On Suffering: Can You Drink This Cup?
In my best efforts, when I reflect on the suffering in our world—at large, in our societies at home, among the people closest to me—I struggle with knowing how to play a part in helping make things right. With all of the noise, all of the opinions, how can I tell who is right and who to side with and how to even think clearly and effectively in the wake of chaos and pain?
Because we live in a world of contingencies, I think most of us, even if we struggle to admit it, know that things don’t “just happen.” Something is always set in motion because of something else. We might not believe all things necessarily happen for a reason, but because of reasons things do happen.
We long for justice and therefore something or someone must bear the blame. It’s in our nature to point the finger. If the poor keep getting poorer, we might blame the system; if we don’t know how to be a good spouse, we might blame our parents; if we lose our job, we might blame someone else’s poor leadership, lack of communication, or someone else’s poor performance you’re taking the fall for. We blame politics, we blame religion, we blame cultures; we blame friends, we blame family, we blame strangers.
When no one else is left to bear the blame, when there’s no reasonable explanation for something’s cause, we blame God.
Why do bad things happen to “good” people? And why do good things happen to “bad” people? For these things I have neither answers, nor explanation for the standards we apply to who is deserving of what.
Is it explanation that will satisfy us in suffering, though? Is it justice against our perpetrator? I think for some, either or both of these paths are enough. But not for everyone, and certainly not always for me. I’m not convinced that explanation or justice can always heal a broken heart or piece back together the damage caused by tragedy.
We mistake the need for explanation and justice for closure. But the healing still takes time. What is it, then, that puts us on the right track? I believe it's forgiveness.
Forgiveness—both in receiving it and extending it—is one of the most beautiful actions and processes known to us. Being forgiven generally isn’t hard for us. We all know the feeling of having messed up and being in someone’s debt. Offering forgiveness, on the other hand, is what’s difficult. It requires letting your guard down, dropping pride, unclenching your fists.
The whole process of forgiveness has been one of magnanimous difficulty for me. For years I struggled to say I’m sorry and tended to hold grudges. If I still remember the act that hurt me, have I really forgiven this person, and how can I know? A few years ago, I read one theologian put it this way: To forgive someone is to choose to act as though the offense never happened.
This doesn’t mean you forget about it. That would be to dishonor your own story and the people involved. This doesn’t mean to pretend like nothing happened. That would be to live in a denial of real events. It is to choose to begin to allow yourself to heal and offer healing to your offender by extending a clean slate to the relationship.
Forgiveness is an act of surrender; it is to yield, over time, to everything out of your control and to no longer hold someone responsible. It is to trust God that one day everything will be made right and whole. It is to lift the burden of someone’s guilt and free them from it, so that they can begin their own journey toward healing and renewal.
When a tragedy hits strong enough to make it in the media it’s always interesting to me to see the rise of opinions on the issue, the issues surrounding it, and what steps our society should take to prevent it from happening more. More shocking still is when the actual victims and families of victims stand in front of us all and speak forgiveness to the offender. Those statements make the media, too, but for the rest of us it doesn’t seem like our natural bend. You don’t really see opinions about, or stances on, forgiveness.
Even before I began to follow Jesus and take his words to heart, the sayings most difficult for me to bear surrounded his charges of forgiveness both in word and practice. None more so than in his dying moments after being mocked, tortured, and left to bleed out on the cross, with what little breath he had left, to say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
It wasn’t too long before this that Jesus also prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). Though I can’t say for certain, I imagine that for Jesus, the cup he wished to pass wasn’t solely of the brutal suffering that drew near, but also the subsequent forgiveness that would be necessary in light of it.
The cup of suffering goes hand in hand with the cup of forgiveness. They are two drops from the same pool. But forgiveness is painful. It means taking a stance of humility after previously being shamed from your hurt; it means not seeing the justice you deserve—at least not yet; it means canceling the debt or sentence of your offender, and welcoming them home instead. Though it’s hard business, it’s the business of heaven.
Following Jesus requires a certain amount of vulnerability, to be open to the hurt from circumstance, the sharp words from people, the wounds inflicted upon us by those we trust and barely know alike. But because in God we live and move and have our being, we are able to be vulnerable to both the suffering we face and the forgiveness that must follow.