When people speak to lightly of suffering or even praise the merits of suffering too highly, I immediately begin to mistrust them or to question whether they have actually truly suffered.
Suffering is devastating. To suffer is to experience such excruciating pain —be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual —that the very core of your being is shattered and everything you once held onto for meaning has been obliterated. In suffering you are rendered totally and completely exposed, vulnerable, and you experience complete and total brokenness.
For this reason it is neither wise nor theological accurate to use pious platitudes to discuss suffering. Saying things like, “suffering makes you stronger,” or “you are being refined by this suffering,” is neither helpful to the person suffering nor, frankly theologically accurate. Instead, these pious platitudes turn God into a monster who loves to inflict pain on God’s creation.
There can be no doubt about it. To suffer is to experience a form of death. From a theological or spiritual perspective that is what makes suffering so devastating, painful, and threatening. To experience suffering is to experience the absence of God. To experience the absence of God is to seemingly experience the death or loss of faith.
But, if there is any merit to suffering (and now I begin to tread lightly) it is in the fact that in suffering we do experience death. This is not to be glorified, wished for, or wished upon our worst enemy because it is to experience such unspeakable pain and such deep emptiness that whether or not one will indeed survive the suffering is in doubt. And that is the truly brutal nature of suffering — to suffer inherently means whether one will survive the suffering is unknown. But, if there is any merit to suffering, anything to gain from this existential annihilation, then it is in the fact that suffering brings death. And once you die and you survive the suffering, once the suffering lessens (if it lessens) and you do in fact survive and make it through, then all that once was has vanished.
Suffering erases our understandings of ourselves, of others, of the world in which we live, and yes, especially our understanding of who God is. But the obliteration of suffering is meritorious only because the understandings that we carry of ourselves, others, this world, and yes, even and especially our God, are false understandings. We do not truly, really, know God. How can we? God is a mystery. As Richard Rohr so often says, to speak of knowing God must inherently entail speaking of not-knowing God.
To say that we do not truly know God is to not deny that God exists. Nor is it to say that we cannot grow in our knowledge of God. Rather, it is to say that God does in fact exist, but in some ways, our own false presuppositions regarding who God is actually prevents us from knowing who God truly is. Most often we create God in our image or according to our likeness. In suffering, our constructions of God – who God is, what God is like, how God is acting, how God loves – all are melted away.
If we survive our suffering we are left standing in an abyss, as Thomas Merton says. There is seeming emptiness. This emptiness is birthed out of suffering and in this emptiness we are approached by God and invited to learn anew who God is. This involves as much unlearning as it does learning, as much unknowing as it does knowing.
Suffering is awful and for those of us who have experienced soul crushing and ontology-erasing suffering, we understand that it must never be moralized or cheapened. But suffering can be creative in that out of suffering the opportunity to meet the real God is born.