Are You Suffering? Our Good God Made a Promise to You, and He Will Keep His Promise
God became man and suffered with us. In his kindness and mercy, he draws us closer to him in the midst of our sorrow.
I have a friend who is suffering. Greatly.
Cancer has finally caught his beloved sister in its ruthless grip. My friend suffers seeing his sister experiencing so many different varieties of pain. He suffers not knowing whether she has months, weeks or perhaps only days left on earth.
I try to check in often to see how he is doing, but I can’t ever fully appreciate his sorrow. The suffering we face when we lose someone we love — through illness, accident or abandonment — can send people into a state of despair or even despondency. But does it always have to be that way?
About four and a half years ago, a friend invited me to her house for a luncheon and talk by Father Jacques Philippe. He is a member of the Community of Beatitudes and devotes himself to preaching, spiritual direction and writing.
For years I had devoured his books on the interior life and spiritual growth. The opportunity to meet Father was one I couldn’t possibly pass up — especially as his topic was the value of suffering. At the time, my family was in turmoil. I was suffering. A lot. Father Philippe’s presence surely wasn’t coincidental.
I was anxious not to arrive late to my friend’s place. This was a challenge, as I had a nursing baby and seven other homeschoolers to look after. I got there just in time. Slightly frazzled, I sat down on one of the folding chairs set up in my friend’s living room. I then rustled through the purse I had brought looking for the little notebook I keep to record thoughts for meditation. I had a pen but no notebook.
A mother’s purse typically holds all sorts of things. While I found no notebook, my purse did have a paper napkin. That would have to do. I began to take detailed notes, unfolding the napkin as the talk went on. It must have looked really strange, but I was too excited to care.
Father Philippe started his talk by quoting the second Beatitude: “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be consoled.” He explained that this is a promise of a faithful God to those who suffer and are open to him.
God’s kindness and mercy offer deep peace and new strength to move forward in the midst of sorrow. Sometimes we may experience just a “little touch” of this consolation. Other times, the consolation will be deep. I was doubtful. I just couldn’t shrug off my sorrow and suffering.
What the priest said next changed my outlook. He told us how to face suffering with a supernatural outlook.
First step: Pray. In prayer we can humbly ask for the grace to endure suffering. When we place our trust in God, he always comes to visit us.
Second step: We must be in constant contact with Sacred Scripture. The Word of God assists us in our suffering as a reminder that God’s consolation often comes slowly. (If you can bear to, reread the story of Job. That was slow.)
Third step: Accept suffering as our path forward. We should treat it not as a burden but as a light to understand what God wants of us. Easier said than done, but it works.
Final step: Know that suffering is experienced uniquely. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina begins by telling us that happy families are all alike, but “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That’s true for unhappy individuals, too. And because our pain is unique, we own it and can turn more freely to God. It’s ironic that embracing the solitude in our suffering helps us to be more open to accepting help from those around us. But ironic in a good way.
I was awestruck. I flipped over the napkin.
Father Philippe then spoke about pitfalls. He cautioned against asking why we are suffering. Doing so will only torment us, he counseled. Instead, we must focus on how we will live through the suffering. God will always be able to draw good out of evil. We must let him do so. And many times, our suffering can become good for us; helping us to grow in Christian wisdom. It can make us poorer in spirit by destroying our pride, our desire to control things — a special curse of 21st-century life — and to be self-sufficient.
When we come face-to-face with our limitations, we can put ourselves in God’s hands. And when we are humble, we become more merciful and are able to live true charity and love.
I found the treasured but very battered napkin recently in a box of prayer cards in my office. I’m convinced that my discovery was meant to be, as they say. Written on that napkin were words that became a salve for my wounds. I hope they can also help my suffering friend and perhaps you, too.