What suffering can teach us

9/5/2007

By the Rev. Gary Knight
Guest Columnist

"We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” — Romans 5:3-5

When I was a senior at Millsaps College, my mother’s only sister was dying of cancer.

My Aunt Faye was a radiant Christian, and she endured awful suffering for 10 years prior to her death. In one of my visits with her in the hospital, she told me of a prayer a Catholic nun had sent her. This Catholic sister had become a close friend to her during her illness, and Aunt Faye said that the sister’s personal notes and prayers always seemed to come at just the right time.

On that particular day, she had experienced severe pain and discomfort. Then a note from Sister Mary Ann came in the mail. In the card was this prayer: “Dear God, please grant that the pain may be better, but if not, grant that I may be somehow better for the pain.” When my aunt shared this with me, we both wept.

I have reflected upon that visit and that prayer many times across the years. I believe that Sister Mary Ann was in touch with something profound. She was praying that the suffering and pain of my aunt’s life would have spiritual meaning and purpose.

So often we think of pain and suffering as being times when we feel abandoned by God — but if this is so, what do we do with the example of our Lord? And how do we deal with the words of Paul?

Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings.” He also saw meaning in his suffering, as the words from Romans 5 clearly express. Can our suffering be redemptive? Can our pain bring us closer to God? I believe it can if we allow suffering to teach us. What can we learn from suffering?

• Suffering teaches us that we are vulnerable. We are not in charge, and we are always frail, finite and broken creatures. None of us is immune to suffering, pain and heartache. Grief, sickness, loss and death are a part of every person’s experience. Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) Suffering reminds us of our vulnerability and that we are not God.

• Suffering teaches us that we need God’s grace to sustain our lives. We are dependent upon God for life, and times of suffering remind us that we still need God to help us through such times. These times also bring us a deep awareness of how God is concerned about us and reaches out to us. Jesus was no stranger to suffering and to pain. The prophet foretold that he would be a man “acquainted with sorrows and grief.” We try to live without God too often.

• Suffering teaches us about what our priorities should be. Hurricane Katrina was the greatest natural disaster our nation has ever known. It was and it still is awful, but it has reminded so many of what truly matters in life. All the “things” people thought were so valuable were taken away in a matter of a few hours. People came to see that human life is the most important gift God has ever given.

• Suffering teaches us that compassion and caring are so important. I have spent time with many families during terminal illness and death, but the death of my own mother after several years of suffering taught me that expressions of concern from others are so important and meaningful. We can allow suffering to help us focus on relieving human suffering through being compassionate and caring.

• Suffering proves that our faith is real. When we come through times of pain and suffering, and we will get through it, we are able to see how God was with us to sustain us and carry us through. The resurrection follows the cross. It is after the suffering that the victory is made clear. As we move through times of pain and heartache, we lose sight of God’s purpose sometimes, but as we test our faith in these times, we will discover it is real. God does not always deliver us from trouble or suffering, but God will always be with us in these times.

In Romans 5, Paul says, “....we boast in our sufferings.” How can one boast in suffering? Paul is not a masochist. His counsel is instead rooted in his faith that God transforms Good Fridays into Easters – that God puts a blessing in every difficulty suffered by those who trust in God.

I once had a devout woman say to me after a funeral service, “Thank you for that. I needed that funeral!” She was expressing the profound truth that even in our loss and grief, in moments of suffering, God was working to heal and to encourage. Remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are the poor in Spirit.” He knows our brokenness, and He cares for us through it all.

• Knight is a clergy member of the Mississippi Conference and chaplain at Mississippi State Hospital.