Redemption in Suffering
The time between the mother’s diagnosis of cancer and her death was just about a year, a year that Alyssa Monks, an artist, spent in taking care of her mother. And this is what she learned from this experience: “We’re all going to have big losses in our lives…They bring us to our knees…So I say let them. Fall to your knees. Be humbled. Let go of trying to change it or even wanting it to be different. It just is. And then there is space and in that space, feel your vulnerability, what matters most to you, your deepest intention. Be curious to connect to what is really here awake and alive, what we all want. Let’s take the opportunity to find the beautiful in the unknown, in the unpredictable and even in the awful.”
The wisdom that Alyssa offers us cuts across our objections, our denial of suffering, our attempts to escape any pain at all and hits us at the heart of the matter of suffering: the growth and wisdom that it offers us. We can wish away and deny any suffering, but, if we do, we are not grounded in what is real and true in our lives; we are just running away from life. We are not allowing God the opportunity to walk with us through the pain and to heal it and transform us in the process.
Alyssa found this wisdom in returning to her art after her mother’s death and seeing how different her vision was of what she wanted to say in her paintings. The grief was terrific; the difference in her art astonishing. And that is the source of her exclamation about going into the suffering and seeing what it has to offer us.
“Wow!” That’s all I can say to her healing and being transformed. Again, “Wow!” I saw some of this when my husband was sick with cancer and died within a year of contracting the disease. God was right at my side offering a way to experience the awful possibility that he might die. He offered me this thought: ”Hold all possible outcomes equally.” And then he blessed me with the gift of faith so wide and deep that I knew that nothing could harm me or Hank, that God was with both of us.
Unpacking the pain and suffering in our lives, seeing what it has offered us in seeing life more clearly, more uniquely, more wholly/holy—this is the way to freedom. It means that we don’t run from our pain or hide it from others. We feel it; we embrace it; we learn from it. On the other side of the grief and suffering is redemption, a lighter load, a reality check about life—that we cannot avoid all the losses or the suffering, but that we can come out on the other side more whole, more connected to our true self/our soul, more connected to life, to God himself.
If we identify with or love Jesus at all, we are called to embrace our own suffering in solidarity with what he suffered and with what he offered us, a vision of how to live fully. We are not to avoid the suffering in front of us, but to see it as the next step that God is placing before us. And then, like Alyssa Monks experienced, there is resurrection on the other side of death and pain and suffering which is promised to us all.
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, offered this thought about suffering: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.” We can add to our own suffering by resisting or denying or running away from it. It is a part of our life here on earth. There are deaths of love ones and lots of other kinds of losses; there are illnesses; there are natural disasters and ill treatment by other people; there are job losses. One way or another suffering will get us. As the Rev. Billy Graham said: “Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to Him in trust and confidence.”
There is something in our culture that would have us avoid all pain and suffering, but there is Jesus’ life and death in Christianity that would have us embrace it. We don’t have to love it, but we do have to deal with it realistically, experience it, learn from it. Nothing comes without a reason. Suffering comes to everyone; it is not a personal indictment against any one.
And we can learn a lot from the suffering we experience. Mostly, I think, suffering points out our attachments, the people and things we hold onto, that come between us and God, us and our true selves. In Alyssa’s case she had to deal with the illness and loss of her mother, but that experience broke free something in her that had been frozen and not accessible to her before her mother died. If we really give up our attachments, God is still holding on to the people we love, so we don’t have to. He is always looking to give us the next lesson that we have to learn in order to fulfill the promise of our creation, our purpose. So we, in his presence, can come into the fullness of that promise, just as he intended us to do.
It’s no coincidence that today we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and the bounty with which God has blessed us. Even in our suffering and pain we can be grateful for what God has given us. Even though my husband died fifteen years ago, I am grateful for the 37 years of our marriage and our three kids and now 5 grandkids with one more on the way. I have not forgotten him still; now 15 years later he is still a part of me. When a tragedy strikes, we often cannot see any good in what has happened. We only see the losses and the grief and pain. It is only later, and this may take a few years to see, that we can see what God was doing in our lives and how he helped us to turn them around afterwards. For me it has meant a fulfilling life of spiritual direction and writing, something that probably couldn’t have happened if I was still married to Hank. Thanks be to God!
Questions to ponder over the week: Have I learned all that I can from the suffering I have endured? Have new paths/new lives opened up to me because of the pain I endured. Have I fully grieved my pain? Have I turned it over to God to heal or am I hanging on to it for some reason of my own? What would be my first step towards healing? Am I willing to take it?
Blessing for this week: May we be the people of God who will learn everything they can from their suffering. May we be able to give up to God whatever comes between us. May we be healed completely by the Holy Spirit.
News from By the Waters:
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 Ted Talk by Alyssa Monks 12.24.15
 Google suffering quotes by Thomas Merton
 Google suffering quotes by Rev. Billy Graham