Between Heaven and Earth

Value in Suffering

Michael: At the end of last week’s class Donald asked the class this question: Why do we often link the terms suffering and pain? Is it necessary? Is suffering different than pain? This week Kiran and I will try to explore this connection and furthermore. 

But first, let’s define these terms, with help from Chat GPT: 

Pain is a sensory and physical experience that is typically associated with a negative sensation or discomfort. It is a physiological response to injury or illness.

Suffering encompasses the mental and emotional distress that can arise from pain, loss, adversity, or challenging life situations. Suffering involves how individuals interpret and respond to pain, as well as the thoughts, emotions, and existential questions that may arise as a result.

Pain doesn’t always lead to suffering and suffering can be experienced even in the absence of physical pain. For example, exercising can cause pain, but we seldom say we suffer because of it. Also, someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one may experience suffering even though they are not physically in pain. 

Even in the absence of physical pain, suffering can be a very real and debilitating experience. Suffering can manifest itself in different ways such as 

  • Emotional distress, such as grief, anxiety, or depression.
  • Loss, such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job.
  • Disappointment, such as not achieving a goal or not getting what you want.
  • Social or economic hardship, such as poverty, homelessness, or discrimination.
  • Spiritual or existential distress, such as questioning the meaning of life or feeling disconnected from others.

It seems that our attitude towards pain and suffering has been evolving for the past century or so. Specifically, we have become more reluctant to experience pain and suffering. In a culture that emphasizes happiness and well-being, pain and suffering have no place, they are outsiders, aberrations of what a normal life should be. Advancements in medicine and psychotherapy have taken great strides towards the elimination of pain and suffering. 

Today we want to ask this question. Do we lose something from this pursuit of happiness and pleasure above everything else?

Dr. Anna Lembke, in her New York Times bestselling book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence made this interesting observation. 

 “There has been an increase in addictions, anxiety, and unhappiness, especially in developed nations. Currently, there is a massive prescribing of feel-good pills. One in four American adults, and more than one in twenty American children takes a psychiatric drug daily. According to the world happiness report, people in the US reported being less happy in 2018 than they were in 2008. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that around 264 million people of all ages suffer from anxiety disorders, making it one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.”

Our attitude and approach towards pain and suffering (complete avoidance and elimination) has paradoxically led to increased levels of them, especially in developed nations. Is there a better attitude to adopt towards these essential aspects of our human experience? To try and arrive at the answer, I’m going to discuss two cases of people who instead of running away from painful life circumstances, decided to embrace their suffering. After that Kiran will discuss a few lessons from Job’s suffering. 

Perhaps one of the most well-known people to write about his suffering is the Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankel. Frankel was an Austrian psychiatrist before becoming a prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the infamous Nazi concentration camps. In his famous book, “Man’s search for meaning”, Frankel details the prisoner’s life in a concentration camp where they endured forced labor—often pointless and humiliating, and imposed without proper equipment, clothing, nourishment, or rest. When a prisoner suffered from a work-related injury, disease, or starvation, they were executed. Many prisoners lost the will to live. They couldn’t find a meaning for their current lives and the endless suffering. One could easily tell who they were because they would smoke all their cigarettes and wouldn’t go to work in the morning. When Frankel came back after the day’s labor, they would be gone. 

Frankel observed that a minority of prisoners were able to rise above their circumstances. I’m going to quote from Frankel here: 

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The second story is that of Jerry Sittser. I got to know about him because he wrote a book called “A Grace Disguised”. He is currently a theology professor at Whitworth University. 

Jerry and his mother, his wife, and his four children, were driving down a road in rural Idaho at night. A drunk driver crashed into their car killing his mother, wife, and youngest daughter- three generations gone at once. His loss was sudden and catastrophic. He was devastated and contemplated ending his life “the pain was relentless, like midday heat in the Sahara.” However, he had three children that needed to be cared for. 

Jerry was also faced with a choice: 

“I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head…I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea at the time what that would mean.”

From these two men who embraced suffering, we understand that we have a choice to make at the face of suffering. The choice is: How do we interpret our suffering and how do we respond to it. Do we blame God or life for the unfairness and feel pity for ourselves or do we accept our fate, question our convictions, and embrace the suffering, which seems to enrich our lives in ways we can’t anticipate.

