Death and Doctrine, Part 4: Legitimate and Illegitimate Suffering

The world is a sad place. Full of tragedy, pain, and death. And in the face of this predicament our minds seek answers and explanations:

"Why did 9/11 happen?"

"Why did my child die?"

"Why did Katrina hit New Orleans?"

Some Christians know that there are just no good answers to these questions. Worse, these events create experiential and theological wounds that we know won't be healed in this life. We answer these questions simply with this:

"I don't know."

There is an emotional cost for answering in this manner. For you are admitting that life is full of causal "loose ends." Thus, life becomes populated with events that seem random and inexplicable. And if these events are traumatic or tragic then the prospect of existence becomes quite an existential burden.

Carl Jung once said, "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” That is, rather than directly facing the pain of existence we avoid it, sticking our head in the sand, avoiding difficult choices or hard conversations. We would rather live with symptoms than suffering.

I think this "avoidance of suffering" model applies to religious faith as well. Specifically, rather than bear the pain and burden of existence we seek to quickly explain away the suffering with answers that are trite and silly. For example, Christians are notorious for saying horrible things to grieving people. Parents who have lost a child routinely face the following comments at church:

"She is in a better place."

"God must have needed him for a purpose in heaven."

These are chilling comments. They are intended to comfort (and they may even be true) but what is really going on is a refusal to suffer--personally and with the grieving parents--legitimately. The person is trying to get "around" the suffering. Amazingly, these comments suggest to the grieving parents that there is no reason to suffer at all! Suffering is, through a quick theological fix, subtracted out of existence. All is sunshine and roses. From a biblical perspective, rather than sit with Job people seek to "explain" the situation, to grasp its "higher meaning." The "reason." Lacking the courage to lament we live with neurotic theological formulations.

To live neurotically as a Christian is to use faith as a substitute for suffering. Faith is a quick band-aid we offer to ourselves and the world.

But to live authentically as a Christian is to lament and to move into the suffering. And this is difficult, a hard practice. Particularly in America where "happiness" is an addiction.

A few years ago, a friend of my wife lost her father to cancer. Jana knew him well. During college he would come to town while the girls roomed together in a house. When he came to town to visit his daughter he would help do odd jobs around the house and take his daughter and all her roommates out to eat. Rather than spend all his attention on his daughter he reached out to all her friends and became a father-figure to them as well. He was loved by all these girls.

So when my wife found out that he had died she wanted to write to her friend to console her in her loss. But what to write in such a letter? Jana asked me for my opinion. I said this, "Write about all your memories with him. About how he fixed things around the house and about the memories of those dinners he shared with you. How you all, even though he wasn't your father, looked forward to his visits." Jana replied, "But if I write all that, won't that make her cry?"

I said, "Yes. Yes, it will."

We do not avoid legitimate suffering. We don't seek to rescue people from it. We meet them in the midst of it.

Will Christians have the courage to do this? Or will our neurotic fears of existence cause us to abandon the world, leaving the grieving and suffering masses with trite theological slogans? Formulations that comfort us but cause even more pain to them?

A month or so later Jana was reunited with her friend and they talked about her father. At one point she said to Jana:

"When I read your letter I just cried and cried and cried. But of all the letter's I received, your's meant the most.

It's the only one I've kept."

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10 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 4: Legitimate and Illegitimate Suffering”

  1. Ther is something scary about suffering whether it is legitimate or not. I think of the night before the curcifixion and how Jesus seemed to be scared of suffering through it. I know I was scared to give birth both times. But even more scary than physcial suffering is emotional and spiritual and mental suffering. I think you hit it right on the head that we do try very hard to avoid much needed confrontation of our pain and wounds.

    But what I am starting to realize is that God does allow pain but He will not allow it to win; he permits suffering but will not permit it to be lord. I mean even though Christ suffered on the cross there was a resurrection three days later. Sometimes to avoid the confrontation is worse than just facing it head on, because maybe, just maybe we are avoiding the "resurrection" in the end.

    I enjoyed very much the letter your wife wrote to her friend. It was extremely thoughtful and touching. Sometimes to allow someone to grieve in their own way and to suffer along side with them, is maybe somehow telling that person it's "okay" to hurt. It's okay to feel sad when bad things happen and yes it's okay to get angry at God; since He has the power to change the circumstances and had the power to keep the bad thing from happening in the first place, so maybe we should get angry at Him, and know that it's okay because He can handle it.

    Its hard to know what to say, and I think that is why we say some pretty stupid things. I don't like to watch other people suffering and it's even harder when you have over come some hard times and maybe for you it wasn't such a big deal and than to watch someone else make a big deal out of something you found easy to overcome is difficult to watch, and that might be why we say things like, "hey I got over it so should she." But this is where empathy comes in. We all deal with things so differently from one another and why it is so important to suffer when our friends suffer, instead of trying to "cheer them up, or help them get over it." Because I think that we need to know it's okay to feel the way we feel, even if it is dumb in the other person's eyes.

    Another great post. And I am glad these things are being said... God Bless.

  2. Thank you, Richard. This was really good. We need to give others (and give ourselves) permission to grieve, even though it is messy and uncomfortable to not have all the answers.

