The concept of suffering is as relevant in 2021 as it has ever been in human history. We see it continually addressed in books by self-help gurus, Christian theologians, and Buddhist monks. The issue of theodicy, or “why do we suffer”, will probably always remain a question. But one question that can be answered is, “How can we handle this suffering?”
Looking at the Bible, we see suffering addressed abundantly in the Book of Psalms, in which David talks about it directly in his appeals to God. However, when we look to the Gospels, we may be surprised that Jesus does not seem to explicitly speak about suffering. We see Jesus relieving suffering through healing the blind and the sick, and even through raising someone from the dead, but there is no explanation given of suffering or verbal advice given on how to handle it. Even the Sermon on the Mount does not mention suffering.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that Jesus does not teach us about how suffering can be managed, endured, and mitigated. We just have to look a little harder, and examine Jesus’ actions. Jesus, in addition to being a man of words, was a man of action – someone who always led by example.
Here are five lessons that Jesus gives us about suffering:
Be persistent. In Matthew 15, Jesus encounters a woman who asks him to cure her daughter of a demon. At first, he ignores her, and tells her that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She pleads again, and Jesus rebuffs her by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Still, she keeps pleading, and Jesus finally heals her daughter instantly, saying, “Great is thy faith!”
Another example of perseverance as a weapon against suffering is seen in Luke 18, in the Parable of the Persistent Widow. A widow, again and again, asks a judge for justice against her opponent, though the judge remains unmoved. Finally, due to her constant asking, the judge gives her what she wants – simply because of her persistence. Jesus relates this story without mentioning suffering by name, but the message is clear: ask, ask, and ask again, and do not be deterred by God’s silence.
As St. Claude de la Colombiere says in a nice little book called Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, “Do not lose courage when you have begun to struggle with God. Do not give Him a moment’s rest. He loves the violence of your attack and wants to be overcome by you. Make importunity your watchword, let persistence be a miracle in you. Compel God to say to you with admiration, Great is thy faith, be it done as thou wishest. I can no longer resist you, you shall have what you desire, in this life and the next.”
Put faith into action. In a similar vein, Jesus shows us that while having faith is always important, faith in action is a better weapon against suffering. In Matthew 12, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Significantly, Jesus does not simply heal the man without any action on the man’s part; rather, the man is told to stretch out his hand and to thereby show trust. Very often, the thought alone is not enough; there has to be some action on our part to put God’s grace into effect.
We see this concept of faith in action again in Mark 2. Jesus is at home, with many people gathered around him, when four men arrive carrying a friend who is paralyzed. They cannot get through the crowd to Jesus, so they go up to the roof, dig a hole through, and lower their friend down. Jesus both forgives the man’s sins and says, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk” – which the healed man promptly does! Jesus is touched by the faith of the man and his four friends.
Let this also be a reminder that to end our suffering, we may have to fight our way through or around something that seems insurmountable. Furthermore, we may have to ask for our sins to be forgiven before our suffering can be relieved.
Find silence and stillness. In reading the Gospels, you will notice that Jesus is often leaving the cities he is residing in to go to the countryside, a lake, or a quiet village. We see this in Matthew 21, Mark 2, and various other places. Jesus knew that noise was not conducive to inner peace, and that noise only exacerbated suffering. He does not say this outright; however, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says that when we pray we should go to our room and shut the door (Matthew 6:6). Finding silence is a way of feeling closer to God, undistracted by the relentless activity around us. The author Thomas Moore, in an essay on the Book of Job, writes about the importance of silence: “We trust our intellect, analyses, methods, instruments, language, and encyclopedic reservoirs of knowledge too much. We have forgotten the ancient wisdom that speaks eloquently of silence.”
The modern world teases us into thinking that all of its contrivances, especially technology, are gateways to happiness. But it is all noise, all static. Find a quiet place and pray, whether it is your room, a park, or especially your church, and experience that sweet peace that only God can give.
Don’t be a stoic. Our Lord and Savior could definitely handle suffering and hardship, but his actions show that he was definitely not a stoic. Jesus had no problem showing emotion. The shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, is “Jesus wept,” and we see him express his anguish in the garden of Gethsemane as well as on the cross. Jesus did not affect indifference to pain, nor was he indifferent to pleasures: throughout the Gospels, we see him at feasts and parties, making wine, and eating with friends, even so far as to disobey the authorities.
Don’t be a stoic about your pain. Despite such platitudes as “No pain, no gain,” we as humans are not built to ignore suffering. Accepting that we are in a state of suffering is necessary, as is giving yourself the freedom to express it. Just make sure that you talk with the right person, and not someone who lacks empathy. Rather than trying to escape your suffering, let your emotions out (safely). Go to the gym, pray with fervor, and be generous to yourself.
Remember that suffering is never wasted. In his Passion, Jesus goes through public humiliation, abandonment by all his close friends, betrayal, and the most painful physical torture known to man, followed by a violent death. And what happens? He is resurrected, refreshed with new life. When we are suffering, we must always believe that something better awaits us in our future. The present is only temporary.
Another episode in the Bible which illustrates this revitalizing power of suffering is in the Book of Job – a story which everyone should read at least once. In the book, a man who has everything loses it all: his family, his business, and his health. Yet Job maintains his faith, despite questioning why he must suffer. Job knows, deep inside, that no matter how much he suffers, God still knows best. In the depths of his mental and physical pain, he says, “Though He slay me, yet shall I trust in Him” (Job 13:15, KJV) – a statement that should serve as our cornerstone in times of suffering.
Persistence, action, silence, trust – and the freedom to show your pain. Jesus seems to say just as much in his actions as in his words. So come to the Lord, and come at once. Your strength and your peace will only come from him. Pray without ceasing, as St. Paul says, and remember that your suffering is only a temporary stage in a life that goes well beyond what is here on Earth.
If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out my new book, Passages for Inner Peace: Finding Joy and Comfort in the Psalms, available in paperback and e-book formats here.