Coping with Suffering
Dr Daniel Fountain
(Chapter 9 from Health, the Bible and the Church, a BGC monograph)
Every religion, culture, and civilization has wrestled with the problems of suffering, disease, and death. The questions raised by these problems have received a myriad of answers. It is not our purpose here to probe the depths of these questions or to look for old or new answers to them. But among these questions is an intensely practical one that comes to almost everyone who suffers: how can I cope with this? This is what we will address here and for which we will seek the necessary resources in our Christian faith. In this chapter we will look at suffering from the standpoint of persons suffering from illness, tragedy, or loss, and from the standpoint of those who reach out to care for them.
Can We Overcome The Problem?
Simple problems usually require simple solutions. A toothache, tonsillitis, or a mild attack of malaria can be handled quite easily provided that the necessary resources are available. More serious problems, like tuberculosis, leprosy, diabetes, or severe coronary artery disease require much more effort and many resources.
The little boy with the roundworms, in Chapter 1, had a simple problem that suddenly became more complicated. Nevertheless, we were able to help him cope with it, only to discover later than our traditional solution did not cope with the real problem. Those who cared for Mrs. Avila, in Chapter 1, felt that their solution was adequate. They were unaware of the complexity of her problem, and so they failed to help her become whole as John Malinga became whole. (Chapter8) Coping with the problem requires first of all an understanding of the whole problem.
Then we need to mobilize all available resources; medical technology, social, psychological, and spiritual resources, the support of family and friends and often community resources should be called into play to help us overcome the real causes of the suffering or disease.
If We Cannot Overcome It, Then What?
Not all problems of suffering can be overcome. Not all diseases can be cured. Some of them lead to physical death. Others cause persisting disabilities or suffering, and we must accept them and learn how to live with or in spite of them. How do we deal with these situations?
True healing means the restoration of the person to wholeness, and this includes body, mind, spirit, and relationships. The healing process is a journey toward this wholeness. In many cases an accident or a disease leaves permanent disabilities which cannot be fully restored. This, however, does not necessarily cancel the journey toward wholeness. How can we cope with the incurable or the unchangeable?
- Because we are in the image of God, we have within our human nature a strong drive for creativity. Some channels of creativity may be altered or even destroyed by the accident or disease. In this case, what other channels can we develop?
- Certain diseases can damage our self-esteem especially if there is disfigurement or loss of function. Can self-esteem be restored even in the face of continuing disabilities? Courage, determination, and great encouragement from family and the caring team are indispensable for this.
- Relationships are vital to our self-affirmation. If relationships have been damaged, how can they be restored? Can existing ones be strengthened, or new ones established? The restoring and strengthening of reciprocal ties with others is a very needful part of the restoration of wholeness.
- What about the meaning, purpose, and destiny of life? Restoration of hope and a firm conviction that good can be brought out of suffering or disaster help rebuild the will and the determination to live and continue growing. Faith in God and the support of family and the caring team can strengthen the will to live and grow. How can they help scope with the threat of death?
Because the nature of this world is flawed, complete wholeness is unattainable during our temporal existence. Physical death is an irreducible reality which every one of us must face. A realistic preparation for this ultimate journey is healthy whereas attempts to suppress or deny it are not.
The Christian faith gives us the strong assurance that physical death is not the end of life. It is rather a door through which we all must pass. Those who have a relationship with God will enter into the complete wholeness which is God’s ultimate intention for us. This hope is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, and we will discuss it in detail later in Chapter 11. Suffice it to say here that, even when facing death, the journey toward wholeness can continue. Happy are those persons who find within themselves and in family members, friends, and members of the caring team the resources and encouragement to prepare for the final step in this journey.
Suffering involves much more than just physical pain and impairment. Suffering and disease threaten us with annihilation and the consequent loss of meaning and purpose without which life cannot be healthy. Therefore, we need to know where suffering, disease, and death fit into the meaning and purpose of our lives. Difficult questions confront us which require our response, such as the question of causes. ”What is causing my suffering or disease?” Let us consider first of all the origins of the many diseases that afflict us. Where do they come from?
The Origin of Diseases
This raises an issue that is very important for us to understand clearly, namely the multiplicity of the causes of disease. Diseases in general come from a variety of sources. Furthermore, a specific case of disease may have more than one factor involved in the cause.
Throughout history we have often erred by assuming that all diseases come from one general source. The ancient Hebrews believed that all diseases came because of sin and were a punishment from God for sin. Many traditional religions ascribe disease to disruptions in the social order. Illness comes because of the curse of another person who is angry with the sick person, or from ancestral spirits because of neglect of traditional regulations or values.
