Monday, July 9, 2012

A Journey Through Suffering

Suffering is part of being human. It’s inevitable. Depending on the degree of pain experienced, our entire lives can be impacted. Suffering can consume our thoughts, affect our relationships – even our relationship with God – and leave no part of our lives untouched. Watching someone suffer is also difficult. As a counselor, I want to ease the emotional pain quickly; however, swift relief may not be the best course of treatment.

Just world view
Those who have a relationship with Christ normally turn to Him during times of distress. When the anguish continues and relief is nowhere in sight, suffering can be confusing.  A common assumption among believers is that painful and traumatic events do not happen to the righteous. This belief, known as the Just World View, refers to the degree that people believe that the world is a fair and just place (Fetchenhauer et. al., 2005). The idea allows people to view God as predictable. Further, the church body often interprets events in a manner that supports a belief that the sufferer has a lesson to learn or that the presence of more faith would relieve the suffering. Verses such as John 10:10 are often quoted to support the idea that God protects those who are faithful and removes His protection from those who are not. 

The abundant life, however, does not promise a life without sorrow or adversity. The Apostle Peter wrote “for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). Peter is clear that Christians are not shielded from pain and suffering. Interestingly, the word suffering suggests that these experiences are an expected part of life while the trials are not due to internal struggles but come from evil found in this world (Schreiner, 2003). 

Suffering as Evaluation of Pain
In pondering the cause of suffering, Knabb and his colleagues (2010) posit that it is the result of evaluating a painful experience. Pain and suffering are not synonymous. Rather, suffering is the experience of the evaluation process. Examining a painful experience, however, has the ability to produce a sense of anguish that may actually increase and prolong suffering. The work of evaluation demands a language that allows the experience to be labeled and examined – a primary task for the counseling process. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian of the early to mid-1900’s, supported the notion of suffering as an evaluative process (Knabb et. al, 2010). For Bonhoeffer, pain is a normal part of living in a fallen world and suffering offers the possibility of leading one to a deeper understanding of God’s character and thus a more intimate relationship with Him. Therefore, suffering should not be avoided or rushed (Latini, 2009). 

Suffering as Spiritual Grieving
For Snyder (2008), suffering can be viewed as spiritual grieving. During a time of suffering, we are often forced to wrestle with our understanding of God. Questions such as, “Where was God?” and “Where is God?” are commonly asked. Sufferers frequently experience a sense of being spiritually deserted. The problem is more than intense hurt; it is one of loss, including the loss of a loving and just God and consequently becomes a cry of longing for God. Suffering, then, is a powerful feeling of being abandoned by the Lord “who seems asleep in the boat and needs to be roused to action” (Mark 4:35-41) (Snyder, 2008, p. 71). Hopefully, what follows is an honest conversation with God that involves deep questioning and the expression of intense emotions.  

Spiritual grieving, then, is both a spiritual journey and a healing process. Deciding to trust in God’s goodness, even while struggling, will eventually lead to His praise. Cognitively, we may realize that this process is part of spiritual growth but in a moment of great need, we may experience intense anxiety when we’re not able to find intimacy with God. 

God as Fellow Sufferer
Moltmann, a former Nazi who became a Christian in a Scottish prison camp, found that the question of a loving God who allows suffering is a quandary that plagues the Christian church. In addressing this difficulty, he asserted that Scripture shows God being profoundly affected by our pain (Monroe & Schwab, 2009). Indeed, numerous passages throughout Scripture offer a clear understanding that God is compassionate towards the suffering. The account of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus is a prime example that God grieves with us (Jn. 11:35). 

In examining Philippians 3, Hoffman (2010) notes that the recognition of God’s own suffering is of vital importance.  At its core, suffering is “the Son who lost His Father for us, and the Father who lost His only begotten Son for us, is the same God who empathetically weeps now for His children who are suffering presently on earth” (Hoffman, 2010, p. 131). While the notion that God suffers with us may be new to the counselee, this knowledge has the ability to assist in the development of an even more intimate relationship with God.

Adjusting Core Assumptions
At times, those seeking counsel are grieving their lost God. While the feelings of abandonment are very real, God is not actually lost. The client simply has an ill-fitting concept of God. The process of suffering creates a situation that allows the individual to know God more intimately and to correct faulty assumptions about His nature. 

For Snyder (2008), “Encountering God can be enveloped in sorrow, but it is transformative when the suffocating box in which we have enclosed God and our truest selves is broken like Mary’s alabaster jar . . . . Faith is no longer rooted in answered prayer, and happiness is not dependent on circumstances“(p. 75). Therefore, one should not expect nor wish for a pass on experiencing suffering (Hoffman, 2010). While the sufferer may plead “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass,” our role as Christian counselors is to help the client endure the process (Luke 22:42).

Following the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process” (Lewis, 1961, p. 66). For Floyd (2008), counselors who understand that sorrow is a necessary part of life are better able to counsel those who suffer. When we provide “comfort and support in the midst of difficult times . . . we are truly engaged in ‘mourning with those who mourn’ and serving an incredibly important function in the body of Christ” (p. 95). Therefore, rather than viewing suffering as something to be quickly remedied, we can participate in the sacred process of healing as the sufferer becomes more intimately acquainted with God. 

Fetchenhouer, D, Jacombs, G & Belschak, F. (2005). “Belief in a just world, causal attributions, and adjustment to sexual violence”. Social justice research 18 (1): 25-42. (26)
Floyd, S. (2008). Crisis counseling: A guide for pastors and professionals. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
Hoffman, L. (2010). “Suffering, glory and outcomes in psychotherapy”. Journal of psychology and Christianity 29 (2): 130-140.
Knabb, J, Ashby, J. & Ziebell, J. (2010). “Two sides of the same coin: The theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and acceptance and commitment therapy”. Journal of spirituality in mental health 12: 150-180.
Latini, T. (2009). “Grief-work in light of the cross: Illustrating transformational interdisciplinarity”. Journal of psychology and theology 31 (2): 87-95.
Lewis, C.S. (1961). A grief observed. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Monroe, P. & Schwab, G. (2009). “God as healer: A closer look at biblical images of inner healing with guiding questions for counselors”. Journal of psychology and Christianity 28 (2): 121-129.
Schreiner, T. (2003). 1, 2, Peter, Jude; The new American commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers. (64).
Snyder, K. (2008). “A post-holocaust theology of suffering and spiritual grieving: Staying attached to God in loss”. Journal of pastoral counseling 43:67-78.

Shannon Wolf, Ph.D., LPC-S
Assistant Professor of Master of Arts in Counseling
Dallas Baptist University

No comments:

Post a Comment