They say suffering changes you, and that’s true. But it amuses me that we think it only brings good change. Suffering is so hard, we automatically like to assume the changes it brings are worth it, humanly speaking. But like everything in life, it brings a mixed bag. This isn’t to deny that we serve a God that redeems all of our experiences. Yes, God does. But sometimes we are left kicking at life circumstances, wondering when the redemption part will start.
I’ve learned to be okay with that – to rest in the fact that while life is far messier than I ever imagined, the good ending is still to come. Redemption is begun, but not complete. For me – going through a health crisis now for over two years – loss, messiness, pain and disappointment have been a presence that I didn’t want.
It has changed me. It’s a change that is slowly burrowing down deep into my soul. It’s a journey that began a long time ago. It’s a change that started when we lost our first child at two months, when happy innocent ideas of our future died with a diagnosis, when people we trusted turned away from us, when respectable people showed it was only a façade.
I’ve heard the example given that suffering is like water over stones, rubbing the rough part out of your character. Or that suffering is like the sanding down of splintery wood making it gleam in beauty. I’ve seen that to be true sometimes.
But only sometimes.
There are other times that suffering is like petting a cat the wrong way, where pain is like water damage to beautiful oak floors, and life looks more like rocks thrown off a cliff and shattered than beautiful river rock. You are left looking at the mess in confusion, and then a well meaning Christian asks you what the Lord is teaching you through your suffering.
They are hoping that you can give a comfortable answer. Some of the things I could say about suffering are true – God was present with me in a beautiful way after the loss of my daughter, for example. They like to hear how parts of the Bible come alive with meaning during physical pain. They are even curious as to how the Book of Job has become a beloved book of the Bible to me.
They aren’t as comfortable when I point to the truth about suffering – the beautiful river rocks of my life shattered, the gleaming wood warped and distorted through pain, the ruffled cat ready to lash out if you dare stroke again the wrong way.
That’s the hard thing about suffering. It teaches us uncomfortable things about the world and ourselves and other people. Look at the Book of Job and how uncomfortable his story makes us, not only because of what God allows in it, but because of people’s reactions to Job. None of us want to be a Job’s friend, but if we were really honest sometimes we’d see ourselves in their faces. Then we see Job rise up finally saying that he wanted to take God to court, and there he would be found innocent, if he could only find a court big enough to contain God. It’s another picture of us, looking at the broken and warped lives around us, sure that God is somehow messing things up. If WE were in charge, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
So what is suffering teaching me? It’s teaching me to acknowledge the brokenness and the pain of life. So many cope by turning a blind eye to the pain, and thinking that if they could only achieve that last thing, buff away that little blemish in life, and sprinkle the Holy Spirit on their problem person, life would be perfect.
But life never will be perfect until Jesus returns, and it’s okay to stop fighting that truth. This is what suffering is teaching me. We are a broken people – yet some of us are too scared to acknowledge it. But it’s a powerful thing to recognize because God can meet you in your brokenness. When life’s problems aren’t simply solved by switching political parties, marrying the right person, and choosing the correct educational choice for your children, then a desperate need for Jesus can take hold. A longing for him to return and fix what is broken becomes personal in a deep, deep way.
I’m learning there isn’t anything beautiful about pain. But there is something beautiful about the sacrifices people can make for those who are in pain. For me, my best example is my husband who had cared for me in many ways while I’ve been sick. There is nothing glorious about doubt during dark nights when God seems silent, but there is something beautiful about that flicker of faith God continues to kindle in your heart. There is nothing redemptive about betrayal in relationships (like Job’s wife, who wanted him dead, or his community that turned their back on him in his hour of need), but there is beauty in a forgiveness like Job’s, who receives them back when they return to him.
Suffering is changing me. In some ways, I want to mourn the loss of a more naïve worldview. This world has moments that feel like Narnia, and moments that punch you in the gut like Lord of the Flies. This world has so much everyday magic and wonder to it, if we were only to lift our eyes to see it. But when we lift our eyes, sometimes we also catch glimpses of the horror. It’s uncomfortable acknowledging that our world contains love and hate, wonder and horror, apathy and courage, birth and death. But pain in this world is helping me embrace the truth about this world.
We are a broken people living in a broken world often making broken decisions and life choices. Sometimes that means lament is necessary until he returns, the one who will wipe away all of our tears.
Lament and joy intertwine in our lives until that glorious day. That is what suffering is teaching me.