This is the continuation, and final post, in the series Reflections on Suffering. The whole series is available here.
As Christians we must bring our suffering into the midst of community. “Suffering is wasted if we suffer entirely alone. Those who do not know Christ, suffer alone.” Our suffering “breaks the bonds of our selfishness and isolation from one another, so that we may truly love one another in compassion. We co-suffer with those who are suffering, that their suffering might not lead them into despair and death.” We must heed the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff when he says,
But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death [suffering] is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
As Christians, we have hope that beyond this broken life there will come a day when there will be a restoration of all things. There will come a time where there is no longer any, “pain, nor grief or sighing, but life without end.” The same place where God meets us in our suffering is the very place where our suffering finds its final answer. Suffering and death are real and are terrible reminders that the world is not the way it is supposed to be, but suffering and death are not final and they are not ultimately victorious. We grieve but we do not grieve like them who have no hope. N. T. Wright summarizes this so perfectly,
The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love. The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar—the template, the model—for what God now wants to do by his Spirit in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won.
For myself I have found abundant consolation in the support and community of my friends and family. I have become increasingly aware of just how blessed I am in my own life and have taken that as a call to enter into the pain of those who have found themselves in far poorer circumstances. I have also tried to suffer publically as a gift to the church. This seems incredibly arrogant to presume that my openness is somehow a gift to others but I pray that it be seen as pointing to Christ’s strength and not my own. Through my exposed suffering I pray that others have an example of the high cost of the church’s truthful call to celibacy and chastity for its same-sex attracted members and causes the rest of the community to reach outside their own world and to embrace those sexual minorities in their midst. Wes Hill summarizes so much of this in the following,
For we homosexual Christians, committing ourselves to the church and looking for the presence of the risen Jesus in the human faces of our fellow believers, pursuing intimacy with this community, refusing to hold friends of the same sex at arm’s length in the midst of our confusing loneliness, doesn’t always—or even often—remove our lessen the loneliness; it merely changes the battleground. Instead of fighting loneliness alone in a car on an empty driveway or an apartment bedroom on Easter nights, we’re on the phone with a fellow Christian. Instead of staring at a TV screen late into the night, we’re at a church potluck, helping our married friends keep an eye on their kids. In the end, as the Indigo Girls lyric has it, “We’re better off for all that we let in”—including all the pain we let into our lives when we open up our souls to the fellowship of the church. That pain is better than the pain of isolation.
Ultimately suffering is a profound reminder that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Theodicy can only be a little help for those in the throws of pain but we as fellow believers can support by co-suffering with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can endeavor to soften the pain merely by sitting beside our friends and neighbors in the midst of their suffering. We ourselves may find comfort in our own sorrow by placing ourselves in community, being vulnerable about our pain and providing an opportunity for others to come along side us on our mourning bench. When we do this and when we look to Christ’s foremost example, our suffering may find some purpose or end. Our transformation and growth into the image and likeness of God will verily come about through surrendering our suffering and our lives to Christ thereby entering into the battle that has already ultimately been won. It is then, and only then, that we may find a glimpse of an answer.
In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.