustice?

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How We Are Alone In It

Storm over farmland.

I’ve been thinking about the loneliness of suffering. 

The reality is, no other person can be completely inside our experience.

One of my best friends lost her son at 16 days old. Sometimes I sit and think about the reality of the loneliness of her experience. No matter how many other mamas she meets who also lost children to congenital heart defects or for any other reason, no matter how many friends will sit and be with her for as long as she needs to talk or simply cry and cry and cry, there is a fullness of suffering specific to the particulars of her own heart that no one will ever fully know but her.

It hurts my heart to know that.

There’s always separateness between us and what others know of us in our suffering.

I felt a loneliness like that when I went through a marital separation and divorce in 2003-2004. I was the only person among my married friends who knew separation and then divorce, so I felt like an awkward, sore thumb sticking out among all of them. I had many close friends who were single, and here I was, having moved into marriage and then beyond it.

Even those in my life who did know divorce didn’t know my experience of it. They had their own particular experiences of it, their own process of living through it to the other side, their own sense-making process for their own experience that was not my own.

I walked through that experience carrying a whole world inside myself that no one ever fully knew.

Do you know this aloneness in your own suffering?

How Are You Doing Out There?

Petal heart.

Hi, friends. 

I’m on the road driving back home from Nashville today, so there won’t be an intensive post in the suffering series today. 

But I wanted to take this opportunity to check in with you.

How this series on suffering going for you?

It’s heavy. Intense. My heart has been feeling that reality this last week, and it’s made me wonder what this content has been like for you. 

Is the subject resonating? Do you want to keep going into it? Are there any requests you have about the series? 

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Shuts Us Down

Dark and light.

At ages 5, 6, and 7, through a string of unrelated events that felt like they were cut from the very same cloth, I learned two things:  

  1. The world is not safe.
  2. People will harm you in your most unguarded, vulnerable moments. 

I don’t need to go into the details of what happened. Just imagine the innocence of a 5-year-old girl, put her in a natural, commonplace setting, and then introduce cruelty, manipulation, and humiliation aimed directly at her.

And then imagine the same thing happening to her at age 6. And then age 7.

I was a pretty quick study, and so I wisened up after that. In what I’m sure felt like an incredible act of maturity at having learned a thing or two about the world, I shut my heart down completely.

Closed. Out of business.

No unguarded moments. No vulnerability. No trust. Just caution and vigilance. 

No freedom. No joy.

The collateral damage was pervasive. I grew into a young woman who lived more like an automaton than a vibrant, alive, healthy human being. I couldn’t let people in. I kept myself small. I stayed invisible. I didn’t know the first thing about being honest with myself or others about the truth of my experience of life.

I was completely shut down, for the world had shown itself cruel. 

Suffering teaches us many things. One of the things it teaches us to do is to shut down.

Have you ever experienced this?

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Makes Us Angry

Rocky ground.

When I began to realize at age 19 that my entire reality was rooted in faulty and harmful premises (of which what I wrote yesterday was just one), I got angry. 

Like, really angry. Super angry.

Not to mention completely disoriented. If what I’d oriented my entire reality to believe about myself, God, relationships, and the world was not really true, what was?

Commence downward spiral. Freefall.

It’s not just that solitary moments in our lives harm us. It’s that they shift entire realities. What happened in that one moment — or moments — hurt. But as we explored yesterday, they carry the capacity to form the way we live from that point forward. 

And when you get to the moment of reckoning — that moment of realizing just how great a life-altering impact that one moment or string of moments made — it’s like kryptonite. We have the potential to spontaneously combust. 

Because what are our lives, really? They’re just an illusion, we realize.

We’ve based every waking moment upon premises about ourselves and the world around us that are not true. And that leads, justifiably, to anger. 

Everything that happens is perfect? Hold on just one second with that presumptuous and unfeeling assertion, we protest.

Okay. We’ll hold on.

That’s why this is an exploration, not an answers lab.

How has your suffering led to anger in your life? 

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Forms Us

Gritty heart.

It’s with not a little fear and trembling that I wade into the waters of this new exploration with you. Most of yesterday, I noticed anxiety hanging on me and around me about this. This morning, I have a pretty thick bundle of butterfly nerves. 

I’m just noticing that response and letting it be what it is: what happens when you take a really hard reality seriously and then decide to talk about it out loud.

So, we’re going into the water anyway. And thankfully, Jesus will be with us as we go. 

The first aspect of suffering that I want to explore with you is the way it forms us. 

For instance, here is one story from my own life. 

One of the most formational moments in my life — and one that formed me not-for-the-better — happened when I was about nine years old. I was left in charge of two people who were stronger and bolder and brasher than me. Plus, they had a pretty combustible relationship. And what happened during our time together should not have been surprising: chaos ensued. What’s more, real damage was done to the structure of the building where we were. 

Although I had not participated in the chaos, I was given the same severe sentence the other two were. And when I mustered the courage to ask why, I was told that I could have prevented what happened. 

