A perceptive friend once told me rather sardonically that suffering is highly overrated. For a long stretch of time comfortable North American Christians seem to have either ignored the subject altogether, considering it a contra-indicator of God’s favor, or done whatever possible to protect themselves from it and speedily eliminate it. As that mindset has been challenged, some seem to have elevated suffering to almost iconic status.
The need for a theology of suffering, particularly among the affluent and comfortable, has been rightly and prophetically vocalized in various sectors. Substantive contributions have been made to that lacuna. Yet, my friend’s satirical observation reflects some important instincts. Suffering as such is not automatically or inherently beneficial. The same suffering that drives one person to God or deeper in faith can repel the next person from God. When considered to be inherently or automatically beneficial to our spiritual maturity, suffering comes up short; it’s overrated.
Without a doubt, innumerable people, Christian and non-Christian alike, can describe how suffering of some sort sifted, purged, and clarified their priorities; how it deepened and tuned their sensitivity to others; fostered greater awareness of God and dependence on God; and wielded an overall transforming effect on their lives. The Bible takes it for granted that suffering is part of life in a fallen world and, even more pointedly, part of the Christian journey. Unquestionably, the Church needs a more robust theology of suffering. This holds true for Christians who inhabit such comfortable circumstances that suffering seems strange and intolerable. It also holds true for those whose lives are routinely assaulted by the evil and brokenness of this world. Only when our theology of suffering helps us respond to God’s grace can suffering be an occasion for growth.
What then is the relationship between suffering and grace? How are we to understand the difference that God’s grace makes in our suffering? The answer to those questions will affect our prayers, our expectations of God, and both the character and capacity of our responsiveness to God when we suffer. Since suffering will never end this side of God’s “making everything new” (Rev. 21:5), continued reflection is needed.
A Caveat for Relating Suffering and Grace
If suffering could be quantified, I have numerous friends, family members, students, and colleagues whose suffering far exceeds my own. Compared to them and many around the globe, I am unqualified to pontificate about suffering. Yet, comparing different iterations of suffering only trivializes someone’s pain. As theologian Ray Anderson put it, “When I’m hurt, no one feels as bad as I do.” When we suffer we all need God’s grace.
I do not presume to alleviate anyone’s suffering with words and abstractions, or unfold the meaning of suffering in a way that resolves the torturous mystery. Rather, I simply want all of us to benefit from a somewhat better grasp of the divine grace that upholds us in suffering. I want grace to feel less like Christian code language and more like a vivid, meaty reality. While words cannot make any reality more real, they can have a “performative” function that creates better pathways of response to reality.
Context for Relating Suffering and Grace
Six years ago my younger brother took his own life. That experience has been the most intense and wrenching crucible of my life. As a theologian I have regular opportunities to reflect on suffering, grace, and redemption in an array of settings. I attempt to do so with sensitivity and sobriety. Yet, losing my brother forced me at high-speed into the experiential intersection of suffering and grace. In fresh, if uninvited and unwelcome ways, that loss forced upon me the opportunity to ask the hardest possible questions about what God’s grace really means when we suffer.
God’s graceful presence changes the character of our suffering because God does not merely and passively sympathize.
In the throes of grieving my brother, I drew some preliminary conclusions about what grace does not mean. It does not mean that we hurt less or that our suffering makes even a little more sense. It does not mean that the source or cause of our suffering “unhappens.” It does not mean that whatever good God brings out of our suffering will quantitatively and emotionally offset our suffering so that it doesn’t matter (Regardless of any good that comes from my brother’s suicide, it will never be OK that it happened!).
It has taken a long time for me to feel even remotely capable of asserting what grace does mean in suffering. This attempt is, I confess, just that… an attempt, a stretching toward something I believe is real but that I cannot fully grasp. In the fine company of those who have far more to say, having experienced far more grace through far more suffering, I simply offer a thin layer to a conversation that will never end until our Lord brings an end to the need for it.
Suffering as Texture
My basic premise will utilize a metaphor. Several years ago I decided to paint my garage floor. That will strike some as an odd project that only a compulsively fastidious person would undertake. Mia culpa. I love working in my garage and the thought of working on a sparkling clean, painted garage floor was enough to send waves of anticipatory satisfaction coursing through my psyche. My car could have run on my adrenalin as I drove to my local DIY store.
Immediate disappointment! I discovered that painting a garage floor is far more involved than I realized. Prior to applying the special paint, one has to clean the concrete with a special chemical, then apply an acidic etching solution that sits on the concrete for twenty-four hours. The etching solution essentially eats away at the concrete at a somewhat microscopic level, texturing it with more surface area to which the paint can adhere. Without that etching, texturing process the paint will not stick—or at least not for long.
My garage floor remains unpainted to this day, but the metaphor of that acidic texturing process has proven quite portable. Suffering of any type etches and textures our lives so that God’s grace has places to stick. We can see this clearly in Scripture.
The Apostle Paul provides a biblical waypoint in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. He recounts his appeal to the Lord to remove an unspecified “thorn in the flesh.” He reports the Lord’s response that the suffering would not be taken away and “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Often I have mused, even troubled over what it means experientially for God’s grace to be sufficient in the midst of suffering, before the suffering goes away or when we don’t know whether it will ever go away. The texturing metaphor has helped me formulate the following conclusions about how God’s grace is sufficient in our suffering.
God’s grace is inseparable from God’s presence.
