The Effect of Suffering on Our Picture of God

Sharon has a PhD in Social Work and has been a professor and administrator at a variety of colleges and higher institutions of higher learning. She has agreed to give us some perspective this morning on suffering and the picture of God that comes with the suffering that each of us has in our lives.

Sharon: I will start with the artificial intelligence ChatGPT’s response to the question that I posed to it concerning how we see God through suffering. It responded:

“The question of how we see God through suffering is complex and deeply personal, as opinions and beliefs may vary among individuals. 

“Some people find comfort and strength in their faith during suffering, seeing it as an opportunity for spiritual growth and deepening their relationship with God. They may believe God uses suffering to teach important lessons, foster empathy and compassion, or develop inner strength. 

“Others may struggle with the concept of a loving God in the face of suffering, questioning why a benevolent deity would allow or inflict pain. These individuals may seek understanding and solace in different ways, such as exploring philosophical or theological perspectives, sharing their experiences with a supportive community, or seeking personal meaning and purpose amid adversity. 

“Ultimately, how one perceives God through suffering is deeply personal, shaped by individual beliefs, experiences, and worldviews. It can be a journey of spiritual exploration and finding personal responses to the profound questions raised by human suffering.” 

But I’d like to suggest that suffering is a part of our human experience. I really don’t know any individual of any ethnicity, gender, or economic status who is immune from the human experience of suffering. If you haven’t experienced suffering, hang on, because it’s coming your way. No one is exempt. 

My premise—the Pittman Principle of Human Suffering, so to speak—suggests that the reason we struggle so much with suffering is because the sense of control in our lives seems to hold us together in a comfortable homeostasis, so when we lose that sense of being in control we feel vulnerable in our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with each other, and even our relationship with God. For controlling human beings, vulnerability is not a comfortable prospect. 

There are four categories to vulnerability: Physical, social, economic, and environmental. Physical vulnerabilities such as illness and the aging process can lead to disability. Social vulnerabilities include the breakdown in personal or familial relationships or in an institutional support system, and community dysfunction or social isolation Economic vulnerability occurs when someone experiences fiscal disequilibrium within their social context. Environmental vulnerability, such what recently happened in Maui, where fire destroyed the entire town of Lahaina. 

That is the Pittman Principle, but what is the Biblical perspective on suffering? Psalm 34:18 says: 

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 

The great news about grace is that Jesus endured the ultimate pain for us so we can be assured that God never leaves us alone. As believers, we have this source of comfort in our pain: God is with us. We have been promised his presence during our greatest vulnerability. We have grace on steroids at the time when we feel our most vulnerable.

Weakness is an opportunity for God to work powerfully in our lives. Even when our flesh and heart fail us, He is the strength of our heart (Psalm 73:26). As we reflect on the areas of our lives where we know we are weak, in whatever capacity that is, may we look to Jesus and ponder how He works through our weaknesses for His glory. He increases the power of the weak. 

Paul David Tripp wrote:

“Remember, it is not your weakness that will get in the way of God’s working through you, but your delusions of strength. His strength is made perfect in our weakness! Point to His strength by being willing to admit your weakness.”  

The song Sometimes it takes a Mountain speaks to what we’re talking about today. 

I don’t know what your mountains or your deserts have been in the last year but I know that if you’re walking the human experience, suffering is going to come our way. My husband passed away a little over a year and a half ago. It has been a big mountain for me to climb, with the loneliness, the breaking down of cars that I don’t know how to fix,… all sorts of issues. But I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I can’t explain it any other way. My source of resiliency and being able to push on comes from being completely vulnerable with Jesus, each day saying in my weakness “Please, please help me to become strong.”

I’ll conclude my remarks with another opinion from ChatGPT. I asked the AI how virtual reality (VR) could help me cope with suffering and improve my well being. Here’s what it shared:

Virtual reality (VR) can cope with suffering and improve well-being. Here’s how you can use VR for this purpose:

1. Mindfulness and Relaxation: VR meditation or mindfulness apps can create immersive environments that help you relax, reduce stress, and promote inner peace. These experiences may include serene landscapes, calming sounds, and guided meditation sessions.

2. Exposure Therapy: VR can confront and overcome various fears, anxieties, or trauma-related symptoms. Simulating and gradually exposing you to triggering situations in a controlled virtual environment allows you to desensitize yourself and build resilience.

