Have you ever felt like you couldn't share the details of a difficult situation without someone immediately offering a solution or a spiritual platitude? Have you ever responded that way yourself?
The required cheerfulness that characterizes many of our churches produces a suffocating environment of pat, religious answers to the painful, complex questions that riddle the lives of hurting people. This culture of mandatory happiness actually promotes dishonesty and more suffering.
The Nobel Prize-winning social psychologist Daniel Kahneman has built a storied career proving the limits of self-knowledge when it comes to suffering. Even when we know where the hurt is coming from, we tend to respond in one of two ways: we moralize or we minimize.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, moralists interpret misfortune as the karmic result of misbehavior. This for that. "You failed to obey God, so He gave your child an illness." Such rule-based economies of punishment and reward may be the default mode of the fallen human heart, but that doesn't make them any less brutal. This does not mean that sin doesn't have consequences. If you blow all of your money on booze, you will likely reap poverty, loneliness, and cirrhosis of the liver. Simple cause and effect. But to conclude that suffering people have somehow heaped up trouble for themselves on the Cosmic Registry and that God is doling out the misery in direct proportion would be more than mistaken; it would be cruel.
The second and equally counterproductive impulse when it comes to suffering is the one that minimizes.
Have you ever heard someone try to comfort a grieving friend, saying, "Death is a natural part of life"? The intention may be compassionate, but the recipient seldom experiences it that way. For them, you have just minimized their pain, implying that death and devastation are morally neutral, that our perceptions are what ultimately create the problem of pain-that if we were only able to detach from our emotions, we would experience peace in life, no matter the circumstances. And while there is a certain truth to that-Paul does ask, "Death, where is thy sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55 KJV)-in the moment, it can convey immense insensitivity.
Moreover, we minimize suffering when we instrumentalize it. That is, when we subordinate suffering to the result it might achieve, or when we reduce it to a glorified means of self-improvement, as certain daytime talk show hosts might be accused of doing. Christians, of course, use spiritual language to minimize suffering constantly, even their own. The need to exonerate God in the midst of tragedy- even to shove Bible verses in a person's face (regardless of how profound or true they may be)-can be just as harmful as saying something actively discouraging, as if God were small enough to be invalidated by our individual suffering.
Both the moralizing and the minimizing approaches are attempts to keep suffering at bay, to play God. It is safe to say that when our faith (or lack thereof ) feels like a fight against the realities of suffering instead of a resource for accepting them, we are on the wrong track.
Writer and theologian Robert Farrar Capon has suggested that perhaps we need to "turn the question around-the message is for suffering and conflicted people. Christ on the cross meets us in our suffering and conflicts not in the promise to take them away here and now. He is simply with us in all our times." Capon means that our hope is not "Jesus plus an explanation as to why suffering happens," or "Jesus plus an explanation as to why you have this job, that spouse, or these circumstances or pain." He is suggesting that God is especially present in suffering. Nothing proves this more than the Cross of Christ.
We may not ever fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we'll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the ways we would like. But we don't need answers as much as we need God's presence in and through the suffering itself. The truth is that when it comes to suffering, if we do not go to our graves in confusion we will not go to our graves trusting. Explanations are a substitute for trust.
For the life of the believer, one thing is beautifully and abundantly true: God's chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be Himself for you. And in the end, what we discover is that this really is enough.
(Excerpted from from my forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free.)