A biblically informed picture displays the nature of grace in terms of God’s gracious presence. To be sure, grace is not all that can be said of God. Yet, to receive God’s grace is to benefit from God’s presence. Specifically, this occurs through the Holy Spirit as the presence of God. For example, it should not surprise us that the Apostle Paul speaks of what we call “spiritual gifts” with two terms, charismata (Rom. 12:6) and pneumatika (1 Cor. 12:1). Manifestations of grace (charis) and of the Spirit (pneuma) are presented in practically synonymous ways.
Recently I asked one of my closest friends, who suffers intensely, what God’s grace means to him. After a bit of reflection he said, “It means I’m not alone in my suffering and it enables me to endure it.” That may sound mysterious and elusive from a practical standpoint. Yet, from inside our suffering the knowledge that we are not alone—that God is actually present with us and to us—makes an indescribable difference. The pain creates the capacity, the texturing, to recognize God’s presence in that unique way. Philip Yancey observes that “When we endure trials, he stands beside us, like the fourth man in the fiery furnace.”
God’s grace changes suffering without eliminating it.
One of my most difficult moments was the first time I saw my brother’s casket. I was utterly undone. Grace did not seem to make me hurt any less. I cried as hard as anyone else would. Since that time it has occurred to me that awareness of our need for God’s grace can make our suffering even more pointed when our pain cannot be anesthetized or ignored. Additionally, our expectations get in the way if we assume that grace should make us feel better or change our circumstances.
So often we ask, “Where is God in our suffering?” Even the Psalmist agonized with this question. The question can assume that if God were really present, then either we would not be suffering or our suffering would make some sense. When we realize that grace does not necessarily produce these results, we can only be receptive—helplessly receptive. This is exactly where we need to be, as Paul reflected in 2 Corinthians 1:9, in order to rest the weight of our lives in the one and only life-giving place.
God’s graceful presence changes the character of our suffering because God does not merely and passively sympathize. God empathizes in an active and transforming empathy. Kevin Vanhoozer carefully highlights how God engages our suffering as God. That is, he does so through the Incarnation as well as by the Spirit. He does so with goodness and effectiveness, having personally stepped into the worst that our broken, evil world can dispense. He takes it ALL on himself in a way that does not violate or alter his nature, that totally redefines our suffering, and that diffuses its power over us.
Pain is pain and loss is loss, any way we slice it. Yet, that is what makes grace so remarkable, so stunning, so mysterious.
God enters our suffering not merely as an observer but, in grace, effectively and transformatively. Our suffering does not “unhappen” but to borrow words from Tolkien, it can “become untrue.” It is perhaps the blind side of God’s grace that makes us more keenly aware of how suffering is not what life was made to be. We become more deeply aware that what is wrong in the world is far more than what bedevils our individual lives. That may sound like stating the obvious, but apart from such awareness, suffering can be purely phenomenological. Accordingly, we can act like one-dimensional beings and seek little more than symptomatic relief.
Suffering expands our capacity for responsiveness to God.
Suffering can expand our capacity to see God’s graceful fingerprints in unexpected places. Even the smallest measures of relief, pleasure, or beauty can have significance to us far beyond their quantitative dimensions. Pain can cultivate heightened sensitivity to acts of love that come our way. Suffering can give us the capacity to see all of these as expressions of grace—the goodness and presence of God.
In the first few days after my brother died (and this may sound silly) coffee has never tasted so good and fresh air has never felt so good on my skin. As I sat with the suffering friend I mentioned, we ate the best key lime pie either of us have ever tasted. He smiled with the most genuine gladness I’ve seen on his face in years. Those moments were quantitatively fleeting but qualitatively thick with God’s presence, goodness, and grace. Even those incidental pleasures can turn our hearts toward God with gratitude that sustains us for another day. In God’s hands suffering creates—textures—those capacities.
Jacob’s historic wrestling match with God recorded in Genesis 32:22-32 provides an anchoring precedent for all this. He emerges with a wound, a limp, that for the rest of his days reminded him of his encounter with God. Simple pleasures as well as deep scars can be sacramental of divine encounters. All can serve as prompts for profound awareness of and responsiveness to God.
Grace reinvests our suffering.
Timothy Keller exhorts us not to let our suffering be wasted. When we accept that grace does not always reduce or eliminate suffering, we can lean into that wise counsel with healthy expectations. Grace does not simply even the scales in a utilitarian sense. Rather, grace conquers and transforms suffering whatever the circumstantial outcome. Then we are free to respond, free to learn and grow and change, free to trust God without having to inspect and approve the balance sheet. Then when God uses suffering to some good end in our lives, we can receive that without it being a pietistic denial or trivialization of our suffering.
Increasingly, though perhaps quite slowly, we realize that suffering textures our lives so that we can be more supple in our awareness of God’s graceful presence. We discover that God’s sovereignty is not merely the mechanical rule of a remote God, but the power of God who is present in our suffering to transform both us and our suffering. We find new, or perhaps more nuanced, capacities to sense the goodness of God in places we previously would have missed. None of this should be heard as romanticizing suffering or the pain involved in the texturing, etching process. Pain is pain and loss is loss, any way we slice it. Yet, that is what makes grace so remarkable, so stunning, so mysterious. It (or I should say, God) works in such counterintuitive ways. When we suffer, grace is not simply religious, sentimental language for denial, anesthetizing, or coping.
If at some point in the future I paint my garage floor, I won’t resent the etching, texturing process. It makes the paint adhere. Whatever suffering lies ahead of us, may it have that same effect on our recognition of and response to God’s grace.