In Suffering and Joy

Working at an entry level job as a group home counselor, I was now forced to grapple with the question of how do I really deal with hurting people and explain their immense suffering to them. After just working one day on the job my eyes were instantly opened to the reality of suffering and pain found in the lives of many. Turns out, I was viewing suffering in a very wrong way. When I first moved to the Chicago area I did not truly understand suffering. I had experienced hurt in my past. I had been betrayed, let down and broken. However, I had never known complete desperation.

Especially not the kind of desperation I heard in the voice of a woman one morning when she had called [where I worked] looking for shelter for her children. The previous night this woman had found out from her young daughter that her husband had been sexually molesting her three children for years. The daughter finally came forward after living in fear of her father who threatened to hurt her if she had said anything. The mother was devastated, she breathed with a sense of panic, and her words were muffled with pain. She was torn, and at the same time disgusted that she could have loved someone who could do such horrific acts. She was now fleeing her home hoping to find a shelter for herself and her children.

Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon. I quickly learned that Emergency Shelters receive numerous calls from hurting families. Crisis workers are deprived of sleep, answering calls throughout the night. Police officers are overwhelmed with domestic violence calls. Children are beaten up emotionally and physically every day.

I was amazed that there were so many hurting families, so many people with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And yet I was even more startled at how all this hurt is quickly blanketed by a sense of security that everything is nice and neat in the rich suburbs. Regrettably, this is not the case, people right where we live, are devastated and hurting on very intense levels.

At first it was easy for me to become overwhelmed, especially when I just didn’t have the answer to their problems. What can be done, anyways? Why are there so many people suffering? Why is there unbelievable pain?

I recently read a book called In the Name of Jesus, where theologian Henry Nouwen totally altered my attitude towards suffering. He says, “[This] discipline is the hardest one. It is the discipline to be surprised not by suffering but by joy. As we grow old, we will have to stretch out our arms, be guided and led to places we would rather not go. What was true for Peter will be true for us. There is suffering ahead of us, immense suffering, a suffering that will continue to tempt us to think that we have chosen the wrong road and that others were more shrewd than we were. But don’t be surprised by pain. Be surprised by joy, be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert, and be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like springs of fresh water from the depth of our pain.”

After reading this I learned that I was looking through foggy eyes of expectation. Instead I should have been looking through the eyes of joy. Suffering should not overwhelm me, but instead I should be staggered by joy when it decides to shine through.

Oswald Chambers, makes note of a very similar idea: “Our Lord received Himself, accepting His position and realizing His purpose, in the midst of the fire of sorrow. He was saved not from the hour, but out of the hour … ” He goes on to state, “We say that there ought to be no sorrow, but there is sorrow, and we have to accept and receive ourselves in its fires. If we try to evade sorrow, refusing to deal with it, we are foolish. Sorrow is one of the biggest facts in life, and there is no use in saying it should not be. Sin, sorrow, and suffering are, and it is not for us to say that God has made a mistake in allowing them.”

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One would not have to tell this quote to another lady who I had met with recently regarding her being homeless. She acknowledged making mistakes in the past and that she had lived a life of drug addiction which had left her homeless, and now she was desperately trying to start anew. She had three children, and her current situation left them separated at different shelters. She was suffering immensely, separated from her family, and nowhere to rest her head. We talked, and she cried, she told me that somehow God would provide. I was strengthened by her faith.

She knew all to well what Jesus says regarding life’s adversities. He essentially says, one should not be shocked when they come. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Jesus assures us that we will suffer, but he ends the statement with the hope of joy.

A month or so had passed, and one day I received a phone call from this same lady. She had just received a call from the government housing office. She was getting her own place to live! She screamed and wept with unbelievable joy. She was speechless, but was able to repeat just a few words. These words were; “Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus!” It was a wonderful celebration of appreciation. She had gone through the fire, and was now experiencing a sense of joy that she had never known before. Our hearts were mingled together rejoicing.

That day we learned together that suffering is a way of life, it will happen. But we also learned that on those days in the dreaded desert, one may find a little flower blooming in the immense heat. Its presence is comforting, and the joy it carries is overpowering.

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