My own very limited experience of suffering and grief is in part born from my unique and perpetual singleness as a celibate gay man. The loss of a future husband and the physical erotic expression of my love and affection have led me to find consolation in reflections on suffering and grief in general. Like me, a number of celibate gay Christians have found some outlet for their pain in the theology of suffering, Wes Hill being a good example. Other celibate gay Christians like Eve Tushnet have never resonated as deeply with a theology of suffering in the midst of their celibacy. In the pages that follow I will attempt to share some of my own experience and reflections on suffering, as well as the numerous contributions of other far greater thinkers who have wrestled with grief, suffering, and the goodness of God.
So what even is suffering? Where does it come from? Can we explain its existence with the existence of an all-loving, good God?
Various people have attempted to create categories or lists of suffering. Generally these could be broken down into four groups: suffering that comes about from the fall’s impact on creation (natural disasters, genetic defects, birth defects, disabilities), suffering that comes about from the sins of others (war, abuse, rape, persecution, racism), suffering that comes about from our own sin (self harm, addictions, legal repercussion for our actions, broken relationships), and suffering that comes about for righteousness sake (persecution, self-sacrifice, missionary endeavors, etc.). Other issues like grief, loss of identity, loneliness, unemployment, and the loss of a relationship, can also contribute to human suffering but don’t fall as easily into explicit categories. All suffering comes about from the fall and is to use Cornelius Plantinga’s term, “not the way it’s supposed to be.” No matter how we list or categorize the kinds of suffering it is safe to say that suffering is unavoidable. It is all around us and while we can numb ourselves to its reality, it is a part of the very fabric of life in our fallen world.
When people of faith who believe in a good God who created and ordered the world according to his loving plan encounter suffering, it is understandable that they might begin to wrestle deeply with the seemingly impossible dichotomy of a good and loving God who allows horrible suffering. The theological and philosophical responses to this dilemma are categorized as theodicy. The poet Scott Cairns sums up this dilemma when he writes in his book, The End of Suffering,
Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere it is—a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock—there’s no arguing that it isn’t something of a crapshoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood-take your pick. And lest we forget the human hand in our crapshoot’s wealth of crap, we must remember to add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, and genocide.
And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?
Answering this question through philosophy, while an admirable and helpful response, has in my experience done little to actually speak to people who are experiencing inexplicable suffering in their own lives. While I might not go so far as Stanley Houerwas when he argues that theodicy has virtually no point, I do believe that other than as a philosophical and possibly apologetic exercise, theodicy does little to comfort someone in the throws of anguish and suffering. Others, like D. A. Carson, believe that if a believer is well instructed in theodicy their faith will not be as terribly shaken than if they hadn’t been educated on Christian approaches to theodicy. Teaching and instruction on the philosophical arguments for how a good God allows suffering is emphasized by Carson as deeply pastoral and needed to help prepare the faithful to encounter pain and suffering. While I don’t want to totally reject this approach, I struggle with the example of the great theologian, C. S. Lewis who wrote a great work of theodicy, The Problem of Pain. Later in his life he wrote A Grief Observed where he recounts nearly losing his faith in God because of the suffering and death of his wife. If theodicy is seen as a way to avoid loosing faith then C. S. Lewis’s example is at best disruptive to such a notion.
My response to theodicy is that answers to the problem of pain and suffering are found less in abstract philosophy and more in the concrete examples of our own stories of suffering. And most importantly in the story of Christ’s suffering. I need then to share part of my own story of suffering to put flesh on what could easily become abstract musings.
As a celibate gay man I will constantly wrestle with the intersection of my desires and my convictions. By following my desire to become like Christ through the life of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I must always be willing to give up anything that runs contrary to that life. For me, I’ve experienced this sacrifice most profoundly as I grieve the real cost of my celibacy: saying no to a romantic and sexual relationship with another man. Knowing this has forced me to come to terms with my own vocation as a celibate gay man. As I’ve worked through these feelings, particularly those of falling in love, I’ve been grappling with feelings of sadness, sadness that comes from slowly grieving all that I am called to give up for God’s call for my life.
It’s good to grieve, and as a future counselor I understand that grief and sadness have a real place in our lives. Grief gives us an appreciation for what we’ve lost as well as a renewed connection with our heart. It is easy to discount and discredit our emotions and to simply become numb, but grief and the process of grieving allow us to come to terms and acknowledge the depth of our real feeling. However, grief has its season and may eventually run its course. It is something we must go through, but we know that in time, the depth of pain and loss will slowly fade. My self-denial and pursuit of celibacy in accordance with my theological convictions will have its cost but I must remember that it is for a larger purpose.
