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Why We Suffer

It is not in vain

It seems the potential for pain nearly has no end.

Stubbing your toe, for instance, is painful, and so is breaking your arm. Going through cancer is painful, as is losing a child. Being betrayed is painful, as is being tortured.

Many factors contribute to the experience of pain. Even people suffering from the same condition can feel it differently.

If someone had cancer, but was a naturally optimistic person with a loving, supportive family, that person would not feel the pain of their disease as badly as a pessimistic loner without friends or support.

Pain is both quantitative (measured in intensity and length) and qualitative (physical pain and psychological pain feel different. The pain of the flu and the pain of betrayal feel different).

And pain is specific.

One remedy does not treat all forms of even one specific type of pain (say, cancer, or depression), because the people experiencing the pain are different. We all need comfort in pain, but that comfort does not come in pill bottles. It comes in the form of other people.

For others’ sake

Everybody is unique, we all know that. We all have a particular combination of:

Gender / age / family history / experiences / language(s) / ethnicity / environment / struggles / etc

…that no one has ever had before or will ever repeat.

And it is your particular combination of factors gives you a particular edge when dealing with people who are in pain.

Everyone has, of course, experienced pain, loss, and suffering, in different ways, to different degrees.

And it is the ways/degrees that matter.

For instance, someone who has lost a beloved pet will grieve, but less than someone who has lost a beloved parent. The former may be able to offer the latter some comfort, but cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of the loss that person suffers. The two experiences are quantitatively different.

Likewise, someone who has lost a loved one is suffering, and so is the person who is suffering from a chronic mental illness. But the two experiences are qualitatively different.

These people may be able to comfort each other, somewhat, in their respective pain. But in the end, it’s more helpful for the grieving person to be comforted by someone who has experienced grief, and it is more helpful for the sick person to be comforted by someone who has experienced sickness.

In other words, the closer your combination of factors is to someone else, the more powerfully you can empathize with and help that person.

The most powerful counter to pain

…is empathy.

Especially when the pain is very bad, and there is no good antidote.

There are some pains that nothing can “make better.” Not morphine, nor comforting words, nothing. Even time can only take some of the edge off the pain, but never really remove it.

In those times, particularly, the only and best thing someone can do is to offer empathy.

But empathy is costly.

True empathy, the most powerful kind, comes from people who have experienced the same kind of pain that they are now helping someone else through.

If you have not suffered, the most you can offer a sufferer is sympathy.

Even if you have suffered, but you haven’t suffered as much as or the same type of pain as someone else, it’s not the same. It’s not enough.

Of course, we all should offer whatever we can to help those in pain, whether that is sympathy or something else. It’s better than nothing.

But the greater and more complex the pain, the more Empathy is needed.

The way this world currently works is: The more you have suffered, quantitatively and qualitatively, the more you are able to support others.

Not only because you really “get it,” but because the sufferer knows that you get it. The most effective doctors are those who have experienced the diseases their patients are going through. Their patients are better able to trust them.

Those who suffer least are least able to touch other people’s lives. But those who suffer most can help the most people, and in the most powerful ways.

The One who suffered most

Perhaps that is why Jesus came down to suffer.

We don’t know why God doesn’t just end everything and fix the world, or our problems, right now. We don’t know why, when Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t just snuff them out and start over. We don’t know why God allows sin and suffering to continue for now.

But at least we know that God willingly put himself through the most horrendous forms of pain possible — physical and mental — to show us that He can empathize with us, no matter what we are going through.

If your body is hurting you, because of disease or accident, Jesus gets it:

He was whipped until his flesh was coming off and his internal organs may have been exposed. He was forced to carry a rough, heavy wooden beam on his skinless, bloody back. He had thick nails driven through the most sensitive nerves in his hands and legs, then shifted upright, gravity pulling the nails through his nerves, and he had to stay like that, for hours, in unimaginable physical agony.

