The Engagement of Suffering

“Well, your suffering isn’t like Job’s…”

Ever hear something along those lines? Frankly, I think it is largely an ignorant statement. Suffering is hard. What compounds the hardship is the difficulty by which we try to engage people when suffering occurs. It takes courage to admit struggle and suffering. If it is met with a statement of belittlement, such as “well think of Job, he lost everything”, then the suffering leaves one further in isolation and worse, it puts pressure on the one suffering to quickly make things better.

Because immediacy makes all things better, right?

Wrong.

Our culture is one which devalues the space required for suffering. I think this is true in the secular and religious contexts (those terms are terms I’m growing to hate, but they work). You don’t hear sermons on suffering too often, and if you do, at the end of the thirty minute talk, the story is one of redemption. Praise Jesus and all, right? Well, yes, but life’s problems aren’t so easy to solve. Yes, we may hear of the suffering of Job and Joseph and the Apostle Paul, but when the sermon wraps up with redemption it indirectly promotes the immediacy of solution to difficulties. Life just doesn’t work like that and sermons typically do not provide suffering the justice that it needs.

The thing about suffering is that it requires an indefinite amount of time. It’s a process, and a highly subjective one. Yet, we often try to expedite the process when in conversation with the one who suffers. Words probably meant for consolation might actually cause more harm. Space and time is required. Words are immediate and violently attack the sufferer.

Kierkegaard once said “my life is one great suffering, unknown and incomprehensible to others.” While I won’t here delve into a biographical sketch of this great and brilliant man, he suffered in numerous ways: health, family death, and a sacrifice of his romantic partner. But the terms which should here be concentrated on are “unknown” and “incomprehensible.” Suffering is subjective and its relationship to the person is also subjective. When one who suffers invites another into the suffering, it is an invitation for presence.  It is a violation to try and expedite the process, because really, the observer lacks the subjective understanding of the sufferer’s suffering. The observer may gain insightful facts and knowledge about the person’s suffering, but because the observer is not the sufferer a subjective understanding will lack.

Lines such as “your suffering isn’t like Job’s” are largely offensive. They mean nothing. One does not need to have the riches of the world in order to lose everything. Suffering is not a process which should be expedited, however much one wants it. To expedite is to deny or negate a necessary process which further will develop the self. What is left is an unrealized self.

When asked to enter into one’s suffering, know that it is your presence that is probably desired. Wait to speak until your words are petitioned for. Let the process take its course. When one suffers and God is absent, the mere presence of love is what one needs. Entering into one’s suffering should be a beautiful thing; a combination of presence in the moment and space to allow process. To maximize this, its probably best to shut up for a while.

5 thoughts on “The Engagement of Suffering

  1. agholdier says:

    Spot on.

    Last year, a student at my school (a close friend of several of my own students, though he himself was not in my classes) committed suicide. Needless to say, this was a crash-course in suffering counseling for me. And – in all four of my classes – we went right to Job 2:13, where Job’s three friends “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” Between that and the whole “Blessed are those who mourn” bit, we just took a day for sackcloth and ashes. There was plenty of time later for silver linings and whatnot.

    It’s amazing how backwards the line of thinking you’re critiquing really is:
    1) [Postulate] Your suffering is not as bad as Job’s.
    2) So, Job’s suffering was worse than what you’re going through.
    3) Job’s friends shut the hell up and mourned with him.
    4) I’m going to not-shut the hell up and instead try to cheer you up.

    It seems like even if the assumption of (1) is true, the proper response would still be silence. If even Job’s plight didn’t warrant an immediate “look on the bright side, Bucko,” then why should mine?

  2. agholdier says:

    Reblogged this on A.G.Holdier and commented:
    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    Like Job 2:11-13 says, “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

    If even Job’s plight did not warrant an immediate attempt at cheer, then why should something you consider to be less important deserve a stronger response? “Blessed are those who mourn,” indeed.

  3. Paul Holdier says:

    Excellent, Michael! The only disagreement I would have with your post is contained in the final paragraph: “When one suffers and God is absent…” I would suggest that humans may feel that God is absent in the midst of our suffering, but that is never the case. God tells us that He knows the numbers of the hairs on our head or when every sparrow falls. A God that knows us that intimately (yet still loves us unconditionally) and is present in the smallest details of life is never absent. Just an opinion! 🙂 Thanx for sharing!

    1. michaeldstark says:

      I should, perhaps, clarify that statement. I am a proponent of what is called divine hiddenness, a view supported by N. Wolterstorff and G. Boyd. It says that at times, God does not speak to us or that his presence is not felt. This is certainly temporary, but it happens during times of suffering. It by no means negates that God does not know us or is not active “behind the scenes.”

  4. James Reed says:

    It is your writing that I am interested in. Like finely cut blocks, one by one. A synthesis of words to content like this drives me forward.

    I ask you to read my writing. It is like yours, but faster and darker, but with the same exactness that you yourself possess. Expedite me.

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