Mark Miller, C.Ss.R. Ph.D.
In my last article, I made a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain, the physiological manifestation of what is wrong with our bodies, can be controlled by drugs (as well as other treatments such as massage, bio-feedback, imaging, and so on). Suffering is that part of the human condition which affects us in the defeat of our dreams, the bruising of our loves, and the broken trust we have in our world. Suffering is the anguish of the human spirit experienced in a thousand thousand ways from the trivial anger of a child who can’t get its own way to the profound agony of the despairing.
What does the Christian have to offer to the reality of suffering? It is often assumed that because we are one with the crucified and suffering Jesus that we have a special ‘in’ or a special understanding of suffering for humanity. However, like all gifts from God, I believe that Christians can trivialize even this awareness in the face of overwhelming suffering. This happens when the non-sufferers begin to counsel the sufferer with platitudes such as ‘offer it up,’ or ‘there’s some good in this,’ or ‘suffering builds character,’ or even ‘you are one with the suffering Jesus.’ Job’s friends became his tormentors by just such platitudes.
Ironically, each of these statements does contain some wisdom. However, it is the platitudinous nature which I find so offensive. Platitudes are often ways of not entering into the actual suffering of the other person. They are ways of avoiding the intense emotional anguish that the other person feels. Tossing a platitude into the life of another is often a way of saying “Your suffering isn’t all that important; get over it.” And the implication is, “You are interfering with the daily routine of life.”
I am myself not very good at entering into the suffering of other people, so I am not condemning anyone beyond myself. I know how hard it is for me even to do no more than sit and listen while somebody pours out his or her anguish about the unfairness of life. Nor do I have any neat and tidy blueprints for helping those who are suffering. However, as a Christian, I do believe that I can offer three suggestions for a caring approach to those who are suffering.
First, I do believe that Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross was a total embracing of our humanness. Whatever else that event means for us (and the meaning is as rich as the universe), Jesus is telling us that this world is loved by God right into the depths of its own failure, hatred, destructiveness and inhumanity. In the history of philosophy, many great thinkers have assumed that God must be absurd or simply non-existent because of the reality and enormity of human suffering. What Jesus tells us is that despite the utter reality of pain, anguish, fear, suffering, betrayal and even death itself, a God of love stands by us and, indeed, is in some profound sense most with us when we suffer.
The challenge, then, for the sufferer is to touch Jesus. Words about the Lord may help, may open doors, may show the way. But somehow prayer—that ineffable contact between the divine and the human—must be the place where Jesus the Healer enters into one’s life. And, generally, Jesus does not enter in as the miracle-worker who takes away the suffering; Jesus enters in as the mystery which walks the sufferer through the suffering to peace. It is not a journey that we control. It is an invitation of and to faith. In fact, while from many people I have learned that in their desperate suffering they are not even able to pray, I have also recognized that their faith touches the Lord in ‘groanings that only the Spirit understands.’
Second, we must realize that Jesus most often comes to the suffering through his people. We are the Body of Christ. And very often the incarnate God is none other than those who believe enough to be the hands, the heart, the gentleness of Christ to those in need. Where love is, God is. So many of us are fearful of being instruments of God because we know our own insufficiencies. That has not stopped God from asking us to be those instruments. This is not a matter of instinct through baptism; rather, we must learn the ways of love. Good palliative care for the dying, for example, is an art to be learned at the bedside of the dying and with the direction and encouragement of those who share the art. Or, bridging family hurts in order to care for the suffering is also an art that may need considerable help from, perhaps, pastoral care workers. Volunteers and professionals both can be the touch of Jesus on the body of suffering humanity.
Third, I would suggest that the Christian community, which is the Body of Christ, needs to take suffering humanity more seriously. Our religious ‘duties’ are often narrowed down to going to Mass and saying our prayers. However, if we see ourselves as charged with being Christ in our world, then perhaps suffering humanity will be embraced in ever-new and creative ways. I concede fully that Christian community has taken an awful beating at the hands of modern individualism and isolation. That has not stopped Christ from working in those who accept him and offer their talents in his service. Perhaps our parish communities need to take stock about their outreach to those who are suffering—and to pray more about how Christ wants us to be healers for human spirits in a world where suffering constantly tempts against hope. We need each other to be the Body of Christ, to support and encourage, to complement and challenge, and to suffer with. Jesus is not an idea. Jesus is the incarnate God. We are his Body.