3. Pain Distraction: VR can divert your attention from physical or emotional pain by immersing you in entertaining or engaging virtual experiences. You can explore games and virtual worlds or watch immersive videos that remove you from your current suffering.

4. Therapeutic Experiences: Some VR applications are specifically designed to provide therapeutic support. These may range from virtual storytelling, art, or music therapy to immersive environments that help distract from symptoms of chronic pain or severe illness.

5. Social Connection: VR can also enable virtual social interactions, bringing people together who may be physically distant or isolated due to their suffering. Participating in virtual support groups, multiplayer games, or social apps can alleviate loneliness and foster a sense of community.

Remember, while VR can be a useful tool for coping with suffering, consulting with a healthcare professional or therapist who can guide you on incorporating it into your overall coping strategies is essential.

How does each of you see God in your suffering experiences? 

Donald: It’s remarkable that Sharon can be halfway around the world and still use technology in the way she has to present her ideas this morning. Thank you so much. I was quickly jotting down many points about what you shared with us. You know, it’s part of the human experience, and we all know that we must walk this road at some time. 

Most of our lives, we seem to spend time trying to prevent or control suffering, not allowing it to be a part of our experience on a daily basis, or at least to a significant degree. Sometimes we can’t control it, and certain things can increase that percentage of suffering, unfortunately, in many individuals. Interestingly, we know that suffering can bring us closer to spiritual matters, yet we often resist it. That’s one point I’m making. 

Secondly, it’s intriguing how we perceive suffering as part of being human, yet when we think about heaven, we imagine it to be a utopia without suffering. Those were a couple of thoughts.

David: I agree absolutely with what Sharon called “the Pittman Principle of Suffering”, that when we’re at the end of our tether, that’s when God kicks in most; we find God at that point. It’s a wonderful message. I bet there are others in this group who have also experienced it, as I believe I have myself. 

As a sidebar, I’d like to note that Sharon just gave us a perfect demonstration of how technology is being used today for the exploration of spiritual matters.

Michael: I really enjoyed this as well. I think it confirms my experience that when you’re not feeling your best, it’s the time when you introspect and connect with God more. But it’s also fascinating that it’s in stark contrast to what the Church teaches—that suffering is evil, the absence of God. It seems it’s a movement that can bring us closer to God. 

Another thing: Isaiah’s prophecy about Jesus being a man acquainted with suffering is not the image we see in movies, where the white savior is portrayed, but the prophecy clearly suggests he was a sufferer. This acquaintance with suffering is what brings you closer to those who suffer the most.

Sharon: I struggle with this in my profession of social work. I’m teaching a class online, and they require us to teach with a “trauma-informed” perspective. This seems to me to be very problem-oriented and not strength-oriented. Christians can see our experiences of suffering as opportunities to connect with our savior in a deep and personal way. 

I struggle with the idea of everything being trauma-informed when maybe it should be “resiliency-informed” because people are strong. I learned so much about resiliency from little kids I fostered, who, despite being horribly abused by their mother, still loved her. We’re stronger than we think, and looking at everything through trauma-informed eyes may not serve us well in the long run. Maybe that’s just my bias.

Don: I’m not familiar with a “trauma-informed perspective.” Can you explain it?

Sharon: “Trauma-informed” assumes that everyone’s early life experiences were traumatic. You must approach everything as if everyone has suffered and not recovered from it. This seems to be problem-focused, not a strengths-based approach. It overlooks how strong people are and how amazingly they get through extremely difficult situations.

David: I like the idea that there’s more power in people than weakness. It goes along with something else we’ve often discussed in class, which is that there’s more goodness in the world than badness, more kindness in people than evil. We tend to focus on evil things as they’re more newsworthy, just as something traumatic grabs attention more than something pleasant.

Reinhard: Since the fall of Adam and Eve in Eden, I believe that’s the consequence of sin; man has to go through hardship. To me, suffering has a broad meaning; it encompasses physical hardship from illness or disease, suffering caused by others like persecution, oppression, or natural disasters. 

But there’s also a Biblical aspect in Matthew 5:10, mentioning when you are persecuted because of righteousness, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours. So, if we look at all these varieties of suffering, whether man-caused, natural, or illness, they’re all consequences of sin. Kiren mentioned the positive side; for those who know God, this teaches resilience and faith. 

