Monday, November 11, 2013

Dignity in Suffering

"I know this just sucks and it is going to suck for a while."  A friend of mine said these were the most welcomed words at her mother's funeral.  She said that she felt like someone understood what she was going through.  This compassionate person did not try to give explanations in the face of suffering and death.  The person did not try to speculate on God's will.  Instead, the person gave dignity to suffering.

What does giving dignity to suffering mean?

Eugene Peterson puts it this way, "We need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them and join them in protest and prayer."

I believe that when we are too quick to try and fix our friends problems, when we are too quick to help our friends find solutions, when we are too quick to give answers, we limit the potential relationship we can have with those who suffer.  These quick fixes can shut down any future conversation because the person who suffers probably won't feel heard.  

When we respond to our friend's suffering with answers and explanations, we run the risk of dismissing their humanity and ultimately their dignity.  It is as if this kind of response is therapy for the person who is giving it rather than for the person who is receiving it.  The person who gives the answer has solved the equation and can move on.  However, the person who is suffering is still stuck with the questions.    
I know that when I am going through a difficult time, the last thing I want to hear are reasons and explanations.  I'd rather hear a "that's horrible" or "gosh!" or "that really sucks."  These are the words that help me feel like some else understands what I am going through--and they don't have to say, "I know what you are going through."  When I feel heard and understood, I feel like I still have dignity even in the darkest of times.  And maybe, just maybe, answers and solutions can be talked about in later conversation.   

The Book of Job 

I offer this reflection on the heals of doing a survey class on The Book of Job.  The Book of Job is rich and teaches us a lot about how we suffer,  how we respond to those who suffer, and how God responds to those who suffer.  A portion of the book focuses on how Job's friends try to help Job in his suffering.  Ultimately, Job did not find comfort in any of their answers.  Job's friends basically assume that Job has sinned and God is punishing him for not repenting.  Their answers also deny the possibility that any good can come out of suffering.  

Eugene Peterson offers this little nugget of wisdom into the mystery of suffering, "people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but formed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before suffering."

Job is classified as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament.  While Job does not follow the trajectory of the history of Israel, it is a book that the Hebrew people told and learned from.  It is a book that we can all learn from.