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God Squad: Choose not suffering

I was especially drawn to your recent reflections on suffering and God's love for us. Could you expand on the insight/revelation regarding suffering as redemptive for us?

-- D., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., via email

Suffering is wholly awful and I'm not fundamentally open to wishing it upon people so that they might learn and grow from the experience. People who embrace such a belief are not fully appreciating the way suffering tears us apart. Job had precisely such disdain for the "comforters" who came to him offering pious but vapid bromides meant to easily explain to him in some neat and foolish way his bone-crushing suffering.

I think the whole purpose of the Book of Job is to warn us against facile religious explanations for life's deepest mysteries, especially human suffering in a world created by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Yes, human free will solves the theological problem, but it does not wipe away our tears. The free will defense cannot be used like a fire extinguisher pointed at a fire. Suffering is a mystery, not a problem, and so it demands a response, not an answer.

Because I'm so often called upon to bring comfort, I've become deeply suspicious of easy explanations of the inexplicable and one-sentence comforts when all words fail. One of my favorite anonymous stories is that of a sufferer who came to a wise teacher and said, "My spirit is broken because of the death of one I loved deeply. How can I heal my soul?" The teacher responded, "Go to the circus and there you will see the great clown Carlini. He will bring a smile to your face and joy to your soul." The sufferer said to the wise teacher, "You don't understand, I am Carlini."

We are all Carlinis when our practiced beliefs are crushed by life's inevitable losses. This is the pit. This is hell on earth. This is the place the Psalmist knew when he wrote, "Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord." (Psalm 130:1).

How we respond to suffering when we are Carlinis shapes the rest of our lives. Utter despair is an option, and a deepened faith is an option. We must choose after we suffer (not before) what meaning we'll let suffering have in our life. Then the challenge is to have the courage to stick to the meaning we've given to suffering.

If the meaning is that we've been cursed to live out our lives in a cold, meaningless universe in which suffering is just a foretaste of an utterly extinguishing death, then we must have the courage of our nihilism.

This doesn't work for me, but it has worked for friends and teachers who've passed through my life. I would rather try to protect the courage of my faithfulness.

If, on the other hand, you choose to see meaning in suffering, this is what I know about that: I know that suffering can be seen as a way to strengthen us and teach us forbearance and gratitude. Hemingway wrote, "Everyone is broken, but some become stronger at the broken places." Oh, how I wish Hemingway could have become stronger and written more instead of killing himself, but such are the choices we're all given here on Earth.

There is something to the ways suffering makes us wise. Think of the people you know who've lived "charmed lives," the ones who were born healthy, wealthy and beautiful. It's been my experience that many of these people are quite nice and often generous. However, in my limited personal experience, many of them are shallow and often naive about the nature of life for ordinary folks. The people I know who are most world wise and most deeply understanding of others (whether rich or poor) are those who've been through hell and back. It's almost as if, as Hemingway wrote, their spiritual bones were strengthened by their suffering.

I repeat, this does not make suffering redemptive or desirable. It only makes suffering something that can be transformed by sufferers with the spiritual courage to do so. These people are my teachers and my heroes. These are the ones who lead me to the words of the prophet Hosea (6:1): "Come let us return to the Lord; "For He has torn, that He may heal us, "He has stricken, and he will bind us up."

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