Suffering takes many forms – physical, emotional, financial, relational, and spiritual. Whether one suffers from an injury, depression, or a broken relationship, it is a deeply personal and often isolating experience. Suffering is a universal experience that all of us encounter at different points in our lives. It raises deep spiritual questions about God’s role in suffering. I myself had a moment of this questioning when my son Oscar recently underwent a tonsillectomy. In his recovery, he would wake up in the night moaning in pain. I had given him medicine, so there wasn’t much more I could do to ease his pain. All I could do was sit with him, hold him, validate his feelings, and just be. I imagined God, like a parent, being with us in pain, just as I was with Oscar.
Giving up Control
Suffering reminds us of our lack of control and forces us to trust in something bigger than ourselves. Richard Rohr says, “Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to Another Source.” In the midst of suffering, we yearn to depend on a God who seems to have betrayed us. Yet, God is with us in our suffering. Like a parent sitting with a child in pain, God sits with us in ours.
Suffering also leads to vulnerability. This vulnerability, while uncomfortable, can strangely be a source of grace. When I was a hospital chaplain, I observed patients who once held positions of power being brought down by their illness, to a place where humanity meets its fragility. In these moments of vulnerability, there is an opportunity for transformation. Ignatius, in his own moment of physical vulnerability, discovered an opening for transformation. His wounds became sacred. Richard Rohr puts it, “If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.” When I contemplate Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I realise that Jesus does not provide clarity on why we experience pain, but rather reveals a means for its transformation. Through his vulnerability and letting go of control, the suffering loses its power, and his wounds become sacred. And while the suffering itself is very personal, the incredible thing about it is that we do not have to go through it alone. Sometimes, our loved ones are standing at the foot of our cross, present with us. Jesus calls us to recognise our common vulnerabilities and to support each other in our times of pain, as I supported my son. But he also promises the Holy Spirit, which in scripture is named as the “Paraclete”, which comes from a Greek word meaning comforter or consoler. It also means, “to call to one’s side”. How Christ-like is that? It conveys a sense of loving accompaniment. It tells us that God desires to be in a relationship with us through our suffering. God entered the world to walk with us in our suffering and to show us that we belong to each other.
Our Common Humanity
Discovering the universal truth about human suffering allows us to recognise our common, vulnerable humanity, and the hope that comes from our Comforter. This recognition does not come easily. It requires us to sit beneath the cross and suffer with Christ, to feel the piercing of our own hearts as we feel the brokenness of the world. Yet, in this shared suffering—this compassion—we find a deep connection with God and with each other.
For some reason, suffering is a path we are sometimes asked to take. It can become a mutual exchange of compassion, a shared experience that draws us closer to one another. It’s transformative. There is always someone sitting with us, like a parent holding a child, validating our experience, suffering with us. As Pedro Arrupe, SJ wrote, after suffering a stroke:
More than ever I find myself in the hands of God.
This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth.
But now there is a difference;
the initiative is entirely with God.
It is indeed a profound spiritual experience
to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
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Written with the assistance of AI (GPT-4).