Now that I have begun my residency for hospital chaplaincy, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my view and process of suffering. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was asked my view on suffering as it pertains to helping others work through their own suffering and being able to internally deal with my own suffering and that suffering I hear on a daily basis. How do I not become overwhelmed? How do I translate my views in such a way that helps the other despite differences in theology or spiritual paths? What is even appropriate to share with others about why suffering happens?
Why does suffering happen anyway? My immediate response is one of, “I really don’t know.” There is some suffering that simply cannot be explained. I have heard from many different places that we live in a sinful world, that humanity is inherently sinful because of what Adam and Eve did in the garden when they disobeyed God. So because humanity is sinful, we do sinful things, and of course that is why we need to repent and believe the right things about Jesus so that we have access to his transformational power to change our nature and at least not have to suffer for all of eternity. In my thinking, this doesn’t cut it in so many ways. It still doesn’t answer why I and so many others still have to face suffering in this life. It also seems like a minimization of someone’s current troubles in order to fit them into a system of beliefs that moves them from focusing on the pain here and now to hope in something that they or we haven’t experienced yet. It doesn’t fit with my belief in a God who suffers with us and doesn’t want his children to suffer. I have also heard people say that suffering happens to teach us something. While God doesn’t want us to suffer, he allows it to happen to us so we can become stronger. I could never give this to someone as a reason for why they are suffering. “God wants to teach you something.” What kind of help does that give when someone has lost their child or their loved one, or they are faced with the loss of a limb or cancer?
There are so many ways to explain suffering or help someone think through his or her suffering. In a sense, this is why we have clinical helping procedures. To an extent, there are some things that can be said or some services that can be offered to alleviate the suffering of another. Yet it seems that to offer an intellectual explanation to a non-intellectual experience doesn’t allow for the transformation and healing that can come from it. It would be like saying to someone who is overjoyed and overwhelmed with happiness for a new significant relationship, “Well, the actual reason you are happy is because these neurons are firing in your brain along with a release of these chemicals in your body. Not to mention that it meets a certain relational need that you have had because of that one relationship that went bad in your childhood.” This ruins the experience for the joyful and completely misses the reality that joy, happiness… suffering, pain… these are not just intellectual, psychological, or physical experiences. We experience them on a soul or spirit level.
I can learn the intellectual, psychological, or physical reasons and helps for suffering. What it comes down to is that I have an explanation. I can then give this to others or tell myself the answer for why something happens. But there is something missing if I don’t experience suffering on a soul level. It moves from being an explanation to a conviction. When I have a conviction about suffering, I see it as part of the bigger picture. It becomes a “soul resource” for me, not just an explanation or a tool.
What, then is my conviction regarding suffering? How can look it in the face daily and still sleep at night, only to meet it again in the morning? For me, I have to hold it in the scope of a bigger picture. What place does suffering have in the spiritual journey or in human life? How does God feel about suffering? In my own conviction, I see God as one who is infinite and cosmological. God’s presence permeates all things and all people. God is one who desires to reveal God’s self to all of creation at all times… so there is this constant back and forth between the small and the large, the temporal and the cosmological, the personal and the communal. What happens to us as individuals happens to the world. The Earth is affected, God is affected. And what happens with God… God’s nature, what God loves, what God is doing… affects us. This is the importance, I believe, of Jesus’ life and ministry. While I adhere to the Christian view on Jesus (that he is fully divine and fully human, that he rose from the dead, etc), I see his life as a very revelation to humanity of who God is. What a better way for God to reveal God’s self to humans than to do it in what we know and understand best? He could have come as a puppy or a giraffe or an angel… but what good would that have done when it comes to establishing a very real relationship with humanity? We understand the experience of a human, and vice versa, God does as well. Traditionally, it is called incarnation… that demonstrating in one’s presence, the greater presence that wants to be in relationship.
Incarnational is one word that works for me. But I also see Jesus as very archetypical and very mystical in his revelation. And this is where suffering fits in. Joseph Campbell views Jesus as fitting into a human legacy of mythology, an overarching myth that has resonated with people for all of time: that of a hero facing suffering of many different kinds and coming out in the end having undergone significant transformation. While I don’t see Jesus as a myth per se, but more as a fulfillment of all the human myths, I see him as demonstrating God’s truth about the natural occurrence of suffering and the subsequent promise of resurrection, transformation, and union that happens afterwards. The Catholics call it The Paschal Mystery… the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This it seems, is the pathway to transformation, and much of my frustration with my evangelical roots is an avoidance (or labeling as demonic) that journey into suffering and shadow. Jesus embodied this in his life. He demonstrated the nature of God, mystically and cosmologically, and gave us the hope that comes after the suffering. Authors and teachers like Matthew Fox and Richard Rohr have taught at length on this subject as they seek to understand and share the Christian mystical tradition.
This is the soul resource that goes beyond clinical, theological, or psychological resources that keeps me resilient and empathetic in the midst of suffering. I carry with me a very real sense that suffering is not the end of the line. There is something more afterwards… and how true that we almost never see this light at the end of the tunnel when we are in that darkness? I can’t count how many times I have said to others, “I wish I could tell you when it gets better, or even that it does get better. It only gets different. And there will be a time, when you can look back and see where you were and know that that was then and you have come through it.” Suffering doesn’t end in this life, but we have to face it and go into it in order to grow and understand God as one who also went through suffering. To me this is the mystical understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. We enter into that same journey that Jesus did. Maybe it happens by other names… but that archetypical story of suffering and resurrecting is one that is true to human history.
The question is then posed… “What if people don’t believe in the Christian story? What if this doesn’t fit with their worldview?” I suppose my answer is simple and goes back to that sense of incarnation. Jesus didn’t explain in so many words how it all works as much as he lived it. I bring with me my soul resources, my connection with God and others, and demonstrate in the simple (and perhaps not so simple) act of walking with them in their suffering while knowing and believing that there is hope to come. Sometimes, I have to carry that hope for them. To help someone find hope (in anything, really) is to give them a reason to live tomorrow. I would rather have a teenager hoping in his next chance to (cringe…) play video games, than to be suicidal. Of course there are much better things to hope in, but a shred of hope is better than none at all. And I bring this hope with me as I live into that Paschal mystery of “life after death.” It is the story of Jesus and it is the story of our planet. It is the story of humanity and it is the story of God. The temporary experience, while it very much feels like all there is (and often should!), folds into, is embraced by, and is sustained by the bigger picture. I, as a chaplain, as a friend, as a spiritual director, carry this to each and every person I meet, especially when they find themselves in the midst of deep suffering. It is not an answer or a reason as much as it is a way through.