In modem times, with the development of our sciences of bacteriology, biology, chemistry, and others, we came to believe that all diseases have natural causes: bacteria, viruses, chemical imbalances in the body, and other physical problems. Some believe they can explain all diseases as the result of nutritional imbalances. Others believe the basic problem to be skeletal mal-alignment. Still others believe that illness is due to negative mental and psychological processes, with healing coming from a change in thinking.
There is truth in all of these beliefs. A relationship does exist between health and behavior as we shall see in our next chapter. Disorders of social relationships, of nutrition, of thoughts, emotions, and feelings can all cause illness. And the germ theory has not been disproved!
But we now recognize that the origin of diseases is very complex. No one set of causes can explain the multitude of diseases that affect us. Even a specific case of a disease like tuberculosis can have several causal factors, as our high school friend John Malinga demonstrated. It is extremely important for us to recognize this as we grapple with the problem of suffering and search for the lessons to be learned through specific illnesses. Let’s look briefly at the many possible causes of disease (see Figure 12).
Some diseases come from disorder in the natural realm. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites are present throughout nature, and some of them can install themselves in us and cause disease. Lightning falls and can strike us. Genetic defects produce a variety of congenital abnormalities. Drought can cause famine or malnutrition for thousands.
To put this in biblical terms, we live in a world that has been corrupted by evil. This evil has produced disorder in the natural environment, and we are part of this environment. Although this evil and disorder are historical and will ultimately be eliminated, they are nevertheless frightfully real for us now. We can consider some sicknesses and disasters as due to the effects of disorder in the natural realm.
We must use every means at our disposal to combat the viruses and bacteria, the biochemical imbalances in the body, and the nutritional deficiencies of the sick person. This includes the many technical means we have to overcome the disease process and its noxious effects, and the psychological, social, and spiritual support necessary for restoring whole ness. We also need to use the means of protection we have or are developing to prevent some of these conditions from occurring. All of this is, legitimate because God intends us to be healthy, is working actively for our health and wholeness, and has given us these means to combat disease.
Certain diseases can come because of unhealthy personal behavior. If we eat too much or too little, we suffer from it. If we eat the wrong foods, we suffer from that as well. Perhaps we engage in activities that permit the transmission of diseases or use substances which are toxic and cause disease. There is a close association between our health and our whole lifestyle, and we will explore this in much more detail in the next chapter.
Attitudes lie behind behavior, and our attitudes toward the world affect our health. Much impressive research is now being done which indicates a very intimate relationship between our complex immune system and our emotions, feelings, and attitudes. Certain attitudes tend to increase the efficiency of our immune mechanisms; others seem to depress them and thus render us more susceptible to certain illnesses. Still others apparently turn part of our immune system against the very body they are designed to protect. The result is one of the “auto-immune” type of illnesses.
Other diseases come because of unhealthy relationships. The resulting stresses and conflicts generate strong feelings and emotions which can produce a variety of physical and emotional illnesses, or else can so reduce our immune mechanisms that we become susceptible to viruses or bacteria that normally we would be able to resist. Mrs. Avila’s physical problem of peptic ulcer came because of the effect of unhealthy social relationships in her family. Rejection and alienation can lead to loss of self-worth which, in turn, can bring on diminished resistance to disease, mental depression, or the abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Behavior of Others
It is unfortunately true that disease can come to one person because of their responsibility of others. Unhealthy behavior of parents can cause illness in their children. Economic and political conditions that maintain millions in poverty produce tragic suffering through nutritional disorders, infectious diseases, and substance abuse. Wars, oppression, and robbery affect adversely the health of untold numbers of persons. Neglect on the part of the community of matters of sanitation, hygiene, refuse disposal, discipline, and order result in many types of diseases in the members of the community.
Certain diseases come because of despair, the inner turmoil resulting from the loss of meaning and purpose in life. When we have no satisfactory purpose for what we are doing, and when we have no hope for an ultimate destiny which is good, there is no point in struggling against the difficulties which surround us. Resistance to disease diminishes, and we become susceptible to a variety of physical illnesses and emotional disorders.
Certain unbiblical social, economic, and political structures in many nations today suppress and even destroy the beliefs and values of whole groups of people. They deny to them any possibility of fulfillment of their hopes, aspirations, and creativity. Those enforcing these structures are, by their behavior, reducing large numbers of persons to personal and cultural despair with all the ill effects on personal and community health resulting from it.
