The recent tragic loss of my dear friend Abhishek (Bunty) in the last few weeks has personally brought me face to face with the reality of suffering in life.
The 7 minute video below is an interview with the author and teacher Tim Keller in the week that he himself lost his mother. The video is taken from an American morning chat show. The discussion of Keller’s book helpfully builds on this important subject. For a subject that is so serious, it is actually remarkably uplifting. (I am afraid you will have to endure 30 seconds of commercials before you get to the interview, but it is worth the wait!)
Let’s think about the points being made in more detail.
One of the major points being made is the inevitability of suffering in this life. We so often don’t want to face up to it, but the truth is that all of us will suffer in one way or another.
This is universally acknowledged although we struggle to come to terms with it. As the first of Buddha’s noble truths succinctly puts it, “life is suffering.” However, that is not something we want to face up to or accept. A lot of our frustrations and tensions in life can be traced back to how we do not want to face the fact that suffering is an integral part of life.
As Tim points out in the video, when a family sits around a table to eat a meal, the harsh truth is that it is practically guaranteed that one of the family will be the last to go and will see all the other members of the family die around him or her. Not a particularly pleasant thought, but thinking this through can be potentially enormously liberating. Paraphrasing from Keller’s book:
If we are to take life seriously and live life well and even joyfully against the backdrop of these terrible realities we need to go through the short term discomfort to find the support and strength that can endure over the long term.
Keller further goes on to say:
“Therefore, no matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with family and friends, and successful with our career- something will inevitably ruin it. No amount of money, power, and planning can prevent bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles from entering your life. Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Life is tragic.”
In our technologically advanced society it is so easy to forget this.We spend so much time trying to avoid God. Maybe that is also one of the reasons why we who live in comparative wealth as a particular generation in history find it so difficult to come to terms with suffering. We are use to our lives becoming comfortable and so we somehow expect to avoid suffering. But pain and suffering are inevitable.
The key issue is then not if you suffer, but rather how will you respond when you suffer?
Going through pain will affect you in some way. It will either make you a better and stronger person or it will leave you weaker, maybe even embittered. You will either grow and develop as a human being or you will diminish in some way.What suffering will not do is leave you as you are.
I have always been fascinated by how differently people can respond or react to the same adverse situation in life. What that shows is that it is not the suffering itself that is the critical factor, but how you respond to what happens to you. Will you become more self absorbed and self centred or will you allow the suffering to take you beyond yourself to understand and love God and others better?
There is also the issue of our immediate reaction to the suffering or pain we go through.
In Western culture it is often considered a virtue not to get too emotional – the British for example have tended to talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’. In other cultures it is considered appropriate to become extremely emotional. The Bible presents a much more nuanced response as in the example of Job in the Old Testament who although he angrily complained and questioned God, the fact that he brought his raw emotions to God meant that he was honoured by God.
And how do we make sense of suffering? There are no easy answers. We will explore this further in the next post, but I end with the following quote from Keller’s book:
“Some suffering is given in order to chastise and correct a person for wrongful patterns of life (as in the case of Jonah imperiled by the storm), some suffering is given not to correct past wrongs but to prevent future ones (as in the case of Joseph sold into slavery), and some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love God more ardently for himself alone and so discover the ultimate peace and freedom.”
I hope these thoughts can be helpful to you as you process challenging areas in your own life. This is a huge topic and Keller’s book provides a very helpful resource in thinking this through at a much deeper level.
Do feel free to add your thoughts and comments below.