My grandfather passed away on June 5, 2020. My parents, my uncle, and I were in the hospital room with him. While listening to hymns as we watched grandpa’s body slow down, my uncle asked a question few have the courage to ask, “If this is natural, why do we grieve?”
One of the things we often say to comfort each other is that death is a natural part of life. To quote the stoic Ron Swanson from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” “Death is natural…We’re born, we survive as long as we’re useful, and then we’re killed, either by our body’s natural decay, or by those younger and stronger.”
To my uncle’s point, if death—and by extension, pain and suffering—is “natural,” why do we have such a visceral reaction against it? If you consider other parts of life that are natural, both physical (eating, sleeping, the laws of physics) and non-physical (relationships, love, the drive to accomplishment, ambition), we don’t find ourselves in reaction against them. So why then do we include death and suffering, against which we strongly react, with the rest of life’s natural phenomena, against which we do not?
Have you ever wondered why it is that when we experience tragedy, one of the immediate responses is denial? Of the seven commonly recognized stages of grief, denial is first. I have faced this denial of my own, even when seeing reality with my own two eyes. Back in the hospital room, I saw my grandfather take his final breath. He was there in front of me, and then he was gone….gone yet present simultaneously. Before leaving his room, I held his hand and said goodbye. Why? Because my heart could not concede to what my brain knew.
What does the heart know that the brain cannot override?
For some, the rationale behind this reaction against suffering seems self-evident. They might argue that the universal preference for pleasure over pain need not be analyzed. The fact, however, that the response to suffering is almost universally to alleviate and avoid it, all the while calling it “natural,” raises serious questions. By telling ourselves that it is “natural,” we silence the most obvious, immediate inclination of our hearts, that “It should not be this way.”
Suffering Tells Us We Are Not Home
Do you know what happens if you put a freshwater fish in saltwater, or vice-versa? Because of differences in salt concentration of the fish’s cells and osmotic pressure, a freshwater fish in saltwater loses water from its cells and dies of dehydration. A saltwater fish in freshwater takes in too much water in its cells and also dies. Just not at first.
If you put a freshwater fish in saltwater, it will appear as if it’s in its natural environment. By all external appearances, the fish is where it belongs. It’s in water, and it’s swimming. But the fish knows something is wrong. Its discomfort and eventual death are proof that it is not where it belongs. It was not made for that particular environment. It is not in its home.
Human beings are the same way. We live in a world that from all external appearances is where we belong. We feel more or less at home. We can breathe the air, and we can work and raise families, but not indefinitely. Like the fish, the arrangement is temporary and fatal. The discomfort we experience in this life, the dysfunctional relationships, the disappointments, the sickness, the divorce, the wars, and political turmoil…these all indicate that something is not as it should be.
Here then is the conclusion I believe is unavoidable. The outcry of the heart in the face of grief and loss is that it should never have happened. Yet, the condition of life on earth ensures that it can and will happen. Therefore, we live in a continual paradox of instinctively knowing what should be, yet repressed by the reality that the current order of life on earth cannot produce it. If this is true, then we would be wise to avoid silencing that inner voice and allow ourselves to acknowledge that perhaps the reason life is so full of discomfort here on earth is that we were not designed for this world in this condition.
Suffering is Proof of Life’s Meaningfulness
If life is limited to this physical existence and God also exists, then the argument that God is cruel for allowing evil (or non-existent) would be more tenable. But this temporary physical existence is not our only reality. We don’t simply exist for a few years to make the most of things and try to live a good life and enjoy ourselves just to die in the end. Suffering, indeed, only happens if life has meaning.
If these few years is all there is, then we all begin life on our death bed looking for morphine, because if nothing exists outside this life, then all of our pursuits are flimsy masks for pain, because without meaning and significance and purpose from outside our physical reality all that matters is avoiding pain for as long as possible. Life’s constant struggle against pain and suffering indicates deep down that our heart recognizes something our mind does not.
