A wise friend of mine, Charles Munson, once said, there are two kinds of people. “There are those who have suffered, and those who will.” Who can dispute this? Suffering is reality. We will meet people who suffer. While I can not dispute that suffering exists, I cannot claim to be an expert. We are unable to prevent it. It is a reminder that we are not in control.
Some glimpses of the world are convincing that the great religion of the day is the pursuit of happiness and the absence of suffering. We try to dodge suffering as if it were not nearly as important as pleasure. Suffering is perceived as an evil to be avoided or drugged away at any cost. The world lies. Pleasure, happiness, and lack of pain are not the most important things.
I always thought that I’d be uncomfortable at funerals, in hospitals, at nursing homes. Instead, I have found that the opposite is true. These are natural places to find people willing to discuss what is truly important.
Suffering can not be overlooked as a source for meaning. Suffering reminds us that reputation and image are not everything. Suffering reveals who we really are and helps to shape us into who we will be. Suffering grants perspective and wisdom. Perhaps, in suffering, we may gain more than at any other time of life.
Helping those who suffer does not happen quickly. It is more like a journey where we find ourselves walking alongside a suffering friend. We listen. We offer support. We pray. We remind sufferers who they are, that they belong, and why they belong. We want to help. Yet, as Eugene Peterson suggests, it is better not to offer advice too quickly.
Instead, he suggests that no matter how insightful we think we are, 1) we may not really understand the full nature of our friend’s problems. 2) Our friends may not want our advice. And 3) Suffering may transform our friend’s life in remarkable fashion that we can not anticipate. Instead of focusing on preventing suffering, which we will not be very successful at anyway, we should be willing to enter into the suffering. We must stop feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and (if they allow us) join them.
This does not exempt us from attempting to help those who suffer. Yet, it may prevent us from making the mistake of thinking we can help them on our own.
The Gospel account at Gethsemane addresses some of Jesus’ struggle and suffering. The cast of the story includes Jesus, his disciples, and the ever-present Father. It is important to note that here is found not only real people and an actual place, but a God who intervenes in real situations and actual places. This becomes especially important in a context where suffering is involved. Certainly it is assuring to know that God does work in such situations.
The Gethsemane experience serves as a helpful context for our own response to suffering. The focus of the story is on Jesus and his struggle with emotion. Most importantly, the decision that he is to make in regard to his Father’s will. The situation is so distressing that he is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
How does Jesus handle this time of suffering? He repeatedly prayed that the situation would pass and requested the prayers of his disciples. In fact, a large part of the focus here is on prayer. It appears that Jesus frequented this place in order to consult and commune with the Father. On this occasion, Jesus desired to pray alone, praying intimately to the Father concerning the crisis at hand. He continually sought the assurance that others were praying for him and expressed disappointment when they did not. Finally, Jesus prayed in his time of trial that his Father’s will, not his own, be done.
From Gethsemane, there is a sense that prayer is not to be kept on reserve for crisis situations. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that consistent communication with the Father provides the necessary strength to prevent suffering from overwhelming us during times of weakness.
It is obvious that Jesus struggled in the garden. How does he avoid distraction? Two things emerge easily from the episode: He remains in communication with the Father; and he submits to his Father’s will. This passage does not eliminate the reality of suffering, instead it acknowledges it. We are reminded that God speaks to us in even the most distressing situations.
No one is expected to greet suffering and death eagerly as if we are about to learn something. Nevertheless, death is our teacher. Death and suffering remind us of our vulnerability. We are surrounded by evidence that we are not in control. There is an authority greater than we are. In the journey of grief, after recognizing our limitations, after our illusions have fallen away, we realize that all we have been given is gift.
My friend Charles was right. Reality guarantees suffering. We will encounter suffering. Real situations, real people, real suffering. May we receive the words of the Gospel that we might grow through suffering and walk with others who suffer. May we listen intently for words from the Father. May we strive to maintain communion with God. May we freely request the prayers of others in crisis situations and may we always seek his will over our own.