I’m a high-drive person. I’m and ENFJ on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. I’m a seven on the Enneagram. I’m a “High D” on the DISC inventory. I show very little moderation and when I get into something, I’m all in. You know the type? I’m always on the go, I minimize pain and maximize enjoyment. I hate delays, I’m always ahead of time and I don’t have a lot of patience.
So, imagine my shock when I discovered the world which I thought I had decoded, through brute effort and output, would no longer open up for me. I had the worlds best life and business coaches. I was educated to the highest level. I built an entire identity around achievement, emulation, and external success. All that was working. Why was I successful in business, but couldn’t satisfy the angst in my soul? Why were my prayers bouncing off the ceiling? Why was I suffering inside when I had no basis on the outside?
I’d like to invite you to consider that the suffering of our world is not exclusively circumstantial. Yes, a drought, a weather event, a war, a virus, a failed government all create circumstances under which people do suffer with terrible hardship, but hard times are not in themselves suffering. Suffering strikes us on the surface level of experience, but it’s something much deeper. Suffering mines the depths of our being. I think this is a vital consideration right now as watch so much of our world move into an experience with suffering.
This may be the opinion of a Western, overly-privileged person, but I am increasingly convinced that suffering is the tyranny of the soul which cannot or will not accept reality as it is. We cannot accept our reality because we know it CAN be otherwise. We see those not suffering, and that’s when we realize suffering scars us deeper. Why me?
Suffering is ontological.
Throughout my life I dreamed of serving as a pastor, yet each time I gave my life to this pursuit, it ended in a deep, personal, soul-level suffering. How could I follow my awakened heart within a system that rejects it? I kept trying. More effort and output. After a lifetime of ascent, a struggle of debt, and lost opportunity, I opened my hand and released it. Some called me a quitter. I was judged harshly. Yet, I cared only for fidelity to that voice that kept beckoning me onward. The ride down felt like suffering.
Ultimate Reality requires suffering. We know this but suppress the truth. Stress develops our bones and muscles. Heartache shows that loving deeply involves risk. Some pain is best embraced than avoided. Struggle builds resolve. Down is the way up. This paradox exists all around us because the world is designed precisely this way, yet for some reason this ethos is rejected time after time. The severity of life is not a cause of suffering. Severity is the magnifier of beauty, which we are all seeking and celebrate, yet often miss.
Suffering is not what we are told it is. It’s not feeling bad, or having something bad happen. Suffering is the way we react to our experience with present reality. If we reject “What Is“, we suffer. We suffer because we can’t see God in the suffering we don’t want. We turn our face at the suffering of others.
Suffering is the conclusion that God himself has forsaken us.
The worlds problems are not creating suffering, they are the result of suffering. As James Finley would say, suffering is the skimming over the depth that is our life. Let me put it in a theological way: Given the sovereignty of God, we live in a perfect world. Even people of faith struggle to get their head around that one. That’s ok. It still needs to be said or else who will show it to you?
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
“In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” (Ecclesiastes 7:11)
Instead of looking at the world through the lens of everything going wrong, learn to see the world as though everything belongs. In some cases this view can only come with years and experience. Looking back it’s so easy to prove but when we are in it, it seems impossible. How is starvation NOT suffering? How is being unemployed NOT suffering? How is divorce at twenty-three NOT suffering? How is a mountain of debt NOT suffering? How is this pandemic NOT suffering?
All suffering is the physical, palpable, unarguable presence of God. It’s the suffering Christ we abhor whose life has become our own. We can’t go through life and miss God when the story of God is one of suffering. This isn’t a Zeus that conquers, it’s the Christ that identifies.
Immanent as well as transcendent. Universal and particular.
Suffering can be removed and its wonderful. But when it can’t be removed it can be transformed. Suffering transforms when suffering is joined or shared. I know some of you will hate this, but please consider it. Like all wisdom in paradox, joining suffering seems abhorrent. It wasn’t to Mother Theresa. It’s not to first responders. Show me a parent who wouldn’t take their child’s suffering on themselves if they could. See, we can understand this, but we still reject it, and when we do, we suffer.
If I could go back to my suffering self I could prove that there are no set backs, dead ends, detours, or obstacles? Those that showed me the world failed to name such things correctly. Each thing I called bad, was actually the most good in its infancy? I’d coach myself to be patient, and receive what is. Go with hardship and be taught by it. Receive each bit of pain as your perfect teacher exactly when and how you needed it most. All I would ask of myself is to never break faith with my awakened heart. It’s not about apathy, it’s about surrendering the outcome.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Ecclesiastes 11:6)
Yes, people are hungry. People are jobless. People are sick. People are isolated, abandoned, forgotten. People are oppressed, maligned, lied to, used and used up. It’s all perfect. Every bit of it belongs. Our confusion over all of this is the cause of suffering. Our myopia and inability to see is the cause of suffering. Suffering is not the event or circumstance thrust upon us, suffering is our headstrong refusal to be taught by pain. Suffering is our pride which will not identify and become one with the Suffering Servant. Suffering is not the emptying of our self, it is the refusal to be our true self before God.
Suffering has taught me that if we want the world to open to us, or If we want our life to truly change. Then we need to begin seeing the world as perfect. Yes, it’s full of imperfections. Imperfections are not design flaws, they are the perfect, exact piece of life that reveal something more perfect beyond them. Suffering is the root that blossoms gratitude and true worship. Like the antagonist in a drama, they are written into the story to make all things rich, abundant, and beautiful. All good art is an interplay of shadow and light, they are to be taken together, not separated. A painting would suffer if only one part existed. It’s like that.
Somehow we must learn to be with what is, while striving in our lot. This is when the circumstance in life become something new, and the world unfolds before our eyes. Sure, we can fight and kick against the thorn, wear ourself out pretending we are winning, at some point, we will meet despair. We really can trust what is just beyond the mess that is happening. Sure, life as we know it may go away, but that should never have been our goal. That’s why we suffer.
May I invite you to join your suffering, whatever form it may take. Be grateful it is not worse than it is. Then join the suffering of another. Do what you can to show compassion.
The world that learns from suffering is preferable to that which avoids it.