By: Kathryn Stangel
Nobody wants to suffer. To suffer is to endure weakness and to admit our vulnerability. It’s the antithesis of living; our human nature demands we strive towards survival and self-preservation.
But suffering comes to all of us, and what then? How do we react to it? With fear? Anger? Despair? Maybe all of the above.
Nothing can prepare us for “our time.” My brother’s fiancé discovered this when she called us one day with tragic news: her father was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer. After months of appointments and consultations (not to mention the pain), he learned the answer to how he was suffering. But nobody could answer the bigger one at hand: why?
I was in college at the time and wasn’t a part of the conversation, which meant I had to reach out to my future sister-in-law on my own. I didn’t know how to respond, though. Shooting her an “I’m-sorry-about-your-dad” text didn’t seem sufficient. I know it wouldn’t have been enough for me if I was on the receiving end.
How do we comfort somebody who suffers? How do we answer that dreaded question, “Why?” Why does suffering happen? And why does it seem to happen to the most unprepared and undeserving?
The longer I held off communicating with her, the worse my spiritual turmoil grew. I felt her family’s anguish as deeply as if it were my own. Yet, I couldn’t seem to bring myself to call or text.
As with most of my troubles, however, I eventually found an answer in prayer. Jeremiah 29:11-13 tells us: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
The prophet Jeremiah was no stranger to suffering. Outcast by his own people, imprisoned, and ridiculed, he could have given up his mission to preach the word of God. Instead, he poured everything he had into his prayer life. Even in the midst of hardship and inner conflict, he was unwavering in his faith and endured suffering with patience and in prayer.
I decided to follow Jeremiah’s example. I started praying for my future sister-in-law’s father’s chemo treatments, for their siblings, and for my brother to be there for his fiancé through the good times and the bad. I started finding opportunities for prayer everywhere. Every minor inconvenience–stubbing my toe, running late for class, etc.–became a gift I could offer up for them.
The idea of welcoming suffering like Jeremiah did might sound impossible, but to God, nothing is impossible. We must remember, too, that God gave us a Savior who suffered everything there was to suffer. As St. Augustine writes, “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” Jesus, at His time of death, was the embodiment of anguish: abandoned by His friends, rejected by His people, and murdered in a slow, agonizing way. While it may seem pointless–after all, God could have taken away His Only Begotten Son’s pain with a wave of His hand–He was sending us an example of how to suffer.
And, when we offer our sufferings to God, we can confidently hope and trust that He knows and will do what is best for us. When we pray, He hears. When we shed tears of pain and sorrow, He promises to wipe them away with His gentle touch. And when we suffer, He does not ignore us.
Have you experienced suffering? How did you find hope and redemption in it?
Kathryn Stangel is a prospective teacher and aspiring author. She has written for the Journal & Topic and Patch, as well as reviewed up-and-coming authors at Metamorphosis Literary Agency. Currently, she attends Illinois State University, planning to double major in Secondary Education and English, with a minor in Italian.