Have you ever been in a situation where, to everyone outside, it looked like everything had fallen to pieces? A failed plan, a project or job fallen through, a serious illness, a financial loss, some kind of suffering. And yet, buried in that suffering, and bearing its pain, deep down you had a sense that there was something “good”, “true” or “real” about this desolation. That God had allowed it to happen for a reason that was his, a reason that could not be glimpsed yet, but a reason that you sensed was something quite beautiful, even if you could not glimpse even the edges of this beauty, just yet.
To reach that small sense of goodness in the ruins lying around you, you have to “go through the mill first”, as a priest said to me once. There is no escaping this, no shortcut. In whatever suffering our life brings us, there is no way over, around, underneath or beside it… There is only through it. In the midst of this darkness, mess, confusion, we appropriate all the human responses to pain: anger, resentment, self-pity, and we cannot bear to be near those who trivialise it or cover it in clichés. This is real Job territory, and there is rarely a human life that avoids this altogether.
My (meagre) experience has taught me that suffering and pain can only be faced head on. How tempting to throw over ourselves the comfort-blanket of Netflix, arms-full of treats, friends who will coo soothing words. Or, what temptation there is to distract ourselves with activities, even good works and service to others, but to avoid all eye contact with a reality God wants us to look at. No, the biblical approach to pain is to experience it, to wrestle with it, and more importantly, to enter it with God. Only in the light of the Father’s eyes can the sense of our suffering be glimpsed. To do this, there are some truths we have to cling onto, even if our experience suggests that they cannot be true anymore:
- That God is utterly and overwhelming Good, and everything he does is good.
- That he is our Father who desires such great happiness for us, we can scarcely imagine it.
- That he can transform every evil, pain or suffering into what will make us more free, and therefore, more happy – if we suffer it with him.
How easily we can scan over these truths and nod our heads – and yet, how hard it is to deeply believe them. You see, I think deep down we often distrust God. When something bad happens to us, our pre-rational response is that this is a punishment from God, or a sign that God does not really love us. Part of our transformation in Christ is – through the work of grace – shedding these lies and suspicions about God. Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he is trulygood, and that all things work together for our good. Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he can be utterly trusted – in all things, at all times.
How important, then, when we are going through a season in our life that is painful, dark – even at times unbearable – that we have space, silence, solitude… to be alone with God… to allow our hearts to be “pounded”, and yet to reach out to the One – who we might experience as absent – but who we know is Good, and who can be trusted. How can we do this? Sometimes it means retreating into our hearts in the early morning stillness, knowing God is there and experiences within us all that we feel. Sometimes it might be while walking the dog, or swimming lengths at the local pool. It might be going to sit in an empty church. In a season of suffering, we have to find that place where we can be alone with him and receive his love. Undoubtedly, this will be an experience of love that is new, that we had not experienced before. It is a love that cannot be expressed in words, that is a mystery, beyond all feeling. But it is real.
Going through this, there will come a point when we can make an act of surrender: Whatever is your will, O God. I place all things into your hands. And it will be the most truthful, honest, heart-wrenching surrender we have ever made. Because surrender that comes out of suffering is powerful. We will even feel there is something “dangerous” about this surrender, because we know we are giving God free reign. But there will also be something that we recognise as solidly Good, honestly True, and tenderly Beautiful about this act. This act of surrender deepens the union of our heart with God’s. It is, truly, the work of Redemption in us, and it is why God allows our hearts to be broken. In the words of Pope St John Paul II,
“…this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly “expressed” and, in a way, newly created. He is newly created! … The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly – and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being – he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself.” Redemptor Hominis, 10
Indeed, the experience of the human person cannot be summarised by a meme. No, it must be lived through deeply, with Christ.