Scripture Won’t Let You Endure Suffering on Your Own
Written by TM of JC on September 5, 2020
On many mornings I wake up early, my stiff body creaking as I pull on my yoga pants, grab my coffee, and hobble out the door to sit at the nearby lake and welcome the dawn. I come here to remember the God who set the sun in the sky and holds the world in its rotation, no matter how dark or shaky my disease or global suffering might make me feel.
I distinctly remember one morning, as the sun stretched its hot pink fingers over the horizon, when the words of Lamentations 3 reached out through my earbuds:
When life is heavy and hard to take,
go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
Wait for hope to appear.
Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face.
The “worst” is never the worst.
Why? Because the Master won’t ever
walk out and fail to return (v. 28–31, The Message).
The violence of suffering is often its silence, the way it stops us from sharing and telling our stories as beloved children of the living God. There are places suffering takes us where others cannot or will not go, and underneath its long, lonely shadow, it can look and feel like God has left us too. But “the Master won ’t ever walk out and fail to return.” Besides being an author, I’m a therapist, and in these words I hear secure attachment, rooted in God’s promise to always come back and find his people.
Just a few pages into Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness, author and theologian Wendy Alsup names the reality of “attachment disorder in the body of Christ.” Alsup aptly describes how sometimes we are like children who have experienced severe neglect or harm: When our needs are not acknowledged, we eventually stop crying altogether. For many long-term sufferers, she writes, “there comes a point in our journeys when the tears cease, not because circumstances got better or the weight on our shoulders lightened, but simply because we are dehydrated. Detaching from dark emotions seems the only way to survive. Yet how can we survive if we detach from God, his body, and his Word?”
From Withdrawal to Welcome
Though Alsup only briefly mentions the dynamic of an attachment disorder or wound, I believe it is at the heart of why long-term suffering hurts so terribly. The shadowed silence of suffering needs to be made sayable. Jesus promised his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), but in the American church we prefer to pretend faith can pole-vault over vulnerability. We’ve confused faith for fortune, and since most of us have long been discipled by the cult of shiny salvation, we don’t know how to sit with sorrow, as opposed to leaping over it like a track-and-field athlete hungry for a medal.
Sufferers often feel alone and rejected by God and our communities because, as Alsup writes, others “can endure with you for a little while, during the season when you still have hope that your suffering will be short term. But when easy solutions fail … few who haven’t suffered long themselves can endure with you. It threatens their own naive notions of what the good christian life looks like.” When sufferers encounter little but platitudes, dismissive postures, and feelings of awkward discomfort from fellow Christians, we often end up withdrawing from relationships. It becomes less painful to not cry than to have your cries unacknowledged or belittled by smiling, shiny church folk. Companions in Suffering tends to this wound, inviting suffering believers to shift from withdrawal to welcome in the company of saints who know sorrow.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its invitation to find our stories of suffering reflected in the story of God’s people throughout the ages. Through chapters reflecting on stories across Scripture, Alsup provides a corrective balance to our burdensome belief that faithfulness only looks like overcoming. When we suffer, Scripture itself can feel shadowed by both our sheer exhaustion and the throbbing pain of feeling forgotten or forsaken by God. By inviting us into friendship with David, Asaph, Mary and Martha, Job, and Jesus, Alsup asks suffering saints to reclaim Scripture as our story and suffering as an undeniable force of faithfulness within it. As she observes, “no one in Scripture seems to be fruitful except in the land of affliction. In fact, you can argue from Scripture that suffering, affliction, and death to self are essential to God’s plan of fruitfulness in his children.”
One perennial issue with christian books and conversations about suffering is our penchant for platitudes. Our instinct for coping with injustice, pain, and unpleasant emotions is to counter them with little nuggets of “truth” meant to assuage any anger, doubt, or distress. And while Companions in Suffering is assuredly not rife with sugary statements on the order of “This too shall pass” or “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” Alsup’s language lacks a certain vitality. I think she could have better served her readers by candidly showing more scenes from her own suffering rather than mostly treating it with simple summaries.
Likewise, the book would have felt more alive had Alsup traded some spiritualized language for blunt honesty and evocative metaphors. Our spiritual language should aim at welcoming the whole of human experience as held in the heart of God. For many who have felt marginalized in christian communities, I fear Alsup’s words will bear too much resemblance to a brand of Christianity that has long stigmatized vulnerability.
Even so, books like Companions in Suffering are needed, now more than ever. Though suffering, as Alsup reminds us, is the norm for Christians, churches too often act as though their mission is to make everyone as happy and fulfilled as possible. We need the song of the suffering, broken and strained though it may be.
A Climax of Reassurance
When I got home from praying at the lake that morning, I came across a video of Christians across New Zealand singing the popular worship song “The Blessing,” which a friend of mine had posted on social media. Normally, I scroll right past anything that looks the slightest bit like a megachurch version of American Idol, but my eyes stopped at his mention of how the video included indigenous and deaf Christians. Thirty seconds in, I was weeping.
Across the screen, scores of faces of all shades and sizes sang from their kitchens, yards, and churches, echoing the words God gave to Aaron to bless his people (Num. 6:24–26):
The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His face toward you
And give you peace.
The song builds to a climax of reassurance: “He is for you. He is for you. He is for you”—words every sufferer longs to hear.
Through tears, I imagined these faces as the faces of all who have been silenced by the violence of suffering. I imagined Wendy Alsup, her face alight with the joy of Jesus. I imagined my counseling clients and my friends. I imagined what will come to pass, the truth that Companions in Suffering affirms: One day, our God will return for us, and every saint silenced by suffering will sing. Our cries will turn to song. Our tears will turn to joy.
Until then, may we turn silence to sound, sharing stories of suffering with every confidence that when Christ returns, our scars will change to crowns.
K.J. Ramsey is a licensed professional counselor and the author of This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers. She and her husband live in Denver.