Suffering and affliction gatecrash our lives when we least expect it. Pain is the unwelcome guest which forcibly intrudes into our homes and families. Torment is no respecter of class, race, religious or political affiliation, age or nationality. Rather it is our vulnerability as humans which unites us, as we stare into the unsettling truth of our own mortality.
It is in this context that many people turn to those of us in the Christian churches, to ask the bigger questions of life and existence. The responses that Christians offer vary, but I offer five things that I have learnt personally from suffering.
The first is to separate the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ questions. In his book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, which Timothy Keller wrote while being treated for cancer, he firstly explores the ‘why?’ questions, but counsels his readers to turn straight to section two, the ‘how can I cope?’ section, if they are in the middle of raw grief.
There is a time for philosophy and theology, but also a time for pausing that conversation until we are able to breathe more slowly and reason more carefully.
After the death of a young friend, I found that even good theological answers to the ‘why?’ questions were no emotional anaesthetic. With intellectual resources such as part one of Keller’s book, or helpful books such as C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, those could come in time.
Second, it has often been observed that there is one thing worse than suffering – and that is suffering alone. This week, as our church has been saddened by the tragic loss of a young life, we have gathered together to weep, to pray and to welcome anyone who wants company.
Some have come full of faith, others have come with none, all have been welcomed. This is what we are required to do, “bear one another’s burdens” as biblical wisdom instructs. Like many churches and communities around the country, we are learning that tears are OK, silence is OK, and that fellowship is essential.
Third, our approach to these trials draws on the wisdom of Jesus who said, “do not worry about tomorrow, for each day has enough trouble of its own” – in other words, take one day at a time. For each day we spend processing grief or pain, we need to set our sights on making it through that day. No one can bear the weight of a lifetime of lost dreams and hopes; getting through the day at hand is enough, and together, with God’s help we will.
This also in turn can free us to ask, “how best can I use this one day?” For many people that has meant doing something to ease someone’s pain, or to do something truly worthwhile in the memory of someone we have lost. We do not have infinite days to live – but one day at a time, we might use them well.
Fourth, the uniquely Christian hope we offer is of resurrection. We believe that the reason that we grieve so much in loss is because a human being is much more than a mere functioning collection of molecules but is an infinitely precious bearer of God’s image – body, soul, mind, consciousness. Death then, cannot be reduced to a physical process, any more than Elgar’s Cello Concerto can be regarded as merely a series of vibrations.
This observation is embedded in the central Christian truth, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all who hope in him will similarly rise – thus our final great hope is not limited to life here, but in Christ our eternal destiny is glorious. In Christ there is hope – and with hope we can get through this day.
The final observation comes from a prayer of the Apostle Paul: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” He’s talking about the spiritual experience that is more than the post-dated future hope of resurrection but is encountered here and now. It is to this end we pray, and seek to learn to calm our troubled souls by resting in Jesus.
These things combined are how we will get through this together, our day of grief and suffering, along with a welcome to anyone who wants to join the embrace.
Gavin Matthews for Solas.