If you’re hurting psychologically, Jesus gets that too:

None of his friends understood him, his family thought he was cuckoo, the most respected leaders in his community hated him and orchestrated his murder, his three closest friends fell asleep when he was agonizing over his impending death, His beloved Father turned away from him when he was in the greatest pain, the people he most wanted to help mocked and spat at him…

It’s hard to understand this, of course, when we have heard this story too many times, or when we are in the throes of the worst pain we have experienced.

Some of us have heard the story of the crucifixion so much that we’ve lost the understanding that Jesus was in a great deal of pain, so much so that it’s really impossible to describe in words.

And not just during the crucifixion itself, but even during the years of his ministry, when he was misunderstood and mistreated and people were hanging all over him, demanding him to do stuff for them when he hadn’t eaten, or when he was exhausted, or when he was trying to get away to mourn the death of his cousin.

So we think no one can understand us when we are in pain. But Jesus can, and so can certain other people.

I think that is ONE of the reasons why God allows us to go through suffering, even the worst kind.

(Just one reason, though. Not applicable to all cases, perhaps, and it is certainly not the only reason).

So that through the worst pain, we can develop the most valuable empathy.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

So when you suffer, remember…

Because we live in a fallen world, pain is unavoidable. All kinds of pain, of all different quantities and qualities.

When you are suffering, comfort is available. Either directly from Jesus himself, or often, from one of his agents — another human being who has gone through what you are going through.

And sometimes, even in the midst of suffering, the thought that we too can use our pain to be an agent of empathy is itself a comfort.

Of course, in our more selfish, bitter moments, we may think: I don’t want to be an agent of empathy. I’d rather NOT suffer this pain and give up the ability to empathize and help others.

But we don’t have that choice.

Like I said, we live in a fallen world, and that means we will ALL suffer, in some way, sometime, to some degree. And we don’t have a lot of say in what/when/how/how much we suffer. Some sufferings are preventable through wise and healthy behaviors and choices, but many sufferings are neither predictable nor preventable.

The only choice we have is what to do with it when it happens.

It’s not a matter of “grin and bear it,” “ignore it and it will go away,” or just gritting your teeth and powering through using willpower.

It’s more a trust that you are going through what you are going through because one day, you’re going to meet someone who needs what you have to offer…and you will only be able to offer it because of what you are going through now.

Why I’m sharing this

When I’m in pain, I find that a shift in perspective helps. And the most important perspective is,

Whatever you are going through is NOT in vain. We may not see exactly what purpose this experience has, right now, but we have faith that there IS a purpose.

And one of the best, most prominent purposes, is the purpose of helping others.

As I mentioned before, we all have specific combinations of factors that help make us who we are, make our lives what they are. The closer your particular combination is to another person’s combination, the more you are able to relate and empathize.

No one will have a 100% match in situation/environment/identity factors or suffering, but your unique situation in life may be a close-to-perfect match for someone in the future who will be struggling with what you are struggling with now.

And in that case, you may be the one and only person on the face of the earth who can provide the necessary empathy to help that particular person (or persons) walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

And that may be why God is allowing you to go through what you are going through now.

Use this if it helps

Again, the key words here are “MAY BE.”

I’m not God, so I don’t know for sure why He allows certain things to happen.

God’s ways are above our ways, and if this thought is not really helpful for you, or you are in one of the cynical/bitter times in life and this kind of thinking only makes it worse, then leave it. Go do something else.

But another key thought is, whether or not this MAY BE turns out to be true, at least we know we have a source of comfort in our storms.

Even if no one around us has gone through what we are going through, even if we feel like we receive no comfort from human sources, Jesus himself has been through more suffering than people can imagine, and He himself can comfort us.

So when I am hurt, either by an anxiety attack, or another person’s thoughtlessness or meanness, or by any other specific thing, it helps to not focus on that specific thing and ask “Why did this happen? Why did he do that? Why did God let this specific thing happen?”

Instead, I remind myself,

“I don’t know why God specifically let this happen, but I know generally that this will not be wasted. Go ahead and feel the pain. Cry through it. Bear it. Feel its weight.

“This experience is going to become the coin you use one day to pay for someone else’s rescue from the darkness you are now experiencing. It will not be wasted. It is not in vain.”

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