No Known Cause
In many instances illnesses come to us for which we can discern no reason, no evident origin. Chronic headaches, high blood pressure, certain gastro-intestinal disorders, and many other illnesses often defy finding a precise etiology. This is particularly true when tragedies or disasters strike in a seemingly arbitrary or haphazard way. At such times it is healthy simply to say, I do not know what is causing my suffering.” To ascribe such an illness wrongly to a supposed cause may create false guilt or painful relationships that can aggravate unnecessarily the suffering.
Growing Through Suffering
When I am ill or suffering because of an illness, an accident, or the irresponsibility of others, part of my coping response is to look for the causes of my problem. In searching for the cause or causes of an illness, medical science and technology are of invaluable aid. They are particularly useful in determining physical causes of illness and may also be able to discern certain behavioral factors in the etiology. But my quest must go further if I am to cope adequately with the illness and grow in the process. Self-examination can be very useful provided it does not lead to self-flagellation or morbid reflections. In this quest, sympathetic family members and caring persons can be of assistance.
In this self-examination I must address several important questions.
- Is there a lesson of personal hygiene, eating habits, rest, recreation, or exercise that I need to learn?
- Is there a habit or behavior pattern to be changed?
- How are my relationships? Are there grudges, resentments, jealousies, tensions, or guilt which I must deal with and resolve? If so, how do I go about this?
- Are there social or economic problems responsible at least in part for my predicament? If so, is there anything which I, my family, and my community can do constructively to solve these problems?
- What does my inventory of values, priorities, and goals look like? Are there problems in these areas affecting my condition and requiring my attention?
It is incorrect to assume that sickness, suffering, and tragedies come to us with their agendas as if they were entities with personalities. It is likewise erroneous to think we must put up with illness until we have extracted every possible lesson from it. We must combat the causes of suffering and disease with every constructive means at our disposal. But it is equally wrong to neglect the opportunities to learn and grow which accompany these problems.
On a deeper level, suffering raises the discomfiting question of WHY. Why me? Why this? Which leads us directly into the age-old problem of evil.
Where Does Suffering Come From?
Philosophies and Religions
Many ancient religions and contemporary traditional and tribal religions are based on a philosophy of ethical dualism. For them good and evil exist together, are both eternal, and are equal in power. Humankind is caught in the eternal struggle between good and evil; there is no escape from this struggle nor possibility of changing the situation. Evil is an essential part of existence and is unchanging and unchangeable. Resignation is the only reasonable response to suffering and disease. The only hope is for a temporary respite from evil through magic or through great spiritual effort.
In ancient Greek philosophy and in many Eastern religions, evil and suffering come from ignorance, individuality, and matter. Good is in the realm of the universal spirit. The only hope of salvation is to lose individual selfhood in the anonymous and amorphous world of spirit. Evil as such cannot be altered or even effectively resisted; the only hope for escape from it is by a return to the universal whole.
The philosophy of naturalism, which is dominant today in our secular culture, sees good and evil as the workings of blind chance, of tough luck. Both exist and are an essential part of nature. By our human powers we can protect ourselves somewhat from evil and our skills and technology can overcome to a degree the ravages of disease and suffering. But there is no escape, nor is there any ultimate purpose or meaning in the struggle between good and evil.
These religions and philosophies explain evil as the product of some basic and essential part of reality. Evil has a rational explanation; it is simply a part of life and we have no ultimate recourse from it. On the other hand, they have no solution to the existential problem of evil, the problem of how to cope with it. They can give no hope for redemption from evil or for an ultimate triumph over it. Consequently, these religions can explain evil, but they cannot deal creatively with it.
The Biblical Perspective
Present within our spirit is the suspicion that existence is supposed to be better and that there is an ultimate hope for meaning, purpose, and wholeness in life. Such a hope raises the possibility of being able to deal creatively with evil, and this brings us to the biblical philosophy or world view. The Bible gives no complete answer as to why evil and suffering exist, but it does give us the hope of ultimate liberation from evil and the strength to cope with the present experience of suffering.
As Christians, we must seek our understanding from what God has revealed to us. When God made the heavens and the earth, everything was good, and evil was not present in the creation. Evil and its consequences came into the created world as an historical event and are a present reality. The Bible does not explain to us the reason why evil exists or God’s underlying purpose in it, so for Christians, the question as to why a good God allows evil is the wrong question. The real questions for us are, “Does God care? How does God help us cope with evil?”
We cannot say that evil, pain, and sin were meant to be inevitable, for this would be equivalent to saying that they are essential parts of reality and are on an equal footing with God and his goodness. We cannot do this because God is the Sovereign Lord over all. We can admit no dualism.
