CAN SUFFERING TRULY TRANSFORM?
Suffering can be the great teacher, and in the long run, will produce the wisdom needed for true transformative, lasting change. From a ‘companioning’ standpoint, James Olthius (1994, 227) puts suffering into a proper perspective:
“We all suffer from something. To the degree that we do not acknowledge, own, and deal with this suffering-from, we deny our own inmost experience and thus deny our selves. We set up elaborate control systems to hide ourselves from the deep shame we feel. By not dealing with the basic traumas and using all our energy to repress their effects, our inner lives are on hold and we are frozen captives in prisons of our own making. We are, in effect, victimised once more. In fear, anger, shame and despair, we resist attending to our hurts and remain entrenched in various holding patterns.”
It is evident that people who think they “have it all together” (those entrenched in their ‘holding patterns’) don’t look for transformation. Change agents have deep heart longings, and these may be initiated by even deeper groaning, often accompanied by much pain.
I believe humanity “knows” (possesses an instinctual sense) that we must “pay the piper” on some soul level, before we can expect to experience true freedom in Christ, and the joy it brings. When I read in Scripture that “… Jesus descended into hell”, if I’m reading into the spiritual language correctly, I believe this isn’t referring so much to a physical place; but to a place in the soul. Jesus had to descend into hell — he had to be taken to his limits, before he could be readied for what was in store in heaven. He had to face his own journey of descent, as we all do. Without easy answers to our suffering, we collapse into a deeper participation with the whole suffered cycle of death and resurrection.
Everything in current Western culture teaches us to avoid the “falling down”, to never descend – to never look weak, fragile or “broken”. But Jesus taught us a different way! Jesus knew how to create spiritual desire, how to foster a longing for God, how to make communion possible. He is a teacher of vulnerability, more than anything else. I think, like many, I too fear that kind of vulnerability. My irrational fears provoke me to handle all suffering through willpower, denial, addictions, or even therapy – and in doing so, I forget something that should be most obvious: we don’t handle suffering; suffering handles us – in deep and mysterious ways; that become the very matrix of life, and especially new life. Only suffering leads me into authentically new experiences.
When we “dare to open ourselves” through suffering, Judy Cannato explains, “we soon learn that God’s essential nature is compassionate and that our entire life has been a narrative filled with God’s efforts to say over and over again, “I love you.” As we continue to be stripped of false images of God, we are also stripped of false images of self. We can begin to see ourselves not as independent agents defined by the roles we play but as co-creative spirits whose identities are intertwined with God’s.” The autonomous ego, the independent self, the egocentric little Alan that thinks he’s the centre of the universe — so important — that’s
precisely the self that has to be let go of. Those ego boundaries must collapse into the “larger” self, that religion would call the “God self”, or Merton would call the “true self”, the only self that is.
This “dressing down of the soul” is best illustrated by John Wilbur’s (1997) evangelical writings on John 21:25 entitled “A Certain Kind of Perfection” (Western Quaker Reader) describing transformative spirituality, “… the object is to deconstruct the self. Rather than consoling, fortifying or legitimizing the self, it dismantles, transmutes, transforms and liberates the self – ultimately from its illusions of separateness – through a series of deaths and rebirths of the self into ever more inclusive developmental waves.” The series of deaths since my eventful day in 1977 always involved slaying my ‘false’ image of self. What’s reborn in my case is hope – the hope that comes from being drawn into the presence of a very big God who is much bigger than any painful form of ‘death’, real or imagined.
Ultimately, I believe suffering has deepened my spiritual life. Uomoto (1995, 343), citing Henri Nouwen, supports this notion: “In the midst of life there is death. In the midst of death there is life. This simple template serves as a profound truth about human suffering in the context of soul care. Life and death coexist in the individual where suffering is the byproduct of that meeting. This suffering deepens spiritual life.” Tolerating ambiguity, sitting at the nexus of life & death and delaying gratification are all signals, to me, of psychological and spiritual maturity.
I’m not saying I’ve found spiritual maturity, but my experience of liminality has always held me in a very profound place. Being “in the belly of the fish” deems life out of my control, and “my life is at an end, and I can do no more!” Here I’ve reached my “crisis of limitations” — and should have surrendered fully to God, prayed for His mercy and deliverance — but I didn’t always. I believe it held me in the great mystery long enough, however, to allow me to love more deeply and eventually to see others in ways I imagine God sees broken, wounded people. Facing my demise granted me the privilege of gazing into the broken heart of God, and that experience has forever formed me.