Sometimes we see good people meet their demise early, or some who don’t believe in God live long lives, and that’s a mystery. To me, suffering isn’t only physical or mental but also a battle of psychological suffering. I believe God gives us peace and help, even though we might lose loved ones too early. If we trust God, we can live a peaceful life.

Kiran: I really liked the quote by Paul David Tripp: “It’s not your weakness that’ll get in the way of God’s working through you, but your delusions of strength.” I can identify with this statement. There was a time when I didn’t understand this fact, and I think that’s why my suffering lasted longer.

Donald: Back in the day, I worked with at-risk students. I came in contact with Strength Quest, an organization that changed my perspective. Instead of focusing on students’ problems or weaknesses, they taught me to capitalize on strengths and minimize weaknesses. That was very insightful. 

People know their deficits, but focusing on what they’re good at can really benefit them. Maybe that’s playing games with our heads, these delusions of strength, but I think it’s an interesting perspective. Some people suffer greatly, and it becomes their strength. Just an observation.

Carolyn: How does personality relate to suffering? Some people seem to react differently to their pain or disability due to their personality traits.

Donald: The opposite goes, too.

Don: There are people who are generally excellent and in good spirits. You could metaphorically cut their head off and ask them how they’re doing, and they’d say, “I’m fine, everything’s fine.” Yet another person with a minor issue like a hangnail could be completely disabled. It’s a remarkable characteristic that physicians observe in patients; it’s not their suffering that’s measured, but their response to suffering.

Sharon: There are personality factors, but I think when you’re walking with Christ, the beauty of the Christian walk is that you move toward happiness, toward peace, toward resting in God’s love. I know a man who is one of those perpetual pessimists. For him, the cup is always half empty. He says, “All of Africa is awful,” yet he loves it, and he stays here. I think we each struggle with this because it’s easy for us to complain about the negative. 

I believe we need to encourage people to look outside themselves, especially those who focus on the negative. You can go to any hospital, and you’ll find those who are self-focused and others who try to give hope even in the midst of suffering. As Christians, we must continue to trust the Lord and know that in our weakness, He becomes our strength. It’s not about us; it’s about His love and grace shining through us to a hurting world. 

We still love those who are negative, but they do drain us. Many of us get drained by those kinds of people. We must try to reframe things positively and say, “Can we look at the cup as half full?” It’s not an easy thing to deal with people who have that personality challenge, but we love them unconditionally and hope they move toward living a life of positivity.

Donald: Why do we often link the terms suffering and pain? Is it necessary? Is suffering different than pain?

Sharon: That’s next week’s discussion. That’s profound.

Donald: We talk about suffering as being painful, and most of us would agree that it is. When you go to the doctor, or when healthcare professionals ask you to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, it leads to an interesting conversation about pain control. I don’t recall that when we were young, there was a conversation about pain control. Are the things we do to control our pain the same as the things we do to control our suffering?

Kiran: I once thought I was a control freak. I mean, I’m still a bit of a control freak, but I’m trying not to be one. I’m trying to be okay with chaos. One thing I notice is if I’m okay with not having control, I feel indifferent, as if I’m indifferent to things happening around me. It’s a conundrum that I can’t totally understand—how to be engaged while accepting that things are not under my control, yet still knowing it’ll be okay. I guess that’s something I still struggle with when things go out of control.

Sharon: I think that’s the biggest lifelong battle for all of us, to give over control to our Lord and Savior and trust that He can take our most negative situation and turn it into something beautiful. We all struggle with being fixers. I know I do. I want to fix everyone who’s not doing what they need to do when they need to do it. It’s a lifelong battle to give up that control and let Jesus come in and take over when we have no answers. 

My father used to say that with six kids, he had six theories about raising them, but once he had the kids, he had no theories. Life is kind of like that. We think we have the answers, but the more we walk, the more we realize that our way might not be right for someone else. We need to allow others to be who they are and enjoy the diversity they bring to our lives.

Carolyn: After we hand our cares to Jesus, we might still worry. What if? What if this should happen? What if that should happen? When does the pain of worry go away?

David: : Donald talked about the difference between pain and suffering, I still tend to treat them as one and the same thing. We tend to look at pain and suffering as a result of evil, as something that’s been called by the devil. To me, pain is the antidote to evil, not the result of evil. It was God who caused Job and his family to suffer, not Satan. 

