“Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” – Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965)
I ran into a friend the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple years. Despite the masks and the quick interaction, it was clear to me that he was suffering. I knew that things hadn’t gone well for him lately. He was putting on a brave face as men are trained to do. To be honest, there are several of my friends who are suffering these days. It doesn’t escape any of us.
Over the past couple of years I’ve written here and there about my own experience with suffering. I don’t think I’ve put it all together like this before.
My wife and I fought cancer for several years. During her last few years this beast had traveled to her brain. That was a hard fight. Several surgeries into her brain and even carefully aimed radiation beams, all in the valiant effort to slay that dragon. Being in Houston, we were blessed to be able to have some of the newest available treatments. Her last summer was spent here in hospice. It was very difficult for all of us as she faded away. She was in peace.
That fall, after she got in the boat and left for heaven, I was back teaching classes. Then the global pandemic hit in the Spring. We all scrambled to reorganize higher education. Two years later (for me) we are all just now trying to get back to a sense of normal. Guess what? It’s been four weeks and we are all reporting record class attendance. No one’s absent?? Everyone wants to get out and be around others!
During all of this dark journey, I had tremendous support, prayers, love and lots of wise counsel (just a few crackpot comments meant to be helpful). My family, friends and support system all suffered as we helped my wife fight and then held her close while she slipped away. If I had to explain to someone else, to my friend who I walked with that hot day last week, what I now know about suffering, here’s what I’d say:
God is never surprised by anything that happens to me. Even when I’m not sure what’s around the next corner. Even when nothing goes according to my own grand plans for my life. God was and is never taken by surprise to the events that happen to me – even the awful consequences that happen because of my own bad choices. Even because of the really stupid decisions that people in charge make. Somehow, there is deep comfort in this. God remains steadfast like a lighthouse, as dark as it gets. And maybe what I need when I suffer is not an explanation, but a nearness.
God very rarely is the cause of suffering in my life. A very few of those bad words of comfort that I got during those years (and sometimes now) are all about God and control. What I always do is imagine God as a father figure. This is the way that Jesus presented him to the world. His mission was to model for us this relationship. I know some people have dysfunctional father relationships. I didn’t have one at all. But when we were suffering, as I suffer now, I don’t think of God as the cause. I’m not mad at him. It helps to have people around to talk it all out with. Maybe people who are angry at God don’t always have someone near to listen?
“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” ―
Throughout each moment of suffering, God draws near and never leaves me to walk that dark path alone. I guess because I’m not mad at God and because I know he is certain and consistent, I know he is near. Mostly he is near in the presence of others. Now, if I hole up and stay away from everyone who loves me, it’s impossible to experience this dimension of God. Right? I went back to work, I stayed near to my church family, our dear friends and family members were here and remained (still do) on top of my life, all of this is how God works. He needs me to do the same thing with other people who come across my path and look familiar. Like my friend last week.
God is also near in what I read, when I write, walks in the evening, sitting in the back garden and listening to that night bird, and being still to hear the voice of the Spirit. God is near because I expect him to be. Because he has promised to be.
And who’s to say which is more incredible—a man who raises the dead … or a God who weeps? – Ken Gire (on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)