On the other hand, to deny their reality by claiming that they result only from our ignorance, individual selfhood, or negative thinking is also impossible. Evil, pain, and sin are very real and are part of our daily existence. So, we must deal with them. Our selfhood is good because God has created the human self in his own image and that image is good. Our whole ministry of bringing health and wholeness to the world exists because we know that disease, pain, and death are real but that good can triumph over them. The human self is good and is worth saving and restoring.
How then do we cope with the frightful reality of evil and the many unanswerable questions it poses to us? Again, we must start from God’s perspective. We must see what God himself has revealed to us and, through faith and reason, attempt to comprehend his revelation to us and apply it to our situation. We cannot deduce the nature of God from what we observe in the world. So, as we wrestle with the problem of evil, our starting point is the goodness of God and not the evil we see around us in the world nor the pain from which we may be suffering.
What God Says About Evil
- God has shown us that he is good, that he is the source of all things, and that all things are good. God created us, and we are very good. There was no evil, disorder, pain or disease in the original creation. Goodness is therefore an essential part of creation and of our human nature, but evil is not.
2.God permits evil. We do not know why God permitted evil to come into creation and to be so powerful. Nevertheless, it is present because God permits it and works somehow through it to accomplish his good purposes in us.
- Evil came after creation when Satan rebelled against God and then succeeded in inciting our ancestors to rebel (Isaiah 14:12-15, and Genesis 3). Evil is an aberration of the good and comes when good things are used for destructive purposes. It is not an essential part of creation but is a distortion that has come into creation. Pain, suffering, disease, and death are intrusions into the essential goodness of creation.
- Evil is that which separates us from God and therefore from life. Evil is morally wrong because it destroys life and leads to death, eternal and spiritual death.
- Evil is temporary, but God is eternal. Evil came into history at the beginning and it will be abolished at the end of history. Since eternal life is to live with God, evil will not always be a part of our existence. Physical death is that point when all who live in relationship with God pass beyond the temporal realm where evil exists into the eternal realm where God’s rule is absolute.
- Evil is nevertheless real now. We live in a world thoroughly permeated by evil and are subject to its influences. It is within us as well as around us and our whole nature is contaminated by it. Jesus attested to the reality of evil within us when he said, “From the inside, from a person’s heart, come the evil ideas which lead him to do immoral things, to rob, kill, commit adultery, be greedy, and do all sorts of evil things; deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride, and folly-all these evil things come from inside a person and make him unclean” (Mark 7:21-23).
- We are to resist evil. We cannot combat it with our strength alone because evil is within us and its power is vastly greater than our own. We can combat it effectively only with our faith in God and with the power he makes available to us through Christ (I John 5:3- 5).
- Evil confronts us with a choice, the choice to succumb or to overcome. The manifestations of evil which confront us in suffering, disease, tragedies, and death bring us to a moral decision: do I succumb to this power seeking to lead me to despair and death; or do I, with the help of God, my own spirit, and all those who are caring for me, seek to overcome it by bringing good out of it? My response determines whether I move toward life and wholeness, or whether I permit the power of evil to destroy me as a person. Disease may destroy much or all of my body, but I can choose between life or death for my person. The response to this last question has vital implications for healing and the restoration of wholeness. As we care for sick persons, how can we help them triumph over that which is trying to destroy them? How can we encourage their progress on the journey to wholeness? We will address these questions shortly. But first an important digression.
Is the Devil for Real?
In the of Bible, evil is personified. The Bible gives many the names ruler of to the “person” of evil: the serpent, Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, the ruler of the spiritual powers in space. This means that we can enter into a personal relationship with evil similar to the way in which we can relate to God. Evil can pervade our inner mind in the same manner that the Spirit of Jesus Christ can dwell within us. This “evil power,” however, will ultimately be destroyed (Revelation 20:7-10). God is still the Sovereign Lord and in control over all things, including the Devil.
Talking about evil as a person, as Satan or the Devil, can be frightening. It conjures up all sorts of images like heads with horns, forked tails, demons, or hobgoblins. At first glance such talk appears childish and mentally unhealthy. On the contrary, recognizing evil as a real power and as a personal force is mature and healthy. It enables us to get a handle on it. Instead of fearing some impersonal and amorphous power which we can neither clearly define nor resist, we can deal with evil in a personal way. We can, if we wish, relate to it by entering into a Faustian relationship with the Devil and thus submitting- to his destructive power. Unfortunately, many do this. Or we can say, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Mark 8:33KJV) and choose to defend ourselves from the Devil by our faith in God’s sovereign power.