This was incredible to me.

I was nine years old and clearly the weakest link among the lot. I was not prone to aggression of any kind. And yet I was made responsible — more responsible than those who had done the deeds that put us in the sentencing-room in the first place, becauseI could have stopped it from happening

I cannot tell you with enough force how much that moment formed me. 

From that moment on, I believed I was responsible for everything. My two tiny shoulders were responsible for keeping every situation around me peaceful and in the right order. If anything ever went wrong around me, I felt responsible and to blame. If something went wrong somewhere on the other side of the world, even, I felt responsible for that, too. 

It’s amazing how, in an instant, our whole system of reality can shift. This belief formed the bedrock of my whole existence from that moment forward, and mostly on an unconscious level. It became so much a part of me that it informed everything I did, everything I thought, everything I believed, everything I saw happening around me, everything I felt about myself, and every decision that I made.

I was, in reality, warped by that experience. Our suffering so often has that effect — of forming us in ways that actually de-form us away from the truth about ourselves. 

In what ways has your suffering formed you not-for-the-better?

Taking the Suffering Seriously: A New Exploration

Eyelashes on pages, remnants of tears.

Yesterday, I wrote a post that I’ve found difficult. It asked us to consider whether everything that happens — even the pain — is just as it should be. 

I struggle with this question. 

I’ve struggled with it on a personal level at specific times in my life, due to experiences that formed me not-for-the-better. And more recently, as I’ve shared here in glimpses, I’ve struggled with it on a more global level as I grieve the mass atrocities and events of evil in our world’s present and far-off past. (I recently began a series exploring this struggle on another blog dedicated to just such questions.)

But we know we aren’t alone in struggling with this question. So many souls for so many ages have wrestled with it, too. The idea that “everything’s as it should be” has even turned many a soul from God.

It’s hard for us to fathom a God that allows suffering. 

I’m not one for Sunday-school answers. They lack real heart and flesh. They’re impersonal, more interested in the answer itself than the struggle that provoked the question. And so I’m not going to give you any of those here. 

What I am going to do is explore the question. With you. Out loud. Over the course of several installments. 

I’ll seek to make this exploration as human as I can — to put real flesh and faces on it. My sense is that this exploration of suffering will include stories of my own and how my understanding of those stories has developed over time. My sense is that it will also include ways of thinking about pain and suffering that are not, in myself, fully formed yet. 

But since this is a space called Still Forming, that’s quite appropriate here, isn’t it? 

What questions or struggles related to pain and suffering do you have that we might explore as we go?

All That Happens Is ... Perfect?

Patch of light.

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

dear friend of mine included this poem in the weekly inspiration e-mail she sent out this morning, and thinking on it has gobbled up my morning.

It speaks of the very things I fiercely believe:

  • that our hearts are, indeed, built in a glorious manner
  • that they break when we cease to know the perfection of love
  • that the shattered pieces of the love we once knew inhabit whole universes of secret rooms inside of us
  • that the heart waits, even yearns, to be rediscovered and to heal and to be made whole and connected with our full selves once again

There is a bit of a sticking point in this poem, though. It says that the heart, in the way it was made, “is meant to break if love ever ceases to know all that happens is perfect.”

This implies that everything that happens is, indeed, perfect … even if it doesn’t feel that way. 

I’ve wrestled at various times, for various reasons, with this idea that everything that happens is perfect. I know wounding. I know pain. I know the imperfection of love, for sure. I know this world is pretty fantastically, grievously broken.

So, how can all that happens be, somehow, perfect? Is this poet speaking true?

I think this has to do with believing — trusting — that something greater than the pain is present even in the midst of our being grazed by it. It’s the idea that something holds all things together and has a greater, grander scope than we can see in the midst of our wounded, pain-filled realities.

This is a hard idea. I know.

And when we are in the midst of pain, this idea is the last thing we want to hear.

But here is something true.

I have come out on the other side of hell — several times, actually —  and have discovered, on the other side of it, a perfect love that casts out the fear that doubt implanted. I have discovered a more perfect love that encompasses and heals those painful, disturbing wounds. I have discovered Someone faithful and capable to hold all things, even the most painful realities I have known, in his hands. 

And incredible as it may sound, I have become thankful for the pain. 

It is only because of encounter with the perfect and intimate love of Jesus that I can say today that I am thankful for it. The perfect love of Jesus makes everything — even seeming darkness — beautiful in its time.

But I won’t pretend. This is a really hard idea to hold. It’s one I still wrestle with, in various forms, today.

Here’s a possibility, though, in the midst of the struggle. Perhaps the more we feel the pain and grope in seeming darkness toward the light of love, the more overwhelming and sweet that light will be once we find ourselves inside of it. 

I know, for myself, that the measure of my love for Jesus is inextricably tied to the very personal ways in which he has met me in my distresses. 

What is your response right now to this idea that everything — perhaps all things — are just as they’re meant to be?