Surviving and Thriving in Suffering: Part I – Spiritual Surroundings

Recently I have been thinking and writing a lot about suffering. However, as is often the case, serious thinking and writing about suffering usually comes in the midst of an actual instance of suffering, or shortly after such a instance has been, to some degree at least, reconciled. In earlier posts I tried to articulate how some theological eventualities (i.e. epiphanic experiences) could transform concrete experiences of suffering into fully redeemed experiences. In other posts I have focused on particular virtues that the Christ-follower would hope to display when instances of pain strike, and strike hard.

Here, I hope to give some useful applications for how to survive, and perhaps thrive, when those hard strikes come. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere there are varieties of pain to consider. In short, however, these practical suggestions hopefully will apply to any instance of either profound physical pain (e.g. bone cancer), deeply traumatic emotional pain (e.g. the loss of a child to cancer), or the enduring emptiness that attaches itself to hopes and dreams left unfulfilled (e.g. the faithful daughter who never finds a beloved husband). All these challenges can be met, and met courageously, but they cannot be met as such apart from a sustained engagement with Christ and His people.

On that note, I see three domains of existence in which the Christ-sufferer (the one who suffers “with Christ”) should recognize in order to survive, and even thrive within the storm: Spiritual Surroundings, Spiritual Times, and Spiritual Attitudes. In this post we will look at the first of these.

Spiritual Surroundings

In times of pain and suffering the Christian must surround herself with the resources God has provided. There are three universal categories of being that comprise our surroundings: people, places, and objects. For the Christ-sufferer, then, our surroundings should be permeated with regular interaction with spiritual people (Christian spiritual people, of course), occurring in spiritual places, and focused on spiritual things or objects (don’t worry, I am not promoting relic worship per se).

Spiritual People

Spiritual Christians are different from others, even others who may go to church, or who have been baptized, or who even give a lot of money to the church. Spiritual Christians revel in the things of God: they pray fervently, they naturally avoid the mundane, banal, and silly things of the world. They know the Bible, and they love to sing worship songs. Spiritual people speak spiritual truths, and speak them in love. They pray on their knees, they call on God’s help and mercy, and they do so often. They cry in church, and then laugh outside afterward. They know how to comfort, even if not perfectly. They want God’s will for you, even in the suffering you experience. Spiritual people are safe.

Spiritual Christians have themselves been spiritually and emotionally broken, and have done their own share of breaking. They know God’s love and forgiveness personally. They tear up when they think of it. Then they smile warmly. Then they celebrate. We know, in spite of their failures and flaws, that these people can rightly be called born again. It is to these fellow sojourners we must run, and the more of them we know, the better. They are often older men and women, but not always. They tend to be empathetic to pain, yet enduringly hopeful. They give off joy and emanate peace.

Step one then is this: When you are suffering spend time with Spiritual Christians. There is a corollary to this, however, don’t spend too much time with people who are living for the world, or in the flesh. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.

Spiritual Places

Of course, one has to be theologically careful, when one speaks of things “spiritual.” That term has been usurped in our contemporary, pluralistic culture to mean anything that is simply other than materialistic atheism. In this context, however, I am not talking about geographical locations which emanate some special spiritual force or power. All of creation is God’s creation, and God works everywhere, always. His places are all places, from church to concentration camp alike. However, within this world there are specific places that can help us focus on God’s presence, and remind us of His power.

Yes, church is one of these places. And, I do mean the actual local church here, the building that houses the Body of Christ, that physical place where the people of the invisible Church gather. What kind of local church you have nearby is less important, it could also be a person’s home, or a mega-church campus. But, all local churches should have as their primary focus Christ crucified and Christ resurrected, and they should be arranged in such a way to present this abiding truth to us. Church chapels, campuses, even cathedrals can be places to help us focus our mind on God’s Word and open our heart to His Spirit.