When we have an identifiable enemy, we can learn how to cope with it even if that enemy is, in a certain sense, in us as well as around us. Christ has unmasked evil and identified him as Satan and gained ultimate power over him. Christ referred to him as the “prince of this world” (John 14:30 KJV). As Satan had no power over Christ, so we can resist his power by our faith in Christ. This is why faith in Christ is such an important part of the process of healing and restoring wholeness.
If on the other hand we deny the personal power of evil, we open ourselves to control by the Devil, as C.S.Lewis has so cogently pointed out in The Screwtape Letters. It behooves us therefore to think biblically, to acknowledge the reality of the Devil, and to deal with him through the power of Jesus Christ.
Jesus and the Devil
John tells us that Jesus came to “destroy the works of the Devil” John 3:8 KJV). The Devil is trying to destroy the image of God within us. If he can succeed, he separates us from God; he brings us into spiritual death which is eternal separation from God, and he effectively reduces us to being simply Homo sapiens. Yet the Devil cannot accomplish this without our permission and cooperation any more than God can make us follow him without our consent and cooperation.
Satan’s aim in the Garden of Eden was to separate Adam and Eve from God, and he succeeded partially. He had the same aim with Jesus in the Wilderness of Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), and he was unsuccessful. He tried again in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the hill of Calvary where he was completely, though not finally, defeated. He continues to try to destroy God’s image in us today (I Peter 5:8).
The Devil had destroyed the image of God in the man who lived in the burial caves in the region of Gerasa (Mark 5:1-5). This man lived an animal existence and even mutilated his own body. The Devil had destroyed the image of God in the boy with a convulsive disorder (Mark 9:14-29). The child was non-communicative, was the victim of uncontrollable seizures, and on occasion fell into the fire. The Devil was attempting to destroy his body as well as his mind and spirit. In each of these cases, Jesus overcame the works of the Devil and restored mental, spiritual, and physical health to both persons.
What about leprosy, devastating droughts, and the innumerable diseases and disasters that continue to plague us? Are these the works of the Devil? Most certainly they are, although we do know that God is in ultimate control over them. We cannot unravel the mystery of God’s direction and the Devil’s role in these matters, but we can affirm that they are the works of the Devil because they can potentially destroy the image of God within us.
Leprosy is more than a disease of the nerves, or even of the whole body. It torments the spirit and can destroy human relationships. Drought, famine, and other disorders of nature threaten us with destruction of the body and even of the spirit if we succumb to the evil intent of Satan. They likewise can destroy the whole web of relationships in a community. Yet we can bring good out of these tragedies even though we cannot always eliminate them. Our spirit can survive and even triumph over evil by God’s grace and power if we so choose. It is to this that God calls us, and Jesus is our Helper.
We must say a word here about demons, or evil spirits. The Bible teaches us that there are personal forces in the spiritual realm which can affect the human personality. The Spirit of God is one of these forces, and He can live within the human personality and influence it for good.
There are likewise evil forces in the spiritual realm that can intrude into the personality. We give various names to these forces depending on our world view. By whatever name we call them, they can influence or dominate a particular aspect of the personality (they are the control of the will) and can provoke outbursts of destructive behavior which the person cannot restrain. The basic structure of the personality usually remains intact and the person maintains a self-awareness and often a painful awareness that these forces are present and produce such outbursts of behavior.
This is an extremely complex area, the therapy of which is difficult and requires persons trained and equipped to handle it adequately. For those wishing to pursue the matter of the demonic control of the personality and the ministries of healing through deliverance, they would do well to consult some of the texts listed under the notes.
One further confusing issue remains. The Bible on occasion refers to certain physical or emotional ills as coming “from the Lord.” Elsewhere it speaks of disease, disaster, or death as the “curse of God.” We must be very careful here in our application of these passages. All that destroys is evil and we must not ascribe evil to God. God has created all things according to his orderly laws and patterns which permit the harmonious productive functioning of the world, including us. If we rebel against these laws which govern the physical, social, and spiritual environment, we incur the consequences of our rebellion. If we label these consequences as God’s punishment or “curse” because they come from the rejection of God’s laws made for our benefit, we must remember that the responsibility for bringing these consequences upon us is. ours, not God’s.
In summary, when we approach disease, we are approaching not only the manifestations of bacteria, destructive emotions, disordered relationships, or the results of tragedy. We are facing deep and complex questions regarding life itself, the satisfactory personal answers to which can assist in the restoration of wholeness. We are likewise approaching the works of the Devil, works which the Son of God came to destroy. So, our faith in God, in his Word, and in the power of Christ over all manifestations of evil should be as real a part of our therapeutic armamentarium as are antibiotics, surgical procedures, pastoral counseling, and disaster relief.
