“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” – Dostoevsky
Suffering. It’s a word that encompasses so much, it’s practically indefinable. God promises that we will all experience suffering in our lifetime. The modern American church often dodges the topic of suffering, but when they do address it, the focus is usually on the obvious physical forms of suffering such as illness and death. While those are undeniably types of suffering, there is much unseen suffering that is left unaddressed, and therefore, unvalidated. As a nurse, I have come to realize that there is an entire world that exists beneath the surface of society. Much happens that goes unacknowledged. Much is known but left unsaid. If Christians put on blinders and pretend that all is palatable, then perhaps the unspeakable ugliness will disappear and cease to exist. Perhaps, in a way, it does, for those of us who can afford to live in such a world. But for those who have no choice in the matter, they are abandoned to a seemingly godforsaken world of their own.
To the single woman struggling with loneliness, the elderly retired man feeling worthless, the high-functioning college student battling depression, the incest victim who cannot shout #metoo, the alcoholic wrestling with addiction, the empty-nester, the mom with PPD, the teen addicted to pornography before even knowing what it was, the divorcee, the unemployed, the couple with fertility issues, those with invisible chronic illnesses… this article is for you. I see you. More importantly, God sees you.
One of the hardest elements of unseen suffering is that it is an extremely isolating experience. You can try to tell someone that you are suffering mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, but ultimately, no one will ever be able to understand the depth of your pain like you do. It’s hard to rally support for suffering that people cannot understand, or don’t even realize exists. People don’t wear colored ribbons for the elderly in nursing homes and survivors of childhood trauma don’t get a Make a Wish to Disneyworld. (This is not to detract from very positive experiences offered to those who have cancer or other conditions, but simply to point out that there is a gap in the way our society acknowledges suffering.) For those dealing with unseen suffering, this lack of acknowledgment can make them feel as if they don’t matter to society, the church, or God.
Dear reader, even though your suffering is unseen by the world, that doesn’t make it any less real or valid. You matter. Your suffering matters. God does care, despite your doubts otherwise. He is the one person who completely understands what you’re going through. Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason he [Jesus] had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” Christ didn’t just come to earth and observe our brokenness and suffering, He entered into it with us. He too felt utterly abandoned by God in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. He experienced grief and loss. He experienced physical pain that most of us can’t even imagine. He too was exhausted, lonely, friendless, ignored, and belittled. He experienced all of that and so much more. Why? Because he loves you. You. Yes, He did it for the entire world, but He also did it for you. Even if you were the only person in the world to exist, you would have been reason enough for Him to suffer and die. We don’t have a high priest who is unable to empathize with us (Hebrews 4:15), He gets it. He wants you to cast all your cares on Him because He loves you (1 Peter 5:7). All cares. Not just the ones that you think are important enough for His time. Cry to Him about your struggle to find a job. Tell Him about your eating disorder. Confide in Him about your ongoing battle to make it through one more day. Most of all, pour out your heart to Him about the greatest suffering of all: the fear that your pain is meaningless.
The most frustrating aspect of unseen suffering is that we often don’t get to know the why behind it. We are much more willing to tolerate pain and suffering if we can at least understand why it is happening to us. However, God does not promise us answers. C. S. Lewis argued in his book The Problem of Pain that suffering is intended to teach us submission to God’s will and total dependence on Him. Faith is not required if everything is made perfectly obvious to us. We have to trust that God is working out all things for our eternal good, even the evil things other people do to us. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) Wait a minute. Light? Momentary troubles? How dare the writer marginalize the unspeakable pain of a miscarriage or mental torment of crippling anxiety! But no, those words were not used to marginalize and belittle your pain, but rather, to give it perspective. God promises you it will not last forever and that it will be worth it because He has the perspective of all eternity that we simply do not possess. Your suffering is not meaningless, in fact, it means more that you can possibly imagine.
I would like to offer one other view of suffering that American evangelicals often ignore. Suffering can also be a vocation. I know, of all the vocations, suffering is not the one I would choose. I would much rather have Taylor Swift’s vocation. Once again, we must take it on faith that all vocations have equal meaning and purpose, even those that are less glamorous. Viktor Frankl in his world-renowned book Man’s Search for Meaning says, “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his sufferings as his task; his single and unique task… No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” It may not feel like it, but you have been given a special job in God’s kingdom. This is not more law, just another thing for you to feel like you’re failing at, but Gospel. It is freedom. It is the theology of the cross rather than one of glory, and as mentioned, a road Jesus Himself trod. He cast aside His glory to take up His cross, and He asks you to do the same. Can there be a higher calling?
Romans 5:3-4 tells us, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” I want to encourage you to keep up hope. I know that is so easy to say, and yet so difficult to do. There is a petition in the Great Litany of the church which says, “For all the people here present who await your great and abundant mercy, Lord, have mercy.” For many of you, I know that you are still awaiting his mercy, but waiting does not mean you have been forgotten. I know it can feel that way, when you’ve been praying the same prayer over and over for years, seemingly to no avail. I know it’s hard when you’re weary and just not sure you can take one more night of unspeakable loneliness. I know it’s overwhelming when life seems too long and yet too short all at the same time. Even in those darkest and loneliest moments, do not despair, but have patience. Persevere. God has not and will not ever leave you or forsake you. To walk with grace through pain and suffering is only possible if you live in peace, and to live in peace can only be done when you hold onto the hope promised in the Gospel. As Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”