Kiran: In the book of Job, we can clearly how Job faced suffering and how the choices he made at the face of suffering got him to “see” God and to become more spiritually mature. 

Job experienced catastrophic loss and suffering not because he is wicked but because he is righteous. One of the main lessons we can take from this story is this. In this world, there is no correlation between righteousness and prosperity or wickedness and suffering. The righteous often suffer more than the wicked and the wicked often prosper more than the righteous. This goes against our innate conviction of fairness and cause and effect.

If God allows the righteous to suffer, why should anyone strive to be righteous? Where is the incentive to be righteous? Perhaps this is why Job’s wife asked Job to curse God and die. 

The central question in the book of Job is about the spiritual journey and faithfulness of Job. God asked Job, when things don’t make sense, when you feel utterly helpless, when you lose everything, when I, your protector is letting you get hurt, would you still put your trust in Me? Would you trust that I am benevolent, compassionate, and good? 

This is a recurrent theme in the bible, and not limited to Job. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son, God asked Abraham, will you trust Me? When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Father asked Jesus, will you trust Me? 

We wish there were rational explanations for human suffering. Why was this unfair burden put on me? Why me? Why not another person? Why do we have to exercise the choice to blindly Trust God in such situations? Why can’t God simply explain the reason behind the suffering and tell me that everything is gonna be, okay? Why is he silent?

The other major lesson we can take from the book of Job is this. Even if God has an explanation for our suffering, we are not capable of comprehending it. When Job questioned God about his suffering, God didn’t answer job’s question. Instead, God responded with a bunch of questions about the things above and below the earth and animals. After that God paused for Job’s response. 

Then Job answered Yahweh,

“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be restrained.
You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
therefore I have uttered that which I didn’t understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I didn’t know.
You said, ‘Listen, now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you will answer me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you.
Therefore I abhor myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

In these verses we can see the steps of how Job made his choice and came close to God. 

  • Job understood that God is all powerful and no one can stop him in fulfilling His purpose. 
  • Job understood that as a human he cannot comprehend the purpose of God and the ways He chooses to accomplish them.
  • Job understood that his choice is simply to trust – that God is benevolent and has good intentions towards him even through this suffering. 

With this trust in God, Job accepted his suffering and made peace with his situation. 

This can be best summarized by a quote from George Muller. 

George Mueller of Bristol England lost his wife Mary to rheumatic fever. They had been married 39 years and 4 months. In her memorial service this is what he said. 

I miss her in numberless ways and shall miss her yet more and more. But as a child of God, and as a servant of the Lord Jesus, I bow, I am satisfied with the will of my Heavenly Father, I seek by perfect submission to His holy will to glorify Him, I kiss continually the hand that has thus afflicted me.

Accepting suffering can cause us to take inventory of our lives and to become more alive to the present moment. To appreciate the everyday gifts of Grace. The present moment is where God and Grace reside. 

That is why we see Job counted every blessing he received from God. 

Going through suffering increases the soul’s capacity for grief, but also for joy. It also makes us more sensitive to the pain of others. 

That is why we see that Job interceded for his friends despite the emotional pain they caused. 

Intellectually I know that suffering will be good for me. Instead of being a punisher’s whip, it could become a surgeon’s scalpel if I put trust in God. Yet, I fear suffering. When I put my kid to sleep, I fear what might happen to him in the future. When I hear about women as young as my wife succumbing to cancer, I fear about my wife. I fear if I have the strength to accept such suffering. I fear if I die, would they be able to accept such suffering. I fear would such suffering wreck my life, my marriage, my faith in God and my will to live. I fear I will ever find meaning in such suffering. I feel utter helplessness and lack of control over things that matter to me. 

At the core of these fears is the frightening truth of our mortality. We are creatures, made of dust. Life on earth can be wonderful, but in the end all of us will die.

But here is the hope. The Apostles believed that suffering is a part of the Christian experience, and they embraced it and even counted it as joy. 

