Suffering without meaning is the hardest kind of agony to bear. Humans will put themselves through all sorts of torture, endure any kind of hell if only some meaning is attached to it. Parents whose children are killed by random gunmen or drunk drivers begin awareness campaigns. The thought that their children’s brief lives and sudden deaths held no meaning is the cross that is too hard to bear.
Others of us begin to tell our stories, justifying the horrors faced by the hopeful thought that perhaps we can prevent even just one from going down the dead end we did. Or we frame our errors with inspirational quotes about learning from our mistakes in order to give a little sense of meaning to our losses.
But I have come to the conclusion that much of our suffering is meaningless. I don’t mean that one can’t wrest some sort of meaning from it but that suffering can be random, undeserved, and contrary to God’s will for our lives. If the wages of sin is death, then suffering is just the advance payment. This is by no means a hopeless post, in case you are worried. But we as Christians sometimes deify suffering when even Jesus Himself suffered for the reward set before Him. He suffered for a purpose. He married suffering to meaning for us.
But Jesus let His disciples know that this world is filled with tribulation. The greatest act of courage we can commit is to not let it overcome us, instead overcoming evil with good. And that is what making meaning out of suffering ultimately is; overcoming the existential meaninglessness with the ultimate meaning or perhaps a better word, love.
I remember the first time I faced the fact that my suffering in the marriage to a narcissist was pointless. I was in a public restroom in Big Bear, California. On the wall was a poster that listed ten signs of an abusive relationship. I could identify with nine of the ten. The tenth was physical abuse. If pinching me till I bruised counts, then I could say yes to all ten. Four years later, that list still in my head, I had to admit to myself that my children and I were suffering needlessly. No good would come of staying and suffering.
Since then, I don’t think I have still fully come to terms with the full consequences of the evil visited on me and my daughters. But I have learned a few things about suffering and what it means for me and those around me.
Sometimes suffering doesn’t come with a tidy meaning attached.
Why some tragedy happened to you is more often than not, completely unknowable. The lesson you learn in the midst of it may only be that it didn’t kill you. A kind of wild strength sometimes wells up out of a human soul after prolonged suffering. With nothing left to lose, fear can lose its grip. You may never be the same, but you know you have what it takes to endure. Some days, for me, that is enough.
Suffering isn’t noble, but our response to it can be.
Everyone on the face of the planet suffers rich or poor, regardless of creed, ethnicity, or circumstance. I hate statements like that, by the way. Sweeping statements like that mean nothing because suffering isn’t general. It is specific to each of us. We each suffer uniquely in ways that belong explicitly to us. And how we choose to bear that suffering is the choice we make. That decision propels us along the path to meaning or to the void.
Choosing to suffer isn’t automatically noble.
Greater love has no man than he lay his life down for his friends. Jesus certainly accepted suffering in my stead, for which I live my life in gratitude. But plenty of us suffer because we think it makes us better people than others. How careful we should be that we don’t martyr ourselves for lesser causes. And the suffering we bring on ourselves through sin isn’t necessarily noble either, though it can be redeemed.
Suffering brings what is important into focus.
Bad times can come like tsunamis, wave upon billowing wave sweeping everything along its path. And the wipeout can last a lifetime. Several lifetimes, in fact. But nothing here on earth is permanent, except our souls. Everything we think we need can be taken away from us in an instant, except our very selves. Suffering has a way of putting things into truer perspective. We matter. Our loved ones matter. Everything else is ephemeral.
Learning to suffer well can be meaning enough.
Humans, being the legal creatures they are, are always trying to make a case for linking suffering to blame. Certainly, a lifetime smoker ought not to be surprised by lung cancer. But the book of Job blows the assumption that everyone deserves the suffering that life serves up. But the true witness of the Christian is not a life untainted by anguish. The comfort in the face of distress, the faith in the storm, and the joy despite affliction; those are the hallmarks of spiritual maturity.
A friend of mine once told me that our time on earth is the only time we have to demonstrate faith. We won’t have need of it in heaven. I don’t know whether that is true or not, though I see her point. But I do know that the peace that passes understanding is the answer to suffering that the world cannot comprehend. Your private aches and secret torments, and your public miseries too may not save the world or even one other person. But in the hands of the Master Potter, they can work to craft a truly worthy vessel.
Ultimately, suffering is a test of faith. Will my suffering accomplish something? Will it end? The choice to believe in the goodness of God is to combat the sense of meaninglessness with the Love, Himself. This is the fight the world is watching. If you fall, the world shrugs and looks away. Just another among many. But if you get up again to fight another day, you bear powerful witness to an all-powerful God.
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