How Do We Cope With Suffering?
We return now to our original question of how to cope with suffering. We must look at this question from two points of view, from that of the one who suffers, and from that of those who help by caring and working for healing and restoration of wholeness.
The One Who Suffers
Questions to Ask
- Inquiring about the causes of my suffering can assist me in coping with it. The questions listed on page 109 help in considering these factors.
- Can I profit from this experience in terms of attitudes, behavior, relationships, life-style? Are there changes which I need to make to restore my health and to avoid problems of this sort in the future?
- How can I respond constructively to this suffering?
Responses To Suffering
There is first of all the difficult matter of acceptance. What has happened has happened; it cannot be reversed, nor is there a benefit in trying to deny it. Only when I am able to accept reality can I confront it constructively, painful as that may be. This is not resignation to an unalterable fate. It is rather taking stock of the situation with the purpose of determining how to bring good out of it. The recognition of the certainty of what has happened frees me to evaluate my situation and the possibilities for a creative response.
Prayer is entering into what God is doing. In the midst of suffering, the purposes for praying are:
- To acknowledge God’s sovereign Lordship over all things;
- To praise him for his goodness;
- To seek his guidance for our response to the problem;
- To ask him the questions which are troubling us, as Job did (God never rejects those who, in perplexity, inquire of him; Job’s comforters talked about God, but Job himself inquired of God).
- To request healing and restoration, knowing that this is his intention for us;
- To leave in his hands the means, timing, and ultimate results of what he is seeking to accomplish in us.
Transformation of Evil Into Good
Three options are possible. I can succumb to the evil afflicting me and s1,1bmit to its destructive effects. I can angrily rebel against it in futile frustration, as Job’s wife counseled him to do: “Curse God and die!” Job 2:9 NIV). Or else I can determine to “make the best of this, “and to transform this evil into good. How can we convert the destructive effects of illness or tragedy into constructive, creative channels? This may be a very difficult process, requiring much time. It needs the sympathetic help of others, their care and encouragement. Bearing suffering alone can often be almost insupportable, whereas sharing pain and suffering with those who can truly bear them with us can be our salvation. A caring community has tremendous healing power.
Active and determined resistance to a disease is a very significant part of the process of restoration. A decision of the will to overcome the disease and to recover strength and health help mobilize our resistance to disease. Answering reasonably the questions as to causes of the illness and lessons to be learned from it facilitates this decision. A clear idea as to the meaning and purpose for all of life reinforces the recuperative powers of the body and mind. A person with long range creative goals, with a reason to live and a desire to keep on living, will be much more likely to make a decision to strive for recovery than will a person who sees the illness as the end of the road and who has no reason or desire to continue living. Acceptance of the reality of the illness and a mature evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, of the obstacles to be overcome, and the ways of overcoming them can be a very constructive part of the decision-making process.
There is growing evidence that feelings and attitudes can influence the recuperative powers of the person. Strong “positive” feelings of joy, optimism, and anticipation of good things ahead can strengthen the immune mechanisms and the resistance to disease. Negative feelings of fear, guilt, pessimism, and melancholia seem to depress these mechanisms and delay or prevent healing. Norman Cousins gives a striking account of recovery from a seemingly fatal neurological disease. He consciously willed this recovery and took charge of his own situation. This seemed to be facilitated by his active programming of positive feelings through entertainment, laughter, and the regular monitoring of progress.
Joy In Suffering
God has a purpose for us in suffering. This is a deep and awesome subject, and here we can only state it briefly. Paul put it this way: ”We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God desires to meet us in our suffering and in our pain. He wants to draw us beyond simply the physical dimension of life, to open doors for us into deeper wisdom and humility, and, most of all, to reveal himself to us. Suffering is a door through which we can pass into a broader, deeper, more glorious view of life-if we choose. Job suffered, questioned, and struggled. In the end he did not find answers or a complete understanding. But he met God, and he was satisfied.
The Apostle Paul suffered from an unknown ailment which persisted in spite of his prayers for healing. He sought for God’s purpose for him in this suffering and discovered that God wanted to show him how strong was his grace, that it was greater than Paul’s suffering. In this Paul could rejoice (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Peter, writing from prison while awaiting execution, counsels joy because it strengthens faith and hope (I Peter 1:6,7). James describes the patience and fortitude which suffering can produce in us if we respond in acceptance and joy (James 1:2-4). In other words, suffering presents us with opportunities to grow in patience, maturity, and strength if we seek to rise above its destructive effects while we are, at the same time, combatting its causes in whatever ways are possible. Even more, it brings us within earshot of the God who calls us by our name.