Romans 5:3-5 Paul said: 

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Gifts of grace come to all of us. But we must be ready to see and willing to receive these gifts. It will require a kind of sacrifice, the sacrifice of believing that however painful our losses may be, life can still be good. in a different way than before, but nevertheless good. 

What are your thoughts on the value of suffering in our lives? 

How does God’s grace play a role in suffering? 

Is it necessary to go through suffering to find and accept Grace? Or is the suffering a consequence of accepting Grace? 

Do you fear the possibility of suffering in the future, or do you count it a joy? 

Donald: I appreciate hearing the thoughtful insights from both of you; they were well-articulated and undoubtedly provocative. One focal point that caught my attention in your remarks was the evolving attitude toward pain and suffering. I wonder if this shift means we’re becoming more sensitive as a society, or if it’s simply a reflection of higher life expectations. Clearly, the “greatest generation” had different life expectations compared to today’s more educated populace, who feel as if they have boundless opportunities.

Another intriguing point is the subjectivity of pain. Someone I know who fell ill recently was asked to rate her pain on a scale of one to ten, but having led a life largely free of physical suffering, how can she objectively measure it? This raises an interesting question: Do we all perceive pain and suffering in the same way? I’m uncertain about that.

Lastly, you touched on coping mechanisms for pain, such as addictions, and compared it to muscle building. You mentioned that cyclists endure physical pain to build muscle, suggesting that maybe suffering, in a broader sense, serves to prepare us for future hardships. Is the purpose of enduring suffering, then, to better equip us for future pain?

Don: What keeps occurring in my mind is the question. Is God responsible for the pain / suffering because it has intrinsic value? Or does he take a bad circumstance and try to make some something good out of a bad circumstance? Who’s the underlying individual entity responsible for our suffering?

David: In Job’s case wasn’t it very clearly God who caused the suffering?

C-J: The concept of capacity resonates with me, and alongside it comes the idea of resiliency. It’s also a matter of where you choose to focus your attention within a given space. I recently spoke to a woman and expressed my dissatisfaction with the current state of things. At 71, I expected life to be different, and it’s disheartening to see educated individuals making poor decisions while I feel voiceless. Although I recognize the importance of perseverance and selflessness, the inequities make it difficult to maintain a positive outlook. Like Michael and Kiren mentioned, these feelings have their place and are essential for our growth.

Janelin: I had a recent interaction that made me reflect on how people in different situations perceive and respond to life’s challenges. In Michigan, there was a tragic Amber Alert involving a child whose grandmother I happened to know. Despite losing her granddaughter and three brothers to gun violence, she reaffirmed her faith in God. It was an emotional moment and it made me wonder how I would react under similar circumstances. Her unwavering faith was truly moving.

David: That raises a good point. Most of us, including myself, would likely struggle to maintain faith when faced with such adversity.

Donald: As a group of Christians, we find strength in our faith. But what if we were speaking to an atheist? They might list coping techniques like drinking and smoking, and categorize religion as just another form of escapism. What are your thoughts on that?

C-J: I believe that medication and faith serve different roles. Using substances to cope can become a form of codependency, whereas a relationship with God for me is about aligning myself with God’s purpose for my life. That often requires work and conscious commitment, unlike simply using substances to escape. So, in my view, the two are fundamentally different. Being a Christian is not easy; it’s a daily commitment that I, along with many others in this faith, take very seriously.

Don: One of the most challenging aspects that calls people’s belief in God into question is the issue of suffering and the origin of evil. This raises an essential question: Is God the author of suffering? Is suffering merely an illustrative tool, or is it a universal truth? The problem is especially distressing for many Christians who find themselves grappling with the feeling of being unjustly targeted by divine forces.

David: Once we entertain the notion that God might be responsible for suffering, we’re led to a troubling conclusion, especially within the framework of Christianity. If God is anthropomorphized—made in our image—then it becomes difficult not to assign blame to Him. That’s partly why I identify as a Daoist. My interpretation of Daoism allows for a divine being but doesn’t personalize that deity, preventing the allocation of blame. An impersonal god sidesteps the problem of justifying why a god made in our image would allow suffering.

Sharon: Could we find insights into handling suffering from our Islamic peers who often invoke “inshAllah”?

