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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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On the suicide hot line

I get calls of suffering, calls for love

During the years I worked as a counselor on a suicide hot line, I talked with many depressed people. I found an all-too-common theme—suffering. Many callers simply couldn’t understand what they did to deserve their suffering. Some saw their suffering as punishment for past behaviors. Some felt it was a sign they were forsaken by God. Others felt such unjust punishment was proof that a loving God didn’t exist.

I remember how frustrated and helpless I felt when I attempted to comfort these callers with what I thought was sound theology, addressing the problem of evil and the existence of God. But my arguments offered them little comfort for they didn’t address the heart of their problem. These callers weren’t looking for theology: They just wanted confirmation that God still loved them.

Our generation isn’t prepared to experience suffering. We are raised to relate suffering to punishment and failure. Our lives are driven with the expectation of success, not failure. Suffering simply doesn’t fit into our structure of life. More important, it also doesn’t fit into our structure of faith. It’s not until we are caught up in our suffering that we realize how unprepared we are to deal with it.

What is it about suffering that we aren’t prepared to face? For many callers it came down to a loss of control over their lives. No explanation as to why a loving and caring God would allow suffering could bring any relief to their situation. It wasn’t their ignorance of theology that caused their pain, but their sense of loss.

Although many of those with whom I spoke probably weren’t Christians, I was surprised by the number of callers who were. And I was amazed that so many Christians weren’t prepared for the advent of suffering in their walk with God and the effect it had on their faith.

Over the years, including my experiences as a Stephen Minister, I’ve come to believe that suffering and faith work together. I now see suffering in a different light—not as a theological problem but as a personal experience of faith. Knowing how one’s wretched life fits perfectly into God’s scheme for universal love and justice offers no comfort and may only increase one’s feeling of divine condemnation, isolation and guilt.

What then can we say to those who suffer? Is there any answer that will comfort those in despair? Our confusion over suffering isn’t unique. Even the great heroes of the Bible were perplexed by suffering. Consider how Job cried out to God for some explanation for his suffering only to be met by God’s silence. Even David was brought down to a state of total despair by his suffering: “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate” (Psalm 88:14-15).

Peter, however, begins to give us a clue into how suffering interacts with our faith: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9).

In many ways our attempts to comfort others are no better than that of Job’s friends who could only offer him theological concepts that appealed to his mind rather than to his heart. Such “logical” explanations for suffering take away from the very glory and honor that can come to us by means of it. The Spirit speaking through Peter encourages us to embrace our suffering so our faith might become genuine.

For believers, suffering isn’t only an opportunity to use our faith for our own benefit but also as a model for others. It is through the suffering of God’s children that the world will see a genuine love for God—not built upon exclusion from suffering but upon a total trust in the One who is with us in each footstep we take, whether it leads us out of our suffering or through it.

Suffering prepares in us a faith that is both pure and unpretentious. It transforms concern into compassion and duty into courage. Coupled with faith, suffering doesn’t drive saints away from God in terror but rather draws them closer for comfort.

Suffering then isn’t an antagonist of faith but its complement. It is through suffering that we are inspired to a level of faith otherwise not possible. It’s through suffering that we can come to know faith not as a passive belief but as an act of inspired sacrifice.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).


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