“Are you suffering?”
This is a question I sometimes ask the patients I visit as the chaplain at Lakeview Hospital or Hospice. Of course it’s not the first question I ask, and not something I ask everyone. But there are times, when a patient is facing a difficult, painful or life-threatening illness, that this question makes sense.
In some ways suffering is a nebulous subject; it’s hard to define. Circumstances in one person’s life may create much suffering, whereas identical circumstances in another person’s life aren’t regarded as suffering. Suffering resists easy definitions, even so, we know what it is when we feel it.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, suffering seems like an anomaly, it doesn’t fit what we know about God. If God is all knowing and all-powerful, and God is good, then how can God allow suffering and evil to happen in our world. For thousands of years philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this dilemma. And while academic study of the topic might appeal to some people, I’m more interested in the impact of suffering on people’s lives.
In the course of my 24 years of ministry, first as a parish pastor for 17 years, and now as a chaplain, I’ve observed some things about suffering that I would like to share. The first is that, if people say they’re suffering, they are. Who is to say how much pain, heartache, fear, despair, people should be able to bear? So when I come across a patient who exhibits some of these symptoms I ask, “Are you suffering?”
A second thing I’ve learned about suffering is that answering the question has some therapeutic benefits. So I ask my question and the patient responds “yes,” then I say, “tell me about your suffering, what’s the hardest part?” They usually lay out the depths of their suffering and despair. The act of getting it outside of oneself, shared with someone for whom it won’t be a burden (probably not a family member), seems to make it better. By my asking this question and the patient answering it, together we have reduced the patient’s suffering.
The third thing I’ve learned about suffering is that God doesn’t desire our suffering. I don’t believe that God punishes us, or someone we love, for our sinfulness or for any other reason. Suffering is a part of the human condition. It just is. That’s why Jesus’ own suffering was important, it demonstrates for us that he was fully human, and understood our suffering. And Jesus’ divinity lets us know that God has experienced human suffering through his son.
Which leads to my fourth insight into suffering, that whether we recognize it or not, God is right there with us in our suffering. Suffering has a way of drawing us in, giving us an inward focus. In the midst of suffering, when we can’t see a way out of it, we have a hard time being aware that God is facing it with us. I believe that God cries with us when we cry, that God reaches out to us in the people who come our way, that God meets us in prayer and in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and that God can help us find meaning in our suffering. God is with us as we suffer.
No one volunteers for suffering, but the nature of our humanity suggests that we will know it at some time in our life. Our ability to cope with suffering is greatly enhanced by our faith, by our recognition that God is with us in it. “Are you suffering?” Yes, but I’ll get through it with God’s help.
The Rev. Bob Furniss is Lakeview Hospital and Hospice chaplain.