Just returning from an extended trip to Africa, my friend appeared haunted. Working in medical clinics and feeding centers to care for women and children, did not bring a sense of fulfillment. She shared in great detail what she encountered in the medical center there. Abuse, disease, and suffering unprecedented in her 1st world medical environment rocked her personal world. As our conversation continued, a fragmented sentence dropped,
"It reminded me of when . . . I . . ." Quietly, I just looked with interest. She forced her next words, "It hit a little close to home. I'm, trying to make sense of it all anyways." Then, the insightful question,
"Suffering, what good is it anyways?"
For people helping people, the question is often pondered. Missionaries, cross cultural workers, social workers, Doctors Without Borders, foster parents, and just about anyone serving hurting people struggle to answer this question,
"Suffering, what good is it anyways?"
A Theology of Suffering is something I've personally pursued over much of my adult life. Suffering is no stranger to me personally. Witnessed during my twenty plus years in Africa and ten years serving on two fire departments in Minnesota as chaplain, provided many opportunities to witness suffering first hand. Then, there is my own story.
Here's a few personal thoughts finding some good in bad, some rational in the irrational, some sense in the insensible, and reason to continue hoping and helping when things seem hopelessly helpless. "What good is suffering?" A few thoughts:
Not Everything that Hurts is Bad
A friend was recently in a car accident. The driver of the other vehicle was totally at fault. My friend suffered moderate injuries requiring surgery. During examination of injuries, doctors discovered my friend also had cancer. Caught at stage two, his prognoses is great. Apart from his fortuitous car accident, his cancer may of metastasized before its discovery.
Some Suffering Births Goodness
Another friend of mine, Joel, a number of years ago fell very ill. Upon examination, doctors discovered late stage cancer. He nearly died. During his months long treatment to arrest the cancer, a particular church group visited him many times in the hospital and at home. In particular, a beautiful young woman took an interest in the deathly ill young man. Today, they enjoy more than thirty years of marriage. They are happy. Cancer may prove the best thing that ever happened to Joel.
Suffering Can Nurture Identity and Empathy
I love a particular Bible verse in 2 Corinthians 1:4, "He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us."
During my tenure with the Grand Rapids Fire Department in Grand Rapids, Minnesota as Police/Fire Chaplain, I was called out for a drowning. Entering the ER, there laid a lifeless little eight-year-old boy. His mother cried over his cold body repeating over and over again, "I am a horrible mother."
Having returned home from working all night on 3rd shift, the baby sitter failed to show up. Her two children promised to be good while mommy took a nap. Mommy was awaken by a police officer knocking on her open door. Her little boy and even younger daughter opened the door and slipped out to play across the street in the neighbor's lakeside yard. Getting unto a large paddle board, the two made it to the floating raft. His little sister made it onto the raft. He fell into the water.
There with the family, a care giver entered that ER room. She was so very compassionate, effective, and as this chaplain watcher her, impressive too. Afterwards I learned of her story of losing a child to similar circumstances. In her own personal loss, she identified with the grieving mother, reached out, and offered care very few could provide at that moment and in that situation.
Suffering Helps Us Prioritize
A pastor friend of mine suffered a severe heart attack. Nearly dying, he vowed during recovery, "I'm going to start taking better care of me, my wife, my family, and my church. I'm going to be better." He followed through on those words. Losing 150 pounds, his self-care was stellar. Spending more time with his spouse and sons, one son stated, "My dad is not the same dad he was two years ago. He so much better. It's sort of hard to explain."
A counselor friend of mine often reminded me, "Not all the hurts is bad, not a that is feared is harmful, not all that appears good is best, and sometimes what appears worse is best."
Hurt can lead to compassion. Compassion leads to action. Action leads to purpose. In purpose, life becomes very rich and rewarding. I am rich.
Just My Thoughts,
Don was born in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having served twenty-two years in South Africa as missionaries with his wife Kathy, and eight years pastoring in the United States, he shares unique perspectives about life, family, relationships, and ministry.