By Beth Davis
I love this season. Nothing could be better than crunching through autumn leaves on a long, walk in the woods. And, yet I am aware that for families in grief, this is a difficult time of the year. Perhaps that is because the dark days of winter loom just around the corner. It is as if God reminds us that even the beauty of nature will die before we can witness the wonder of winter, and eventually the new life of spring.
You may find yourself unusually depressed or lonely during this season. Or, some folks harbor feelings of guilt for entertaining “selfish” emotions. If so, I invite you to consider your beliefs regarding suffering. In his book, Shattered Dreams, Larry Crabb suggests that sorrow allows the Christian to move from the shallowness of seeking happiness to the determination to walk through pain. It is after embracing pain that people discover an intense desire for God. When they begin to seek God, rather than “happiness” they find indescribable joy. Larry Crabb states: “Suffering has a function . . . as nothing else can to move us away from demanding what’s good, toward desiring what’s better, until heaven provides what’s best.”
While working as a hospital chaplain, I stopped to visit a favorite patient. Lucile was in the last, painful stages of brain cancer. She appeared to be sleeping, so I turned to leave the room. Just as I did, she called, “No, please, come and sit with me.” Lucile explained that she was quietly reflecting on the suffering of Christ, and the knowledge that her suffering paled in comparison to His. I knew that Lucile lived with continuous pain. Yet, her theology allowed her to endure suffering for the moment, knowing that God’s presence was with her in the middle of her pain. She trusted Him with the outcome of her illness.
Down the hallway, another woman, Sue, was battling aggressive breast cancer. As I entered her room, the stench of rotting flesh permeated the room. This woman refused any medical interventions. Instead, she insisted that God was going to physically heal her, and chose to surround herself with people who would spiritually support her. She refused to use the word cancer, disease, or death. Instead, she demanded that her friends and family use only positive terms in her presence.
A few days later, both women died. Lucile spent her last days in gratefulness, seeking reconciliation with estranged family members. She died in a room filled with sadness, yet somehow the sadness was transformed as her friends and family witnessed her peaceful entrance to eternal life. At the same time, Sue’s last moments were far from peaceful. Her husband and friends shouted at God with angry, disappointed, and even disillusioned voices. The use of carefully chosen Bible verses failed to produce their anticipated miracle. They also failed to ponder what God’s purpose might be in Sue’s suffering and eventual death.
A theology of suffering sustains the mature Christian during times of discouragement. You see, we are often eager to sing about heaven and our desire to be with Jesus, but when our friends or family members brush up close to death, we, in our honest humanity, want to keep everyone right here, near to us. Both biblical and psychological principles encourage Christians to embrace grief and suffering as part of their growth plan, which will deepen their walk with God. The Apostle Paul normalizes the experience of suffering by stating in Corinthians 4:17-18:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
If you are experiencing pain or grief, take some time for reflection. Allow yourself to shed some tears. And, before it’s too late, get outside and enjoy these last gorgeous days of Fall!