Reinhard: To understand suffering, we should consider its root cause. While God may be indirectly responsible for Job’s suffering, the primary culprit is Satan. Suffering has been an inherent part of human existence since the expulsion from Eden. Not all suffering manifests as physical pain; it can take many forms such as economic hardship or mental anguish. However, if we maintain faith in God, we can persevere through these trials. Suffering can fortify our character and enable us to withstand future challenges.

I also have a personal story to share, influenced by my father’s experiences. He was a Dutch Army prisoner of war during World War II and also a political prisoner during a civil war. His faith actually flourished during these tumultuous times, reading the Bible multiple times. His ordeal made him a stronger and more devout person, and he always told us to steer clear of military life due to the terrible suffering involved.

So, despite the hardships we may face, if we place our trust in God and hold firm in our faith, we can navigate life’s ups and downs. As the Psalm 91:15 suggests, if we rely on God, we will experience both good and bad times but ultimately find a reason to give thanks.

Anonymous: This has been an incredibly enriching and thought-provoking discussion. I want to extend my gratitude to Michael and Kiran for their insightful presentations. I have a lot of thoughts on this matter, but first, I want to express how suffering has brought me closer to God. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2001, I’ve spent the last 22 years growing spiritually through my trials. It’s taught me to fully trust in God’s goodness. What saddens me is when people are suffering and yet don’t have the spiritual perspective that I do. They look for escape routes which often worsen their predicament. How can you help someone, for example, a woman who only sees divorce as an option after suffering emotional, verbal, and physical abuse? It’s a dilemma.

Sharon: I’d say that the fact that these individuals confide in you means they’re looking for social support. Religion provides a social function through community, something that is invaluable especially when other social systems fail. It allows us to be there for each other, which is how God works through us to provide strength and hope. So, it sounds like you’re already playing a role in helping these people.

C-J: While I agree with your points, Sharon, the issues we’re discussing become even more complicated in theocracies where women are systematically oppressed. These acts of violence aren’t God’s will. We are social beings with an obligation to form strong communities that support everyone. If the government doesn’t allow for that, it’s a failure not only of governance but also of our collective conscience. We can’t just be reactive; we must be proactive in creating more equitable systems. My heart aches for the stories you’ve shared, and I think it’s essential that we look at the broader systemic issues at play here. Thank you for bringing them into the open.

David: Picking up on Sharon’s comment about “InshAllah,” I’m curious if this conversation would be different if we were all of Muslim faith. Whether in times of celebration or disaster, Muslims often say “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great.” Perhaps this reflects the message in Job that God’s greatness is beyond our understanding. Could the constant affirmation of God’s greatness help communities like the Afghans persevere through hardship? This intersection of religion and resilience is something I’d like to delve into in an interfaith context.

C-J: I see the dominant narrative, particularly in religious texts, as something that has often been manipulated to favor men. For instance, the Bible’s relief at the birth of a male child, as if the life of a woman is somehow less important. I don’t believe that’s what God intended. I think the ideal is equal partnership, and when that’s not achieved, societies suffer.

Donald: This is a heavy conversation we’re having. While I might not articulate it as well, I do think about suffering in the context of my own experiences. Having been critically ill as a child, I often ponder why I went through that. Maybe suffering entered the world with sin, creating a sort of spiritual war zone. In this war zone, we all get hurt to some degree, and the question is how we navigate that suffering, often through relationships and healthy living.

Kiran: The question of whether God causes suffering or if it originates elsewhere is complicated. My perspective is that I have the capacity for both good and evil, as do we all. Jesus advised overcoming evil with good, and that’s the choice I make.

Michael: This discussion is tough, and as someone in a teaching role, I’m even more aware of how little I can offer in terms of answers. But the point about Jesus not just dying but suffering excessively is puzzling. Why the added layer of suffering, especially when the primary purpose was his death?

Don: You bring up an intriguing question, Michael. As we continue our long-standing study of the book of Matthew, we’ll be getting into the crucifixion and will spend time pondering why, if Jesus had to die, did he also have to endure so much suffering? So, let’s keep these questions in mind for future discussions. 

Just a note, no class next week due to a family reunion, but we will resume the week after that. Thank you all for the rich dialogue today.

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