On Suffering


When I was about 10 years old, I thought a lot about pain – why it is that a God who was supposed to care about us, and to be in charge of everything, would allow life to be so hard. I asked my mom about that one day. She answered that God wanted us to suffer so we could know how good life really was. I remember walking out of the house, and something rising up in me – a voice, a kind of deeper “knowing” that said, No! That’s not the truth. God doesn’t want us to suffer.

Now, of course, after decades of arguing with the reality of life, I’ve come to understand that my mom was talking about the awkward gifts that pain can bring: suffering pushes us into deeper questions, deeper realities of the paradoxes of life, things that we can only apprehend with the heart, not the mind.

In reading theological approaches to suffering, I have come to believe that not only does the Divine care when we suffer, but that Spirit suffers with us, and with the struggles and pains of the whole world. And sometimes it is in great suffering that we become most loving, most understanding. Out of the hell of suffering, we grow fierce and tender hearts that can bear both the joys and the wretchedness of life.

In an essay entititled “Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death,” Rabbi and religious scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel commented on what happens to our comprehension of life following loss.

“Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.”

That awe after my aunt died was not just an intellectual or even emotional experience, but a trembling of my whole being that deepened my ability to live with, and even embrace, the complexities and mysteries of this complicated and multifaceted journey with courage and great love. Every day now, I am brought to my knees by love.

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