Does God deliberately send pain and suffering to us for this purpose? I do not know, for lam not God. Does God speak to us in our suffering? Yes, if we listen for him. This I do know because I have heard him, and so have countless others.
Does it mean that we should permit suffering to run its course until God’s voice is clearly heard? Do we refuse treatment, or withhold it as some church fathers counseled centuries ago, until the necessary spiritual lessons have been learned in the classroom of suffering? A thousand times NO! Jesus did not do this; he healed immediately. Furthermore, we are not God and thus we cannot determine when school is out. Neither should we seek suffering in order to learn such lessons. God has many different classrooms in his school of growth, and we can let him decide the curriculum which is best for us. Yet God will meet us in our suffering if we reach out to him, because he loves us. When we do meet him, he leads us on toward wholeness, and our wholeness then becomes larger than it was at the beginning.
All of this can help me praise God for his goodness in the midst of suffering. I may be unsure of the reasons for my suffering and how he expects to accomplish good through it. But God says he knows what he is doing and that the end result will be for my good. What greater good can there be than meeting God himself? Praising God in the face of great pain, grief, or approaching death can be excruciatingly difficult; it may require a sheer act of the will. But an attitude of praise can tum my attention from fear, resentment, rebellion, and anger to the good which God is accomplishing in me through this. It can free my spirit to respond creatively to whatever the difficult circumstances may be. This combination of trust and praise can have a powerful effect for healing by reinforcing my God-given processes of immunity and recuperation, by releasing me from depression, and by stimulating my growth in faith and maturity.
Such was the faith of the prophet Habakkuk in the face of the threat of an overwhelming disaster to the nation of Israel. ‘”Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19 NN).
The person who suffers from sickness, disaster, or persecution is not simply a passive victim of unchangeable tragedy. The sick person is an actor in the conflict for her or his life and spirit. He or she has a crucial role to play in determining the final and eternal outcome of the disordered circumstances. This involves:
- Earnest, confident prayer for healing to the Maker of heaven and earth who is also the God of love and intends our health,
- The realistic acceptance and appraisal of the circumstances,
- A decision of the will to respond by mobilizing conscious and unconscious defenses,
- Making use of all means to overcome the illness or the effects of the tragedy,
- Seeking the causes of the suffering and the lessons to be learned from it,
- An attitude of thankfulness _toward God who is at work to bring good out of this evil.
We must recognize, however, that the presence of pain and anguish often impedes or prevents the suffering person from developing positive attitudes and actions. Therefore our role as healers and the role of the caring community are very important in helping the sick person move toward healing and restoration of wholeness.
The Ones Who Care
Here we are speaking not only to medically trained persons but to all Christians who care and who are concerned for the healing and restoration to wholeness of other persons. How can we be of help to those who suffer, grieve, or are in pain?
Compassion is a mark of the Christian. Jesus was filled with compassion as he saw the multitudes of sick persons, spiritually hungry persons, and those who were lost or trapped in tragic circumstances. Compassion means an entering into the feelings of another, hurting with them, grieving with them, or rejoicing with them. Our first role as healers is to enter into the feelings of those to whom we minister. Gentleness, patience, thoughtful care, a loving touch, consideration of emotions, feelings, and hurts, these must be our attitudes, because, as we care for those who suffer, we are in reality taking the place of Christ himself. The impersonal coldness of efficient modem hospitals presents us with the enormous challenge of how to recover this compassion and demonstrate it effectively.
Prayer is an indispensable part of Christian caring, compassion, and healing. The Bible commands us to pray for those who suffer. Often, we can pray with them. In our praying we bring the one who suffers into the presence of the Lord. We can be a channel for the presence and the healing power of the Spirit of the Lord coming into her or him. We can attempt, through our faith, to discern how God is working so as to cooperate better with what he is accomplishing.
Encouragement is a part of caring. Much depends on the decision of the suffering person as to whether or not to resist or to surrender, to rise above or to sink beneath the suffering. A word of encouragement, or sometimes even a challenge to the basic motives of hope, self-esteem, or even survival can make a great difference as to whether suffering turns into good or evil.
