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,
Walking into the One-Hundred Bed Ward One in the Ladysmith Provincial Hospital, I approached the bedside of Mr. Bengu. The stench of gangrene permeated the air. My many trips to this particular ward prepared me for the common site of moaning diseased ridden people. In that ward, on this particular day, lay Mr. Bengu wreathing in pain, suffering double amputation of his legs.
Mr. Bengu long struggled with diabetes. With limited ability and money, he grappled, as so many diabetes suffers in Africa do, to obtain proper medications to control his affliction. It wasn't that Mr. Bengu didn't take his diabetes seriously. He just did not possess the means to combat the disease effectively. An all too common tragic story in Africa. At age fifty-four, shortly after his amputation, Mr. Bengu died. Performing his funeral those many years ago, I asked myself, "Why such suffering?"
Adults suffering and dying presented one level of agony to me. Children afflicted; sick, and dying presented a deeper harsher reality of anguish. In Africa, I often asked, "Why, why, why?"
It's not the first time the question has been asked. A song writer over three thousand years ago summed up his life,
I have been sick and close to death since my youth.
I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors.
Trying to make sense of my own suffering over the years use to occupy much of my time. The many child deaths in our MANNA Feeding Centers in South Africa took a toll on my person. The many traumas of carnage and death witnessed in the then known as "black townships" and villages around Ladysmith took its toll. Struggling with PTSD, I found myself constantly and angrily asking "Why?" It consumed my mind, life, and person. Learning to manage Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome helped me discover some anwers.
Found The Answer
A friend of mine who specializes in PTSD recovery posed a great coaching question to me one day, "Don, how might you look at your life if you called your PTSD as a gift?"
Another friend challenged me just a couple years ago exclaiming, "Don, do you know what a tremendous gift God has given you?" That question reverberated again when my Christian therapist helping me learn to manage my PTSD posed the same question. Last year I shared my story for the 1st time in a church in California. It was excruciatingly difficult. At times, I am told, my voice so quieted the audience barely heard my words. A small petite woman approached me afterwards gently commenting, "You've realized that it's a gift. Good for you, good for God, good for those you are going help." It marked a personal Epiphany.
The Suffering Question
Most answers given for suffering, to me, come from those trying to explain something they know very little about themselves. I often listen to sermons about suffering from nontransparent messengers seeking to make sense out of the whole question. There appears, at times, no adequate answers, I suppose. However, for me, I've discovered some personal aha moments trying to make sense of it all.
After fifteen grueling years with this thing called PTSD my heart's capacity for empathy and compassion increases exponentially for others suffering. Feeling other's pain, something most resist, is something easily embraced and now personally welcomed. In my earlier years, I was always driven by a goal to get ahead, get to the next level, or pursue the next goal. Pushing ahead continuously to accomplish one vital thing or another gave significance and meaning. These days, significance and meaning come from connecting with the suffering others trying to make sense of it all.
To hurt with those who hurt and grieve with those who grieve is a gift. I see that now.
During my early years of ministry in South Africa, prayers were always offered at the bedsides of hospitals, homes, and mats on the floor of mud huts in African villages. A prayer was something I was taught to do. Be positive, give hope, give a compliment, and leave with a prayer. Good training. However, prayer connects in a deeper, more consoling way now. My heart and soul hurts with person I pray with. In the Bible, this verse comes to my mind:
"we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive"
Suffering engenders identification and true compassion with those who suffer. The loss of a child, cancer, grandparents raising grandchildren, health, financial anxiety, domestic abuse, trauma, assault, betrayal, mental anguish, or familial ruin create so much more than just a story to endure or politely ignore.
Compassion can be a net result of suffering. If one chooses to accept and embrace suffering's value, good positive things happen.
Confidence? Yes! I've learned the value of these words:
"For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Contrary to what we hear from many, there is strength in weakness. It's there if you look for it.
Suffering provides us with a platform for personal growth. Through processing our suffering as an experience of growth rather than a negative of existence, life can be richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
Oh, yes, pain brings negatives. That is sure. Yet, pain also brings positives. Personal growth, motivation, and a willingness to venture out mark just a few possibilities.
Helen Keller epitomized this. Left blind and deaf from illness as an infant, she through much anguish discovered goodness in her suffering:
In her autobiography she wrote, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."
What is that thing in your life viewed as foe? What is the "Why Me?" of your life. What marks your path of suffering?
Maybe, just maybe, if you look deep into that thing, there exists a gift awaiting your discovery?
Wouldn't that change everything?
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.