(NOTE: I took some photos and requested some others during a recent emergency. I felt like some visual images might give more credibility to my words when I got around to writing a blog post.)
Many people say that they feel sorry for me because of my suffering. I’m here to tell you that this is not necessary. Thank you for your care and concern. I know it comes from a good and kind place in your heart. I also assure you that it’s misplaced. There is no need to feel sorry for me.
Periodically, someone will go a little further and express a related sentiment along these lines: “BK, I just cannot understand why God allows you to suffer so much. You’re a good person. Cancers, chronic viruses, heart attack, blood disorders, broken bones. Why does your life have to be so difficult? I just don’t understand this at all!”
I appreciate this too. Conversations with people of good will who are sharing their sincere thoughts are always welcome and refreshing. Unfortunately at a social gathering can I rarely respond adequately so that is what I’m going to attempt right now.
In a previous blog post, I explain how suffering can be physical or non-physical (ie. mental, emotional, spiritual) and how in my experience the latter is far worse than the former. People easily have compassion for physical ailments because they are directly observable. Admittedly, my list of such ailments is extensive. But the sufferings that people can directly observe – I do not even consider them to be the worst of my sufferings. The truth is that the worst of my sufferings are probably no worse than yours. They are mental, emotional, and spiritual trials. This is the first reason why you shouldn’t feel sorry for me. My suffering is not that extraordinary.
The second reason why you shouldn’t feel sorry for me is that human suffering has many potential benefits to those who are aware and ready to receive these truths. I’m ready. I’m always in search of wisdom.
Let me be clear, I am NOT saying that we should not work to ease each other’s suffering. Love requires us to do that. I’m just saying that given the right framework, your own sufferings can be transformed. The great Austrian psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl found that one of three main avenues to human meaning is to transcend your suffering, to turn your suffering into a triumph. He made this discovery using a mostly secular framework. I’m going to make my observations within a Christian one.
I’m also not claiming any original ideas here. I borrow freely from St. Paul, Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., St. Thomas More, my mom, Viktor Frankl, St. Terese of Lisieux, Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., Mother Teresa, & Bruce Wilkinson. I’m almost certainly borrowing from other thinkers too, but sometimes you read something so long ago that the idea stays with you and the source of the idea sort of fades to the background.
Each of the following benefits probably merits its own chapter in a book, but I don’t have the time for that now. If this list simply provides you the opportunity to pause and reflect a bit, I’d be delighted.
Suffering can be a blessing for many reasons. Much of the time, you can experience several of these benefits simultaneously.
GOOD THINGS THAT SUFFERING CAN DO FOR YOU
1) A Warning for Sin. If sin had no negative effects, it wouldn’t be sin. If we couldn’t feel these negative effects, it would be very difficult to convince ourselves that sin is bad and harmful. Therefore, feeling the negative effects of sin is a great mercy. If I step on a rusty nail with my bare foot, it will hurt. This pain causes me to notice something is wrong and take action to make it better. I will stop the bleeding and clean the wound so that it doesn’t become infected. If it did become infected, it could lead to greater and greater problems. Ultimately, it could kill me. In the same way, our sins bring upon ourselves negative effects that call us to pay attention to the cause of this pain and take action to make ourselves better. The pain of sin is a warning. This warning is actually a great mercy of God. It helps us to be healthy. I have experienced this myself.
2) A Medicine for Sin. In the same manner, suffering can be medicinal. Once we are aware of our sinful ways, the medicine administered requires a change in our disposition. The medicine we receive helps us to heal, but it isn’t automatic, it’s a process. Suffering from our sins helps us to become more sensitive, to reflect, and to grow. The process of suffering is like a medicine that helps us to heal from our sins. I have experienced this myself.
3) A Prevention of Sin. Continual prosperity in a fallen world is a grave danger to the soul. St. Thomas More even suspected that it was a tactic of the devil or a sign of God’s disfavor. Too much prosperity can lead to pride, the greatest of all sins, the root motivation behind the only unforgiveable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf Mt 12:31 & Mk 3:28-29). It can make us think that we are “self-made” and that our successes are somehow solely our own doing, that we do not need God.
On the contrary, our great early bishop, St. Paul explains how suffering helps keep him grounded.
“That I, Paul, might not become too elated because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness….’ Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2nd Cor 12:7-10)
Suffering can prevent us from sin and help keep us focused on God, keep us on the straight and narrow path. I have experienced this myself.
4) A Punishment for Sin. Wouldn’t it be outrageous and demoralizing to imagine a God who had no concern for justice? Please pause for a moment and think of the greatest injustices you have either experienced or witnessed in your own personal life. It could be something that happened to you at work or something that happened to your kid at school or anything else. Then think of a God who didn’t care about this injustice, a God who was totally indifferent to you and your situation. Justice is connected to love. We all want to know that God loves us and therefore will punish injustice. Punishment for a sin is totally right and good. Punishment is Divine Love for you in the form of justice. I have experienced this myself.
5) A Pruning to Enable You to Bear More Fruit in Your Life. I challenge you to read the Gospel of John, chapter 15, multiple times in succession. Thanks largely to Bruce Wilkinson who wrote a cool little book on it, this chapter of John has been life changing for me. On the night before he died, as he and the disciples were on their way to the infamous Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus paused to give his disciples a very important teaching. If we wish to bear fruit in our lives, Jesus says we must “abide in the vine.” John 15 is worth some very focused reading, re-reading, and meditation. I wish I could get you to read the whole chapter, but here is an excerpt:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing… By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (Jn 15: 1-2; 4-6; 8-9)
If I want to bear much fruit in my life, I’m going to have to be pruned! Like punishment, pruning is also a blessing. I have experienced this myself.
(I’m going to stop here for the moment. I’ve got much more to say, so if you are interested in exploring this further, please stay tuned for Part 2.)