The third in a series of reflections on one of the chiefest themes of the Lenten season and of life
In seeking to make meaning of our human existence, a classical view, under the banner of religion, is that suffering reminds us, powerfully, rudely that we are not omnipotent. In a word, we are not God. Thus, the idea and the reality of suffering repeatedly compels us to confess our creatureliness; our fragility and our finitude.
Fair, though painful enough.
Yet, in this, I perceive a problem, which is as conventional as the view itself. It is only a short step away to say that our powerlessness is a sign or proof of divine power. And to use suffering per se to make a case for God is what I might term “a Divine game” or, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, having God “smuggled into (our lives at) some last secret (vulnerable) place.” Too heartless a trick, I think, for God.
Moreover, the Hebrew scripture story of Job, boldly wrestling with the ancient riddle of the relationship between suffering and God, remains silent in the face of mystery, offering no conclusive answer other than the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty.
In the light and the shadow of this enigma, I am reminded of those “comforting words” spoken down through the ages at times of sorrow by well-meaning folks who seek to make sense of suffering: “It is God’s will.” A particularly poignant passage, written in a previous time of war, raises a passionate objection and a pointed question:
The child was torn to pieces by two shell fragments. The mother held the child’s head and stared in astonishment at the huge carmine pool of blood. The pastor comforted the weeping woman by saying, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away.” And then (he) added, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Had he never considered that God could be the guilty one?
I think, too, of a conversation, now, many years ago, that remains hauntingly riveted in my memory. A dear childhood friend had called me to share the news of her father’s imminent death. I expressed my sympathy; praying his eternal peace and solace for her and her family. Then her tear-choked voice calmed when she, with earnest acceptance, said, “It, all of it, even his illness, is God’s will.”
If suffering is God’s will, then I am led to confront the possibility that God exercises power capriciously at human expense. And my fervent belief in the God of Love revealed in Jesus calls me, demands that I reject what I would consider cruelty of cosmic proportions.
Now, a counterpoint to the notion that suffering exposes our impotence, thus revealing God’s omnipotence is to focus not on God, but on ourselves. We are to embrace and enter the experience of our suffering so to discover transformative possibilities.
In some sense, this was the counsel of my therapist (mentioned in Part 1) who encouraged me to explore my painful past, so to find healing. Hence, I’d like to think that there is value for us when, in our suffering, we center our attention on ourselves. Moreover, I also dare not doubt the integrity and sincerity of those who, having reached the other side of their suffering, speak of valuable lessons learned.
Nevertheless, learning is a reflective task. It’s not the sort of thing one often comprehends in the midst of the moment. Suffering, in the moment, at least, in my experience, produces more weeping than insight, which, when, if it comes, comes later.
More to come…
© 2021 PRA
Illustration: Woman with Dead Child (1923), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
 Seemingly similarly, this understanding is at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s declaration that, in the face of his debilities, (the Lord’s) grace is sufficient…for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9). However, for Paul, it is not suffering alone in which God’s grace is made known, but rather our acknowledgement and acceptance of our weakness that our suffering reaffirms for us that allows the revelation of God’s strength to be perceived and received by us.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), from Letters and Papers from Prison (published posthumously, 1962). Note: For purposes of making meaning, I have supplemented Bonhoeffer’s wording with my parenthetical additions.
 From Leviathan (1949), Arno Otto Schmidt (1914-1979)
2 thoughts on “Suffering, Part 3 of 5”
Insight is a really great thing!! And I think you’re right you don’t have much time for insight while the suffering is ongoing, but what we do after the suffering is the key I think. It’s possible that everything that happens to us is God’s will but I still try to learn what the lesson is.
Loretta, yes, I agree with you that “what we do after the suffering is the key.”
Now, where I continue to wrestle (that is, struggle with no sure outcome or sense of things) is about what is God’s will. So, yes, under the heading of my limited comprehension in the face of the Infinitude who is God, as you write, “It’s possible that everything that happens to us is God’s will.” Still, for me to embrace that idea or reality would mean that, for me, I would have to accept that the God of Love wills (desires, plans, orchestrates, determines, i.e., makes it happen) that we suffer. And that, if I am to believe in the God Jesus reveals, I cannot accept…
Now, having said/written that, if I believe that God is sovereign, that is, all things are under Divine command and control, then when something horrible happens (which I do not and cannot believe that God willed), then I am led to think that God allowed it. And in this, God’s allowance of dreadful things to occur, I perceive a dark corner of God’s will. Dark because I cannot perceive the truth of it or make sense of it. Also dark because it may be that God, in the process of becoming along with the creation, may have undeveloped impulses that require nurturance, growth, and refinement. (Or it may be that I can…that I am able to postulate the shadow-side or shadow-Self of God because I, in part, almost be the necessity of my limited human awareness, have attributed to God what I behold in my self. Thus, I have projected onto the image of God my image.)
I do not believe that I ever will sort this out for myself. Nevertheless, I am called to the encounter and engagement of this labor.