I just posted this on the blog of the Society for Christian Psychology.
One way to understand suffering is through the lens of incongruity. Webster defines incongruity as that which lacks consistency or harmony. There is, then, an incongruity, a gap or inconsistency, between what we know should be and the reality of what we actually experience. An example might be in the case of a child born with an incurable disease. Parents of such a rare gift ache within themselves, knowing intuitively that this is not the way it’s supposed to be! They also long for a time for their child when his or her body will be made completely whole. The gap in the middle is what we call suffering.
One of the curses of this fallen world is that our sense of worth is bound up with order, affluence and success. We experience the incongruity of suffering when these things are denied us in some form. Things of incongruity (i.e., suffering) are often seen as things to be denied at worst and overcome at best. We are fooled into thinking we are loved and secure when things go our way – when we have enough money to be comfortable, enough affirmation from friends and loved ones, enough success in our career, etc. But as soon as we experience suffering (when these things are threatened), our sense of security often goes out the window. Perhaps it would help us to move toward a new understanding of suffering and how God uses it in our lives to bless us.
If we live in a world where the trappings of affluence, health and wealth come inevitably bound with the deception that our ultimate meaning resides in these things, then the best thing God could do for us is to give us gifts of sufferings that awaken us from their deceptive grip. The goodness of God is not shown primarily in giving us resolution, deliverance and healing in this life; God is most good in giving us suffering because it keeps us awake to our need for ultimate meaning that only he can satisfy. Only suffering and the maddening incongruity that comes with our inability to resolve it, can awaken us to “The Matrix” that this world offers us (particularly in the affluent West). Several conclusions or implications flow from this:
1. Embrace insignificance, confusion and loss as the friend of God given to keep us close to his heart, for he is the Suffering God who is most clearly revealed not in displays of power, wisdom and glory, but in the suffering and ignominy of the stable and the Cross.
2. Jesus said that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16 ESV) If we really believed this then we would actively seek out situations and relationships that exposed our weakness, inability and need. Relish the hidden and insignificant task; cherish the “wasted” grace on those who cannot return it; seek out the margins and not the center, for there alone will you find the fellowship of the crucified. Those in the center have their glory in this life, and it pales in comparison to what will come to those on the margins, the poor in spirit.
3. Throughout the day or week, the illusion of our affluence and control is inevitably exposed through interruptions, troubles and pain. It is made clear that we are not God and that we are not in control. What do we do when this happens? Try harder through prayer and manipulation of circumstances to bring things back to a measure of “control”? Perhaps we try to avoid dealing with it through escape, which vary from the fairly harmless (e.g., a good movie or book) to the extremely toxic (e.g., porn). What would it look like to pause and reflect on the opportunity that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12 – the “gift of a handicap” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it? This is another opportunity to fellowship with the suffering Christ, who is Lord of all confusion and order. We can go to him at the cross and find peace for our questions (but not necessarily answers).