If everything goes great in our lives, then our chance to get closer to God is that much less. As Sharon said: The more we suffer, the closer we become to God, and at the end of our tether is when we are closest. So if you never reach the end of your tether, perhaps you’re never close enough to God. I believe that pain is an antidote, not a result.

Don: From a physician’s point of view, that’s definitely the case. Pain is what gives you a warning that something is wrong, that you must seek attention, that there’s some kind of abnormality going on. People who, because of various kinds of diseases, don’t have pain include patients with leprosy, who end up with real problems in their extremities, their noses, their ears, their feet, who might step on a tack and can’t feel the pain. They can develop serious infections in the soft tissue of their feet. 

There are many medical conditions associated with loss of pain or with reduced pain sensation and none of them have a good outcome—all of them have a bad outcome. We do tend to view pain as something from the devil but really, in essence, it is a God-given response to sensation that allows us to prosper.

Sharon: Carolyn asked what to do when your worry keeps returning. The fact of the matter is that there are some techniques in good Biblical counseling that might be of advantage in that case. Worrying can be the basis of anxiety syndromes and someone having repeated worrying attacks really needs to talk with a physician about it because maybe a little serotonin or some other drug might help bring a little bit of peace. 

If worrying is really keeping someone from sleeping and from functioning, they probably need to get some medical and or counseling support because that could be a serious indicator just as physical pain can be an indicator.

Donald: People reach out to music for support; for example, to the song we listened to this morning. There were a couple of things going on there—the lyrics as well as the music. People sing to try to cope with their pain. There’s something about music. You turn to it, in some ways, as a counselor, you find music that soothes your soul.

Sharon: Music really helped me as I’ve walked the valley of the shadow of death, I’ve always found songs to be comforting. So music is a really vital part in helping us deal with the issues, especially for some people and some personalities.

Kiran: I write down everything I’m feeling. I have pages and pages of stuff that I felt at a particular moment. Years later, I go back and I realize how I felt at the time and how my life changed. When I write things down, I feel better.

Sharon: Journaling is a great a great therapeutic tool, especially for the worrier. A prayer journal helps to document things in one’s discussion with God. Writing it down kind of concretizes emotions that may not be easy to recall otherwise. It does help us to cope with suffering. 

Michael: It’s fascinating that what we’re saying contrasts with the common wisdom, especially in the US where pain is a bad thing you need to get rid of in any way possible. So we end up with addictions to OxyContin and so on, and that then became the physicians responsibility.

Don: A decade or two ago, there began a movement driven by hospital administrators and credentialing groups that insisted on pain control as a major therapeutic intervention that physicians and the hospital itself were responsible for. That resulted in the very liberal use of narcotics and to a place where we now have addiction and overdose as a major public health problem as a result of trying to control pain. 

So now we’ve swung completely the other way where it’s very difficult for doctors to prescribe narcotics. The hurdles and the paperwork that’s required is so extreme that it’s almost impossible, in many cases, to easily relieve pain. 

So even during my lifetime as a physician, we’ve seen the ebb and flow of which has resulted in a complete reversal of what we were doing earlier.

Donald: Suffering is the issue, and pain is a response to suffering, and we’re trying to control pain, but we’re really not—we’re masking it in some ways. Think of all the things that human beings have done to try to mask pain. Rather than caring for suffering, we’re more caring for pain in some ways.

David: It begs the question: Why should we try to make people feel better? It seems that in the end, it does more harm than good. In the interim, it may do a great deal of good but in the end, it perhaps doesn’t. It’s a fascinating conundrum.

Even in the political realm the socialist wants to take care of everybody and alleviate their suffering and the conservative wants to let people “man up and tough it out.” I guess this is a conundrum as ancient as humanity. Maybe we’ll never get to the bottom of it.

Sharon: Suffering is something that we all commonly experience. But we have an amazingly powerful God, who gives us grace on steroids at the time that we need that extra dose. Jjust trust and rely on him when things look difficult, when things are not answered, when there’s no answers to our questions. 

When there are just footprints in the sand, God is actually carrying us. We cry: “God, why did you leave me, because there’s no footprints of you walking with me?” But he answers: “I was carrying you, my child. Those were my footsteps.” And I just know that the Lord is willing, he’s able to carry each of us if we just trust in him. He may not alleviate our suffering, but he will certainly give us peace in the valley. 

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