“You don’t know how I’ve suffered,” she said. “All of you with your happy families haven’t ever had something bad happen to you. No one understands how awful my life has been”. She had been drinking, so I let it go that night, but this was her script – her identity, which kept her trapped in her despair.
My friend was wrong, of course. Every one of us encounters suffering and tragedy in life. Every single one.We deceive ourselves if we assume that it will somehow pass us by. Just recently, among our friends and acquaintances, we’ve heard of a frightening diagnosis, deaths from Covid, the sudden death of a young man, miscarriage and a devastating divorce. So how are we to live when tragedies come calling?
Some people, like my friend that night, re-center their lives around their diagnosis or their grief. Instead of moving through the tragedy, they become enmeshed in it and form their identity around it. They carry their pain with them like an identity card, ready to display it at a moment’s notice.
I have seen sufferers become so obsessed with their circumstances that they completely lose perspective. Everything is seen through the lens of their loss or pain. They come to identify themselves as either victims or survivors – both identities defined by their tragedy. The thing becomes so massive that it takes over their lives. And when further loss happens, it compounds their suffering and twists their outlook to such a degree that they can even make an idol out of their status as a sufferer.
There are other unhealthy ways of coping, of course. There is denial, refusing to acknowledge our rage and fear in order to look strong and brave. There is hiding – from ourselves and from those who could help us if we would just ask. And there is blame, which feeds our bitterness and resentment instead of relieving it.
But there is a better way through our pain. A way that enables us to meet our pain head-on instead of denying it, while refusing it the power to skew our perspective and sabotage our lives. The Bible speaks of it in 1 Corinthians. We are sorrowful, yet rejoicing, it says.
The way of surrender is the path of courage. We see our tragedy for what it is; we grieve our loss and feel the full weight of our sorrow. And then, we also accept the solid truth of blessing. We allow gratitude to inform our grieving.
Acknowledging blessing does not diminish grief. It is not an either/or proposition, but an “and also” way through. We can be crushed by grief and also live with hope. We can be devastated by loss and also upheld by gratitude. Life is best lived when we keep our hearts secure in this seeming contradiction.
Gratitude doesn’t diminish sorrow; instead, it forms a gentle boundary around it so that we can grieve in truth.
I think that this is what it means to suffer well. To suffer, yes. And also to be grateful. Neither one pushes aside the other, but instead the combination of the two imparts meaning and beauty to both.
We see this pattern displayed beautifully in many of the Psalms. Sorrow, lament and questions are held alongside of gratitude and hope, all in the presence of God who accepts it as a fragrant offering.
The God who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross.
I am watching, from a distance, someone walking this path right now. His sorrow is raw and devastating; his hope, holding him together. His example, showing the rest of us how to bear the worst with authenticity and faith. I can’t help contrasting his response to my friend’s on the phone that night.
Christians don’t grieve as the world does, the Bible says. We grieve with hope. And this hope is the light of the world and the light on our path through the darkness to the other side.