    I process theology through film a lot - two that I have seen recently have beautifully illustrated this. In Little Miss Sunshine, there's a scene where the teenager discovers that he cannot fulfill his dream to become a pilot. Everyone is pressing for him to "get over it" so that the family can move on with their agenda. Only the little sister (who has the most right in the situation to be impatient) is willing to enter into that grief with him.

    Reign Over Me was brilliant - Adam Sandler plays a man who becomes neurotic because he is unwilling/unable to grieve for his dead family, and so isolates himself from everybody.

  3. I currently work as a chaplain in a pediatric hospital, primarily dealing with congenital heart defects, many of which eventuate in the child's death. I am convinced, after having previously worked as a chaplain to the ER and ICU of a large adult trauma center, that there is little that can prepare one for the death of a child. It is a unique context theologically because I have a harder time making sense of dying children than I do with adults. One of the most annoying things I hear staff ask families with children with a terminal condition is, "Do you have any other children?" as if to help the parents think, at least I have some other living offspring if this one doesn't work out. It's a variant of the resolution to the book of Job; sure he lost all of his children, but he got new ones at the end, so all should be fine, right!?

    I wish I could post a list of things not to say in the context of lived theodicy. My wife and I often toy with the idea of creating a line of grief and condolences cards that say something to the effect of, "Wow, that sucks."

    I find that my pastoral care is most authentic and helpful when I say next to nothing but simply sit next to the parent(s) so as to align my physical and theological posture with theirs, questioning, answerless, confused, hurt, angry, etc. To stand opposite them creates the feeling that I am trying to defend God in some way, that I represent a God over and against them.

    Unfortunately for those who experience grief and the ill effects of the seemingly randomness of individual and systemic sin and chaos, the only way through grief, frustration, anger, etc. is through entering into suffering. The same can be said for those who care for the bereaved. As hard as it is to say it, there is something beautiful about being fully present in suffering, whether it's your own or that of another. Too often we shortchange ourselves experientially and theologically when we repress suffering or avoid the suffering of others. It's fun to rejoice with those who rejoice. It's an altogther different thing to weep with those who weep. Thanks for this reflection, Richard.

  4. Richard,

    The thread that runs through these comments is that high theodicy or folk theodicy is torment for those who suffer. Whenever we offer any kind of theodicy other than our vulnerable selves we become Job's "miserable comforters." We belong to one another in life and in death. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee . . ."


    George C.

  5. Roxanne,
    I think you are right. We want to say something to grieving people and we want that something to help. So I think many of those things people say are intended to be helpful. We want to rescue people. Which is a good impulse.

    But I also think we need to educate people that attempting to rescue others often implies that rescue is possible, that there is a "fix" to the pain. But there is no fix to trauma or traumatic loss. The desire to "fix it" trivializes (albeit unintentionally so) the pain. Some things you just never recover from.

    That is a great scene in Little Miss Sunshine! It is amazing to see Olive, as the Christ-figure, step into her brother's pain. And isn't that the whole point of the Incarnation?

    Your comment was better than my post. This line of yours: as to align my physical and theological posture with theirs."

    has been echoing in my heart and soul ever since I read it. Really, it's just echoing in me. And I think George would agree with me that in those eleven words the entire heart of the gospel has been articulated.

  6. Richard,

    Krister's words show the power of presence. Krister serves as chaplain to children and their families. I serve as chaplain to elderly (mostly male) veterans and their families. Much of what we do is improvisational and jazz-like. But that doesn't mean that we generally wing it. The kind of training we get shapes us so that our stance can never be over against those suffering, grieving, and dying. It is being there in the moment with those who are being wounded. It is not a passive presence. It is presence as part of the human narrative. Abstract theology or some bromide in those moments is rarely helpful. The words "comfort" and "compassion" come from anglicized Latin meaning "courage with" and "passion with." Providing courage and compassion through side-by-side physical and emotional presence is our way of suffering with those suffering. Inwardly we lament and keen with them. In this way we act out, often wordlessly, the words of the 139th Psalm: " . . . if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there."


    George C.

  7. I've been reading your series on "Death and Doctrine" with great interest. I had to finally give up theodicy as it was making me absolutely crazy -- there's no way to reconcile God's love, power and justice with what we see in this world. Instead I had to bow to the soveriegnty of God and learn to just "be", whether in my own pain or next to someone else in theirs.

    I began about a year ago to explore the theme of Biblical lament and to notice how grudgingly US culture permits it. There seems to be a feeling that to lament carries a kind of risk -- if I cry out, then I might cry out against God; if I cry out against God then perhaps God will abandon me and then I will truly be alone. Yet, there is something authentic about lament and something that feels right about authenticity in my relationship with God. Certainly the Bible has many examples of lament and responses varying from "Who are you, mortal. . ." to blessed relief from pain and suffering.

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights -- it's nice to know that someone else can put into words some things I've been thinking for a while. . . .


  8. I get a lot out of all of your posts, but this one is particularly excellent. You say a lot of things that I have been thinking on my own but couldn't articulate as well. I think our therapeutic culture's hysterical aversion to death and suffering is genuinely neurotic, a symptom of disorder and dis-ease. But grief is painful, and genuine, and inescapable. So we have to deal with it, and not flee from it or pretend as if it isn't agonizing. Ignore a wound and it festers - cleaning and stiching always hurts more than leaving it first.

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