The question of why God allows suffering imagines it placed in individual doses by God into an otherwise peaceful existence. Maybe the reality is the other way around. Perhaps a lack of suffering is a mercy, and full-on suffering is the experience-in-full of the world’s curse without the hand of God holding back the tide, and we only view it as unusual because we were not designed to live in a cursed world.
The Biblical Wilderness as a Pattern for the Purpose of Suffering
When God rescued Israel from Egypt, promising them a land of their own in which to live in peace, they undoubtedly expected to find themselves there somewhat immediately. However, “God led them by way of the desert” (Exod. 13:18). Newly liberated, the people immediately marched three days straight out into the barren wilderness.
The thoughtful reader may come away with some difficult questions about what God was up to. Why would God initially lead the people to begin their journey to the Promised Land by first surviving the desert? It seems God was impressing upon the people, and the collective memory of people of faith, that He alone creates and sustains life. He was demonstrating to them that, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, that the desert “has nothing, yet lacks nothing because God is there?”
When you consider all the things that happened in the wilderness thirst quenched miraculously with water from a rock, hunger satisfied by flocks of quail, more hunger satisfied by literal food from the sky (of which they were forbidden from collecting more than one day’s amount)—it becomes apparent that God was teaching survival by reliance upon Him. Life without its Source (God) is fatal.
The purpose of the discomfort of the wilderness was to impress upon Israel, and by extension, every reader across time, that what it means for God to “be our God,” is, most fundamentally, that He meets our needs and we trust Him to do that. The suffering experienced in the desert was not designed for the sake of difficulty, but to teach the people of God to trust Him, reminding them that He is their source of life.
In Suffering, We See We Are Homeless, Yet Home-Bound
Maybe this is the simplest way to explain the primary purpose of suffering: like fish in the wrong kind of water, pain, and suffering tells us we are not home. Suffering is the experience of being homeless; suffering in faith is the experience of being homeless, yet home-bound.
The biblical wilderness, while a literal place, is also symbolically representative of “the place that is not home.” At the moment, sin entered the world, the world became no longer our home because Home is where God lives among His people in perfect rule and peace. Home is the presence of God manifested fully among His people. The earth will not be our true home until Christ reigns among us, replacing the sun as our source of light, with no sin, and death forever destroyed. Deep down, we know we made for this place.
In Luke 9:58, Jesus,—who had a house in Capernaum—states that He “had no place to lay His head,” indicating that, in a world where He was not physically homeless, He had no true Home or place of rest. Because the Son of God took on human flesh to walk in our shoes, He exemplified the reality of spiritual homelessness.
Home is wherever the presence of God is manifested in full because that is what we were made for. In this age, that place is not on the earth. Still, because the believer’s life is hidden in God with Christ (Col. 3:3), we have objective peace with God relationally, and we have subjective peace experientially (Philippians 4:6-8) because we are connected by faith to the place where God’s presence is manifested.
While not yet physically, we have peace in this age spiritually; we have spiritual rest from the evils of the world, spiritual rest from our works of righteousness, and spiritual consolation for loss and grief, which is as close to “Home” as we will get until His presence becomes fully manifested here. Our true home will be physical rest from the evils of the world, physical rest from our works of righteousness, and physical consolation for loss and grief. Spiritually we get a taste of home as we await the feast. We are homeless and home-bound.
Suffering for God’s Servants Specifically
One of the reasons God’s servants are appointed to suffering is because suffering puts us face to face with the reality of our situation as homeless and home-bound. Suffering darkens the backdrop against which the hope of the future manifestation-in-full of God’s presence more brightly shines. God-ordained suffering, in faith, grounds us more to reality because it opens our eyes wide to the reality of the curse, and the futility of seeking comfort and consolation in the things of the world, and the intentional self-distraction to which we are so naturally inclined.
A challenge then is to keep a close watch on our thoughts and behavior and ask ourselves what pain our endeavors might be masking, and what significance our actions will have 500 years from now. We must also ask ourselves what things we are intended to get from God we are attempting to find in this limited, temporary, cursed existence for which we were not made.
And the next time you find yourself wrecked with grief and loss, consider the reality highlighted by that pain; Christ has overcome the world and defeated death, and the one who believes in Him “will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).