We bring into the drama of sickness and suffering an increasingly diverse and effective technology. Our knowledge of the human being as a person and of the functioning of body, mind, emotions, feelings, and spirit is constantly growing and we must apply this knowledge with the utmost skill. We know something of the dynamic of relationships, and we need to apply this to the healing of suffering persons and be alert to learn much more. Our knowledge, skill, and technical expertise and equipment come from the study, analysis, and practical application of the principles of God’s created world. These are therefore gifts which we have acquired and the application of which is an integral part of our faith in the providing care of God.
Can we find the meaning and purpose in the suffering or tragedy of another person? No, we cannot, and we must beware of trying. Only those who suffer can find meaning and purpose for them in the suffering. Job’s “comforters,” sincere and well-intentioned though they were, only aggravated the spiritual pain of Job. Job alone could work through the meaning and purpose of his tragedy, and work through it he did.
On the other hand, we can be helpful in the quest for meaning and purpose. We can listen. We can show concern and sympathy. We can be present to help, to give a touch of caring and love, to share the sorrow and concern. On occasion we can as questions, though we cannot give the answers. We can be fellow travelers on the journey toward meaning, purpose, and wholeness.
Often the questions of those who suffer must go unanswered. A group of people are forced to flee from their homes and land and there is no one to receive them or to feed them. God is present with them, and he is active in all things. Did he force them to flee? A young man is thrown from his speeding motorcycle, breaks his neck, and is totally paralyzed for life. God was present with him. Could God not have prevented the wheel of the motorcycle from slipping and throwing the young man into this horrible situation? A child is dying painfully of AIDS because of a contaminated blood transfusion. God knew the virus was in that blood. Why did he permit the child to receive that blood? In the face of such questions there is only one valid response that we can make as Christians. That is the response of Job: ‘1put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4,5 NIV).
God desires to meet us in our suffering. He can speak to us directly as he did to Job, or he can speak through those who care. In caring for others, we should consciously and constantly attempt to reflect the image of God within us so that those for whom we care can perceive him. Denise Katay did this to John Malinga; when John encountered the living Christ reflected through her, he was made whole.
One day a man from a far distant region was flown to our hospital after sustaining third-degree burns over 75% of his body in a truck accident. We put him in a private room, on a bed covered with sterile sheets under a mosquito net and began intensive rehydration. In the evening I went quietly into his room and remained while the nurse went for more supplies. I felt deeply moved in my spirit for this man, a total stranger to us, dying in a place unknown to him and far from his family. Assuming him to be unconscious, I gently grasped his hand and prayed out loud in English, commending him to the mercy of our loving God. To my amazement, as I finished, he prayed in his own language. When the nurse came back, I left to visit other sick persons. When I returned a few minutes later, he had already passed into eternity. Yet I could still sense the presence of Almighty God in the room and I was aware that, somehow, in my own feeble way, I had been able to reflect God into the spirit of this unknown brother during his last earthly moments. I knew that he had been made whole.
How do we reflect God to those for whom we care? By our compassion, a loving touch, a gentle spirit. By sharing our experience with Christ as Denise did. By reading from God’s Word. Or simply by our silent presence. We must always maintain a constant attitude of prayer, of being in the presence of Christ ourselves, for we can reflect him only when we are in his presence.
There are many occasions when progress in the restoration of whole ness seems impossible. With severely disabled children, persons who are terminally ill, or those who are unconscious, caring and compassion are always possible, but their conditions may be so frustrating and discouraging that courage grows dim. Nevertheless, we are always the image of God, the representatives of Jesus Christ. We have the high privilege as well as the awesome responsibility of reflecting the image and glory of God to those for whom we care. Who can know to what extent the love and grace of God can penetrate into the depths of their spirits when we, by our attitudes and devotion, are reflecting Christ’s love?
Suffering, God, and Us
In our suffering and disease God plays a role. He seeks above all else our wholeness here and now, although we know that this will not become complete in this life. To this end he works in all of our circumstances to speak to us, yes, even to shout to us to call us to a response of faith, and this response is up to us. Whether or not a horrible situation becomes truly evil depends on us, not on God. The situation becomes evil if we turn away from God in anger and rebellion; in this case we die spiritually. But any situation, no matter how bad, can become the means through which eternal redemption and healing come to us if we reach out to God in acceptance, in faith, and in hope.
We know also that we ourselves often play a role in the origin of our suffering and disease. Our own behavior can bring many diseases upon us or at least make us susceptible to them. It may likewise cause others to suffer, become sick, and even die, and this should concern us very much. Therefore, in the origin of suffering and diseases and in our response to them, we ourselves are very much involved. We must turn our attention to the relationship between our health and our behavior.