Of course, God’s cathedral is the world itself. Thus, nature is also a Spiritual Place where we can observe the creative power of our God, and in perceiving His glory, come to see our particular pain within the vast complex of His overwhelming plan for creation. It is not that our particular struggles evaporate in the presence of the natural world; El Captain or Mt. Rainer have no such causal powers, but the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone’s Upper and Lower Falls, can act as shadows of the Beauty that awaits us in the New Creation. To know that the aesthetic experiences of the Matterhorn, or the Redwood National Park pale in comparison to what awaits those who love God, well…it helps to know that.

Lastly, other Spiritual Places could be places of human artifact, but again where Beauty is on display. Finely crafted gardens, Gothic cathedrals, awe-inspiring libraries, of course, the world’s best art galleries, could indeed bring some solace to an aching soul. However, here careful distinctions need to be made, and spiritual discernment applied, since not all art is reflective of the divine Nature. That which is, however, can draw us back into the grand design of the Great Designer, allowing us to see our own pain not as ultimate, but as contained within a much vaster arena of experience.

In sum, step two: when in times of great suffering, seek places that either are centered on God’s Word through worship, or that reflect His Beauty. However, as with spiritual people, there is a corollary: there are places in the world that are of the world, and that should be avoided in times of struggle. These would be places that either offer nothing but mind-numbing distraction, or that actively tempt the emotions (e.g. movie theaters, sporting events, and bars & clubs of various types). These days there are also “virtual” spaces that one should reconsider visiting.

Spiritual Things

Again, let me make a theological qualification, as I am not ascribing intrinsic value to objects, as if any concrete particular thing is itself a source of spiritual power. Idolatry is, to be sure, not my aim. However, I think it can be appropriate, especially in times of heart-wrenching grief, to feel or grasp something sensorially, in a way that can be comforting. So, for example, to hold my Bible tightly in my hands as I feel the weight of my pain, does not mean I am worshiping my Bible, but the feel of its pages in my hand, the smell of its leather binding, can be a reminder of the One Who authored it, and of the promises He has made to me. An actual Bible, perhaps a favorite copy, can indeed be an object to cling to. Recently, I have been sleeping with my Bible held close to my chest. Nothing about this rings untrue, or idolatrous. It reminds me of hope.

In addition to a Bible, good books can be spiritual things. In times of pain, a book can be a good friend. Philip Yancey has written a classic that neither whitewashes the reality of suffering, nor caves in to despair–reading through it has been a blessing, as one encounters the tragedy of many, yet sees real cases of redemption that emerge from pain and sorrow. Reading can also be accompanied by writing spiritual thoughts. In times of hurt the Psalmist wrote songs; so too can we write songs, poems, even articles or research papers that help us creatively process our pain.

Finally, spiritual things can also be spiritual actions. As Yancey points out in his book, those who allow their pain to motivate them to action, especially to service toward others, realize that their purpose in life is not unraveled by their struggle, rather their struggle becomes an integral part of a far greater purpose. While this purpose is often very hard to discern, and certainly it is not something that is discerned immediately, there is a real hope that every Christ-sufferer will be called to act out of a conviction that he or she would not have had, had they not suffered.

As we see so often in the Bible (Gen. 50:15-21), if our actions mirror God’s will in times of trouble, great exaltation often follows. This is perhaps a truth that soldiers or star athletes (especially boxers) grasp more readily, since the endurance of pain is most often the integral component to future glory. Thus, to serve God and man in the midst of pain is a way of enduring that imitates Christ’s own actions on the cross.

The third step in surviving suffering then is to surround oneself with objects of spiritual comfort, and engage in actions of spiritual reward. As with the other steps, however, there are also corollaries to be avoided. There are object and actions that should be eliminated from one’s presence in times of trouble (e.g. silly or dark videos or books, drinking, gambling, etc.)

In sum, when we get hit, and hit hard– cancer, loss of a child, severe disappointment, we need to surround ourselves with spiritual light. We need our lives to be circumscribed by spiritual people, spiritual places, and spiritual things if we are to survive, and even thrive in times of trouble. In the next post, I will look at another domain of spiritual focus, Spiritual Times.

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