If you are reading this, thank you. The subject of suffering is never fun, especially with the recent shooting in Orlando, said to be the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. So thank you for making an intentional choice to read about suffering in a time like this.
I have read many opinions on the shooting in Orlando, and I know how depressing they can be. Everyone is sad, everyone has an opinion, and that is okay, because that is human.
But I want this to be not an opinion, but a response. I want to be a Christian who has more than an opinion, but a response based on wisdom and an appropriate action to take.
I am not here, however, to write about the shooting in Orlando. I was not inspired to write based on the shooting alone, though I was certainly grieved to hear about this violence. If not for another factor, in fact, I would not have mentioned the shooting in Orlando at all.
I would have said the same thing as everyone else. I would have joined a clamorous sound from the public at large, filled by well-meaning people with words of empathy, sorrow, and prayer. And yes, these words are good. I am glad to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds filled with so many words of kindness to those who are suffering.
Instead, I was inspired to write today by two videos on the suffering of two children. One was a short video on a father’s perspective on the 3-month lifespan of his first child. Be prepared to tear up, fellow stone-hearts, if you watch “99 Balloons.”
The second was a video on a 4-year-old boy’s nearly fatal car accident and the life-saving actions of a woman who held him for 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived. Actually, she held his head, as she would later discover had been crucial because the boy had been internally decapitated.
Both of these videos emphasized joy. The 3-month-old baby died, but the father praised God for the time he’d had with his first child. The 4-year-old boy lived, and the woman who held his head for 30 minutes was deemed a Good Samaritan for her actions.
But I was still filled with sorrow after watching these videos. After watching the second, I sat back from my computer, eyes filled with tears, and began to process my emotions. I prayed, “What am I supposed to do with this, God? How am I supposed to react to suffering? What if that had been one of my own siblings, and how would I have felt?”
This is the purpose of my words today. How should I respond to the pain of little children? How am I meant to respond to the hurt and hatred stemming from a shooting in Orlando? How am I as a Christian called to respond to suffering?
I am not the only human who has ever asked this question. Attempts to answer these disconcerting questions of suffering reach as far back as to St. Augustine in Confessions, to Teresa de Cartegena in Grove of the Infirm, and to C. S. Lewis in several of his works.
But first, a contemporary collection of the world’s response to suffering, the following tweets on an incident of violence in Gaza in 2014:
And the following tweets on the shooting in Orlando:
These tweets show that humanity knows there is something wrong in the world. Pain and suffering exist, and we see that every day, some days more than others.
But what is the next step? What is our role in suffering?
It helps to first understand why suffering exists in the first place. Here I turn to the words of C. S. Lewis, who acknowledges suffering in saying:
Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.
The Problem of Pain
We all recognize this existence of suffering as Lewis does, but this leads to the question in Joseph Barton’s tweets, as listed above. Suffering exists, but why? How does this correlate with the existence of a supposedly good God?
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest “well pleased.”
The Problem of Pain
Okay, so our comfort is not the reason for our existence…. We exist that God may love us. But how is suffering an expression of God’s love?
It helps to read the words of St. Augustine and Teresa de Cartegena, two medieval Christians who wrote on their personal experiences with suffering–Augustine on his chest pains late in life and de Cartegena on the deafness with which she was born.
And You stood in the secret places of my soul, O Lord, in the harshness of Your mercy… and that small slight tie which remained should not be broken but should grow again to full strength and bind me closer even than before.
And Teresa de Cartegena writes:
For there is no other path to paradise except through the suffering of anguish and tribulations, and by means of the narrow path we shall find out spacious, everlasting resting place. For it is written, “Strait is the path that leads man to eternal life,”… And if the saints could not get to heaven without passing along this road, how can we sinners expect to follow it without enduring much suffering?
Grove of the Infirm
These authors claim that pain is necessary to bind us closer to God, to grow us and to help us to love Him more. And this is likewise Lewis’s claim:
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
The Problem of Pain
This ties in with Scripture, as well, which reminds us of God’s wisdom and sovereignty in suffering (Isaiah 55:8-9) and His constant working for ultimate good (Romans 8:28). Scripture even reminds us of God’s righteously willing violence to occur for His glory, something difficult and even offensive for us to compute, as this seems cruel for a holy God.
But look back to Lewis’s words in The Problem of Pain:
Man does not exist for his own sake.
We exist not for our own comfort, but for the glory of God (Isaiah 43:7). And it is this Christ-centered understanding which leads to an answer as to how we as Christians ought to respond to suffering.
Trust that God knows what is best (Isaiah 55:8-9) and has an ultimate plan for our good and His glory in mind (Romans 8:28).
Also, trust in His eternal plan. God’s decisive act of intervening in our broken world was committed on the cross, and He is composing a crescendo of grace into Himself for those who love Him. By this, I mean that God is directing our current and daily sanctification (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10) and has designated a future place in heaven for those who love Him here on earth (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).
As Lewis writes in his allegorical use of Aslan for God:
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Recall what God has done in the past, and remember what He has promised He will do.
Aslan would advise:
[R]emember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.
The Silver Chair
3. Act in love.
Do not be swayed by hatred or empathy alone, by merely opinionated words. Stand your ground on who God is and what He has said.
And in that stance, do not just sit in sadness, though we are called to weep with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Rather, be observant of the suffering around you with a prayerfully tender heart, and then do something, anything, as long as you are wisely led by the Spirit and reacting in love.
Isn’t this what Jesus did? Didn’t he serve those who were suffering in incredibly practical and intentional ways? He spoke, he touched, he wept, he walked, he served with every fibre of His being in love.
Isn’t this what He has called us to do?
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Paul in Galatians 5:13)
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. (David in 1 Chronicles 28:9)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (Jesus in John 14:23)
So what now? What does this mean for us in simple terms?
Here’s the answer: look at Jesus. Follow His lead. Speak in grace, act in love, and be filled by the Spirit as you do.
That’s it. There’s the short answer to a long blog post I had no intention to write until a few hours ago as I sat at my computer and grew overwhelmed at the thought of suffering.
To be honest, maybe this was more of an exercise for myself, an attempt to decipher suffering and God’s role in it, along with mine. Maybe I was hurting for those who have hurt and wanted to understand how I should feel and what I should do.
Well, now I know. I will look to Jesus, the best role model I have, and look for ways to get my hands dirty in the suffering around me, whether that means praying for families of the victims of a shooting in Orlando or making dinner for a tired mama who is worn to the point of exhaustion. Either way, I am capable of doing more than mourn, and no matter how I serve, I can do something in the midst of suffering.
And that “something” is exactly what Jesus has called me to do.