I’m reading Tim Keller’s 2013 book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. For the most part, this is one of the better books I’ve read on suffering from a Christian perspective. Having said that, Keller borrows from psychologist Jonathan Haidt as he claims that there are three primary benefits of suffering. With all due respect to Haidt and Keller, I’m not sure that I agree. The three benefits of suffering according to these two experts are:
1. Suffering creates resiliency.
This thought is quite popular thanks to Kelly Clarkson. As she says it, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This thought is not original with Clarkson, but goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche, an interesting philosopher to inform evangelical thought. A recent article in Psychology Today says it better than I can. Suffering and adversity take a toll on us as humans. There are things that people can do to one another that leave lasting and irreparable marks. The hope of the Christian faith is that on “that day” all things will be made right. We will be whole and He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until then, I am convinced that many of us are operating from the possibility of wholeness that remains after the damage. Each time we encounter soul-destroying suffering, our highest potential may be reduced. For example, when a soldier nobly goes off to war and comes back with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, it is ignorant to think that they will ever fully be restored to the state in which they were prior to the trauma, at least in this life. We are left with the goal of helping them cope with their injuries and of being the best self they can be in light of all that they have gone through. If this is our operating definition of resiliency, I have no problem seeing resiliency as the frequent outcome of adversity. However, the notion that trauma and loss doesn’t permanently affect us or that “good people” will inevitably bounce back from suffering and be better than ever is unfounded myth.
When trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt. [Noam Shpancer]
2. Suffering deepens relationships.
It is true that in adversity we often find out who are true friends and loved ones are. Pain and an empathetic response to it can serve to create deep bonds that we can argue would not otherwise have been forged. But, I have just as often and probably more often seen suffering destroy relationships. Most parents who lose children divorce. How often do we hear people stories of abandonment in the midst of suffering? This is not a new phenomenon. Job experienced it. The Psalmists walked through it.
Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. [Ps. 31:11-13]
Suffering will actually tend to polarize our relationships. Those who care enough to walk through suffering with us over the long haul will become closer. Others, who are themselves scared by the potential of suffering, will likely see us as having a contagious disease and keep their safe distance. Those who are willing to pay the high price of entering into the suffering of another are few. Our greatest consolation is found in the fact that though all forsake us, God will not.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.3. Suffering changes our priorities and philosophies, often redirecting our lives. [Ps. 34:18]
3. Suffering changes the priorities, philosophy and direction of our lives.
On this third point, I tend to see and agree with the point. Many people will tell you that their life purpose has arisen out of their suffering. Their adversity has shaped them and specifically equipped them to help others in related ways. As C. S. Lewis says, “suffering is God’s megaphone.” It is often in the midst of pain (or more properly in the aftermath) that we rethink and redirect our lives and purpose. Seeing the big picture and the way that our suffering is woven into the great tapestry of our lives, that the pain was used of God to direct our steps, is in no way to imply that suffering itself is good.
The Benefit of Suffering?
Can God redeem suffering? Yes. But this subject is rarely addressed in a compassionate manner by professing Christians. They are prone to platitudes and other thoughtless comments offered to those who suffer. Christians, like everyone else, want to believe in a just world, where those who suffer somehow deserve it. This makes them feel safe, immune from similar suffering, as they do not see themselves as potential sufferers. Protecting themselves, albeit outside of their conscious awareness, trumps having empathy for those who experience adversity. We want to believe that if we live right, we will experience “victory” and be “blessed.”
And yet, the Captain of our salvation Himself endured suffering. It was through His suffering and obedience that He was made perfect. He is the model. We follow Him. Or do we? We want to believe that somehow suffering will not be a part of our plan. When other believers around us experience it, we are ill prepared to offer God’s perspective. Suffering may not make us stronger. We may well limp across the finish line. The promise, however, is sure; we will be made whole. Our relationships with others may deepen or disappear in the midst of suffering. We will know who truly cares for us. Only one thing is sure; God will not forsake us in our suffering. Lastly, God will often redeem the things that He allows to occur in our lives and somehow mysteriously use them to direct our steps and give our lives renewed purpose. Suffering may have benefits, but it still hurts.