My own suffering comes from living in a fallen and broken world. A world where having never chosen it, I find myself inexplicably and almost totally, physically and emotionally attracted to my own gender. Because I believe these desires are the result of the fall and not a God blessed path, I am called by my faith to never fulfill much of these desires. This grief over my vocation to celibacy, rather than grief over the mere existence of my gay orientation is now the main avenue of my suffering related to my homosexuality. Wesley Hill expresses this well when he writes in his book, Washed and Waiting, “The homosexual Christian who chooses celibacy continually, to one degree or another, it seems to me, finds himself or herself longing for something relationally that remains tragically, tantalizingly just out of reach.”
One of my many sources of comfort has been the book of 1 Peter. In it the apostle writes, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” And later, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” 1 Peter tells me I must look to Christ’s suffering to understand my own suffering.
Somehow my own suffering allows me to enter into Christ’s suffering thus identifying me with Him. The Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen reflects further on this mystery of our co-suffering with Christ,
Jesus did not come to eliminate suffering. Rather, He transformed it. Jesus was tempted, but He did not fall. He overcame the temptations that He might strengthen us to not succumb to temptation. He showed that suffering does not mean abandonment by God: Even on the Cross He remained faithful to God, and God remained faithful to Him, He was not left in the grave.
Jesus was faced with the temptation to reject His Cross. He chose rather to suffer, that His own suffering might work salvation for the whole world. Jesus transformed suffering into communion and overcame the power of temptation, so that we might have the strength to accept our own suffering as our cross and to overcome temptation.
By looking to Christ’s suffering I find an answer to the problem of how a good God allows suffering. The answer lies not in philosophical quandaries but in the very person of our incarnate God. It is astounding that the Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:24 could say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Somehow there is something missing from the very sufferings of our incarnate God, and by some great mystery that missing piece is my own suffering. Our suffering, my suffering, invites us into the divine mystery of sanctification by becoming like Christ in the midst of my suffering by suffering with Him.
Christ became man that we could become like him and be united to him. Without him there could be no growth, no lesson learned from any trial, or suffering we encounter in this deeply broken world. In a world with Christ, suffering can become a means of maturity by bringing us closer to God and to one another. Our God suffers and knows our own travail in a way far more intimately than we can imagine. In our own weakness, enduring suffering rather than succumbing to it can seem an insurmountable task. In truth, without Christ it truly would be insurmountable. However, because of Christ we know that it has been endured to its very end and overcome. By following after him through enduring our own suffering we are claiming his victory over it. Instead of suffering being a tool of Satan pulling us away from God it can become a means of growing ever close to God.
Our participation in the sufferings of Christ is not passive nor is it stoic. As Thomas Merton imparts,
Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
Suffering is consecrated to God by faith—not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. To accept suffering stoically, to receive the burden of fatal, unavoidable, and incomprehensible necessity and to bear it strongly, is no consecration.
Some men believe in the power and the value of suffering. But their belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.
It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails in the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?
To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.
My suffering transforms me into a more Christ-like person. C. S. Lewis reflects that God’s grand enterprise is, ”To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’ To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, ‘Now get on with it. Become a god.” This in a way is God’s ultimate victory over sin and death. Turning Satan’s very tool of destruction into an opportunity for good. Suffering is never good on its own. We should never desire suffering for its own sake. To do this would be to accept suffering as something intended by God. Rather it becomes good “by accident,” and in the hands of God our suffering is taken up as an offering to him for our transformation. None of this however removes or prohibits our ability to groan, or even to rail against suffering, to grieve and lament. Suffering was never part of the way things were supposed to be. According to Phil C. Zylla, our theology of suffering “will be more tears than words, as the words are symbols of a deeper experience that cannot be fully named.”
I’m not attempting to really answer the question of how can a good God allow suffering but rather I am trying to present a path or an avenue that may be helpful as we wrestle with our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Sometimes our suffering truly seems unbearable, and on our own it truly might be. Encountering the suffering of someone close to us can be even more difficult than wrestling with our own grief. C. S. Lewis speaks of this agony reflecting on his desire to take upon himself the sufferings of his late wife.
And then one babbles—‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we should discover how seriously we had meant it. But is it ever allowed?
It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’
While we may be unable to take upon ourselves the suffering of another we are able to bear our own suffering as an act of compassion. Christ’s death showed the depth of God’s compassion towards us suffering and dying in order to rise thereby destroying the power of death. Christ’s suffering was the greatest act of compassion, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We become co-participants in the sufferings of Christ by taking up our own crosses through which we are joined with countless others through their taking up of their own crosses. “[…] inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.” We are united as faithful at the Cross of Christ. Our co-suffering with Him brings about our co-suffering with each other and ultimately our co-redemption in Christ. Without Christ, and I might dare to even say without each other, our suffering truly is meaningless.
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.