During the past two years, as I was writing a book on the subject, I have spent time recalling and distilling the many lessons I’ve learned both as a pastor and a Christian about how to face suffering. Many of these principles for handling trials and afflictions are well known: We should honestly pour out our hearts to God (see especially the Psalms); we should trust and hold on to God as having a purpose in all things (see especially the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50).
Jesus is of course the ultimate model for both of these things, for he cried out the question, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ but he also said, ‘Thy will be done.’ The Bible provides many other well-known directions. We should also pray in God’s presence even though we don’t feel it (as Job does) and we should discipline ourselves to remember our final hope (as Paul does in Romans 8:18.)
However, in my research I came across a wise essay that pointed out some of the special pitfalls into which sufferers can fall and in which they may get ‘stuck.’ It was written by Simone Weil (“The Love of God and Affliction”) and it examines how difficult it really can be to walk with God in ‘the furnace of affliction’ and come out on the other side.
First she mentions the problem of isolation. Suffering almost immediately makes you feel cut off from the real world, isolated from your friends who you may feel can’t really understand you any more. It is also true that many friends may indeed stay away because the afflicted person challenges them to admit what we would rather deny—that suffering can come upon anyone.
The second is the problem of self-absorption. Suffering understandably makes it very difficult to think of others. You have no ‘margin,’ no energy or thought for anything but your own troubles and needs. Over time your trials can lead to a kind of pride. It can make you feel noble and superior to others who have not had to go through the deep waters that you have.
The third problem is a feeling of shame and condemnation. Weil points out that many of us do not feeling guilty about some things that we ought to be ashamed of. But when great suffering hits it is hard to avoid feeling punished. There may be things that have no direct connection to our difficulty but that we now may feel guilty about. We may feel a vague but persistent sense that we have been condemned.
The fourth pitfall of suffering is anger. This depends a great deal on the cause and context of your problem, but anger at God or at other people—or perhaps at yourself—can burn so hot and fierce that you feel you simply can’t control it. There is also the more inchoate anger we call ‘cynicism.’ You can simply become deeply sarcastic and bitter about the injustice and emptiness of life.
Finally, and perhaps as a result of these other factors, it is possible for a sufferer to become, as Weil says, ‘complicit’ with the affliction. She writes that suffering can “little by little, turn the soul into its accomplice, by injecting a poison of inertia into it.” We may actually become comfortable with our discomfort. We may find the idea of going back into the responsibilities of life daunting. Or self-pity can be sweet and addicting. Or suffering can become an excuse for behavior you could not otherwise justify. Or you may feel you need to pay for your sins and the suffering is the way to do it. So you choose to stay miserable.
What must you do? If you suffer then you—or your friends and care-givers—must be keenly aware of these possibilities so you can move through them. Obviously, any afflicted person needs times of solitude, but isolation must ultimately be resisted. Suffering can make you more lonely or drive you into deeper community. Let it be the latter. And while all afflicted persons need to spend a great deal of time self-examining and healing, at some point they must face outward and think of others and love their neighbors and not think exclusively of themselves.
Even for Christians who understand the gospel, the feeling of condemnation can be a great challenge, but it is in the end a welcome one. We may think we believe we are saved by grace, but in times of difficulty we can finally learn to use the doctrine we know on our hearts, remembering that God’s wrath and punishment of our sin fell into the heart of Jesus, and now that we believe in him, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)
Our anger can be the greatest challenge of all. Again, the answer is to not merely believe gospel doctrine but use it. Did Jesus die for you? Then you can forgive yourself. Did Jesus die for you? Then you can and should forgive others. Did Jesus die for you? Then, despite all the unanswered questions, you can be sure that he loves you, he understands, and he’s with you even if you don’t feel him.