By Marybeth Bratrud
It was a bright and beautiful July day in 2014. I was twenty years of age, standing at the altar, donned in my bridal gown, vowing to be a faithful wife in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. I did not know nor could have foreseen, despite the well-meaning warnings of those wiser than I, the times of want and sickness and sorrow ahead. I think it was Nietzsche who said that, “to live is to suffer” and there is truth to that. I think, as humans, we all deeply identify with stories of suffering because it reflects to one degree or another the reality we all know and the world we inhabit.
As followers of Christ, we are promised suffering (John 15:20), and so a theology of suffering becomes incredibly important. But equally important to wrestling with the why of human suffering, is learning to embody the right practice of christian suffering. Why do we suffering and how we ought to suffer are two different questions — I will endeavor to explore the latter.
Thomas Watson, in his book The Divine Art of Christian Contentment writes, “Here is the difference between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint. In the one we complain to God; in the other we complain of God.” Holy suffering is suffering in faith. It does not mean that we minimize our suffering and grief. It is not a “pull yourself up by our on bootstraps” and “move-on” theology. But it does mean that we walk in faith — taking our pain and doubt and fear to the Father rather than taking offense at Him and cursing Him for our pain.
We may never find the why behind our suffering and yet in the midst of the unknown we can cling ever more tightly to the One who is known. Sometimes this clinging looks more like Jacob wrestling or Thomas doubting or Job contending or Moses pleading or Jesus weeping. Sometimes it is wrought with suspicion and anger and confusion. But whatever form or emotion it comes in, it always reaches towards the Father. It takes its complaints (all of them, even the dangerous ones like doubt) directly to Him but refuses to murmur against His will. Doubt is not an adversary to faith. Doubt, rightly ordered, is often a means to a deeper and stronger love of God. As Madeline L’Engle puts it, “I had yet to learn the faithfulness of doubt. This is often assumed by the judgmental to be faithlessness, but it is not: it is a prerequisite for a living faith.” (Walking on Water, 118).
The truth is that we are not promised a why for all our suffering. It is tempting for us moderns to demand answers before we are willing to have faith but the biblical model is just the opposite: it is faith that seeks understanding not faith that requires it. But whether the meaning of our suffering is revealed or whether it is elusive until we see the Lord in glory — we are called to walk by faith, to suffer by faith. Faith that may “lie in the other side of reason,” but which, nevertheless, “makes life bearable with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys” (Walking on Water, 22). This faith pushes us, again and again, to the arms of God. It is a safe place to abide even in our darkest hour.
I often think, looking back, on my wedding day about the promise I made to love and to be faithful to my husband in every season of life. The wedding vows recall to my mind Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13). The truth is that Christ does supply all our strength. It is the secret to suffering well. He doesn’t always give us an answer to our sorrows; he doesn’t wipe them all away on this side of heaven; he doesn’t tell us to just move on already. But He promises His spirit to comfort and be present with us even till the end. This is what the psalmists are deeply concerned with and why they are exemplars of suffering well. We may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but let us not fear (even though we fear). Though the answers evade us, “He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Ps. 27:5). And that is a great comfort.