(This article begins a series on this topic and parallels the Coach’s Corner)
(Frank’s book, Faith of a Father: A Father’s Open Letter to His Daughter, received industry recognition including being an International Illumination Award Winner and an International Next Generation Indie Award Finalist. Frank is an expert on the integration of psychology with faith)
Our Culture’s Takes on Suffering
- Our Secular Approach
Ever see the 1990s movie The Lion King? The “Circle of Life” song composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice says it all.
We are born—and then time inexorably drives us forward. Like a deep, slowly moving river, it draws us through all that life has to throw at us, whether, as the song notes, faith and love or despair and hope. In the end, that slowly moving river rushes over the falls. At that point, life’s flag gets passed on to the next generation. The journey down the river of time repeats itself all over again, this time for our children. Around and around it goes…this circle of life.
Mother Nature gives life; Mother Nature takes it away. Mother Nature graces us with her magnificent beauty in her gorgeous sunsets and starlit nights. She also toys with us with her vicissitudes of cloudy…rainy…sunshiny…snowy…and windy days. Along the way, like the wolf’s relentless pursuit of the sweet innocent fawn, Mother Nature relentlessly pursues us with her wide array of exquisitely nuanced suffering and humiliating trauma. Some of us are luckier than others in dodging her pursuit. It’s not unfair. After all, Mother Nature has no heart by which to be unfair; she holds no scales of justice. Still, in the end, she will mercilessly crush us all. She will have no remorse. None. Never has. For she is nothing but energy. Mindless, heartless, blissfully ignorant, thoroughly uncaring energy. The energy of the universe…cosmic dust. And for us—well, even Genesis states the inescapably obvious of both our origins and our fate: from cosmic dust to cosmic dust.
But buried in that mindless universal energy, there is strangely—and most paradoxically, for nature knows not of itself—some sort of force that seeks to reward or punish us. If you’re good in this life, then somehow the universe will reward you. If you’re bad or outright evil, then the universe will mysteriously pay you back…sometimes. Just depends. Can’t explain it. It just is. We call it karma.
- A Protestant Approach
Our protesting movement that became Protestantism took Jesus down from the cross. We wanted to focus on Easter and the resurrection, not Good Friday with Jesus’ suffering and death. That’s why our churches use a cross—and not the crucifix.
With a laser-like focus on the resurrection, many of us pour our energy into trying to live the victorious life. With it comes the perspective that suffering just shouldn’t get us down. We think that if we live by faith…if we dare to step out in faith…if we believe hard enough and long enough by faith, we will conquer our suffering. We will emerge victorious. With enough faith, even miracles will happen. With enough faith, we can, as Jesus said, move mountains.
Others of us have a Christianized take on karma. On one hand, we believe that if we live right in Christ, then God will bless us. We even have many formulas for doing so, like the more money we give to God’s ministries the more “manna from heaven” we will get, securing our financial footing going forward. On the other hand—if we don’t live right, God will punish us. We believe like Job’s friends did: If we suffer a lot, then we must’ve sinned. Or, at the least, we must not be living the victorious Christian life. Somehow, someway, we’re failing to have enough faith to move out of our comfort zone—to walk on the metaphorical waters of life as the apostle Peter tried to do.
Still others of us, borrowing from the book of Hebrews, have a kind of Catholic purgatory view of suffering. God sends us suffering to purge us of sin so that we might emerge from the Refiner’s fiery furnace as more soundly Christ-like in our character.
Borrowing from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, many of us believe that all of our suffering must have some profound divine meaning, for God works all things to the good for those whom he has called to himself.
Across these various formulas for understanding suffering, we have the common theme that our “God is in control”—and somehow that fact makes it all ok. Like little children, we long to have someone in control so we can vicariously feel a sense of mastery over our vicissitudes and suffering.
Most of us rarely discuss suffering. Who sits around their dining room table discussing the meaning of their suffering, or their friends’ trauma, or how their sufferings fill the sufferings of Christ? We relegate such discussion to the professionals—ministers, chaplains, and psychologists.
Instead of getting bogged down in maudlin if not morbid discussions, we put blinders on, refocus, “count our blessings, and name them one by one.” We try to live by faith and not by fear, depression, and anxiety—as if faith and fear, or faith and depression, or faith and anxiety were opposites.
- A Catholic View
We kept Jesus on the cross. We’ve never taken him down—and have no plans to. We’ve never wanted to forget his sufferings for us. That’s why we commemorate his death and dying with the Stations of the Cross. And we’ve always understood that our sufferings fill his sufferings. We are not exempt; we must suffer like our Master.
Some might think we have a morose preoccupation with suffering. We do have an unparalleled depth of identification with our Lord’s trauma. That’s true. One could say we have a meditative theology of suffering, with not only probing depth of thought but with visceral depth of feeling for the extraordinarily painful side of life.
Our former leader, Pope John Paul II, suffered a great deal personally growing up and throughout his life. He understood suffering. In one of his letters to us, his flock, he taught us a number of things about suffering.
He discerned that every human being who suffers is actually a spiritual question in the face of life—and Jesus is mysteriously our answer. He noted that suffering teaches humility. No, not in some trite or divinely sadistic way, but in the profound way of challenging human arrogance…our smug presumption that we are the masters of our own fate. No, suffering makes it clear that we are not our own masters. We are not God.
Our spiritual leader affirmed unequivocally how the truly innocent really do suffer, like Job. But innocent or not, we are all saved from our suffering by the sufferings of Jesus. Along with that salvation, the meaning of our own suffering actually becomes clearer as we meditate on and enter into Christ’s sufferings.
Finally, our spiritual leader affirmed how suffering really does have a uselessness to it. A real uselessness—a waste. There is no particularly profound purpose to the pain and humiliation. But by enduring our suffering…by playing our hand so as to transform ourselves through suffering…by using suffering to realize our real place in the universe, then we have a shot at joy. Joy actually emerges from overcoming suffering’s uselessness.
So said our spiritual leader.
What say you? What’s your take on suffering…and trauma?