There is a Buddhist saying that goes “Expectation is the root of all suffering.” The idea is that suffering occurs when what is expected does not not come to be. For example, if I found out that I won the lottery but then found out later I was ineligible, I would be very upset even though, in all reality, my situation had not changed. It is the expectation that would cause the strife. This saying has some truth in it as we consider the complicated web that surrounds suffering, but I’d like to conjecture that another root of suffering is the fear of suffering itself.
The concept that “suffering is the worst thing” is having a big impact on our culture and on us personally. When you look at all that is going on in the world, we see that many decisions are being made based on the idea that all suffering must be stopped or avoided at all costs.
Let’s first consider physical suffering. In the recent movie, Me Before You, the idea of whether or life is worth living if you are paralyzed is discussed. I won’t give the ending away, but let’s say that many paralyzed individuals who are believers, such as Joni Eareckson Tada, were dismayed at the message being portrayed. But this isn’t just in the movies where we see this being played out. The Death with Dignity movement is growing strong, and we’ve seen recent instances such as Brittany Maynard who was suffering from a debilitating and painful disease electing to move to Oregon in order to die. To those who support such decisions, the Christian community argues back that all life is precious and that we have no authority to end our lives.
But this message isn’t strong enough. It doesn’t deal with the reality of real, daily, horrifying suffering.
And physical suffering isn’t the only kind we can experience. There is unbearable emotional anguish whether it is rooted in disorders such as depression or is linked to real life catastrophes such as death or rejection and abandonment. The everyday battle of dealing with a life that hasn’t turned out as expected and the fears that you’re not good enough or your life doesn’t matter can consume us. The response to emotional pain can lead to death in the tragic form of suicide, but it also leads to drug use, divorce, alienation, and the giving over of oneself to anything that might numb the agony.
And the church has been better at trying to deal with these emotional issues through counseling and programs designed to help lift people out of their darkness. But the underlying issue is still not addressed.
And what is this issue that needs to be addressed? That suffering is okay.
That sound like a pretty horrible and callous thing for me to say. You might be tempted to ask me what I even know about suffering. And I would admit that in regards to physical suffering, I know almost nothing. In regards to emotional suffering, I’ve had my tragedies. But it isn’t my experience that qualifies me to speak about this. It’s the truth I see in God’s Word, and the truth I see in the consequences of a life that rejects this reality.
Because what the person who is living with daily pain needs to hear isn’t always let’s do everything we can in the world to stop your pain (though that isn’t an unworthy pursuit).
It’s more bluntly—suffering cannot be entirely avoided and avoiding it shouldn’t be our highest goal in life. Because the alternative view leads straight to this:
In fact, I think I could link almost every crime in the world to someone trying to avoid some perceived suffering. And the church doesn’t always do much better.
We’ve turned Jesus into a panacea for all ills. Now, don’t get me wrong—Jesus is the answer. But nowhere in Scripture does He promise to remove our pains. He only promises to be with us as we walk through them.
John 16:33 (ESV) says, ” I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Immediately preceding these verses, he warns the disciples that time has come for Him to die. That, in fact, every one of them was going to abandon Him and run for the hills. And Jesus says the only words of comfort that there truly are: “Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (vs. 32)
There alone is our hope, my friends. For too long, we have been in bondage with the symptoms of our true battle. Our struggles aren’t really any number of sins we might list, our struggle comes down to this—can we trust God to be enough?
Is He enough when it hurts? When there’s no way for the pain to ever stop?
Can we trust Him when He doesn’t take the pain away?
Psalm 23 contains the most beautiful picture of this relationship:
“The Lord is my shepherd (leading and guiding me through life). I shall not want (He will provide for my real needs). He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (He is with me in times of peace). He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (He is the reason we live lives of righteousness). Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (your presence through the dark times of life are my only hope and comfort). You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows (you provide for me in the most impossible situations). Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Because my hope is in you, I have hope in this world. Wherever you are is where I want to be).” (italics mine)
Let’s stop trying to ignore the disease while just treating the symptoms. Let’s deal with the reality of suffering and not be afraid to walk along someone who is suffering, not because we can stop it, but because we are all called to be a part of a life of pain. We live, after all, in a fallen world. When we start to realize that this is normal then the daily burdens we bear hopefully become a little less unbearable. When we release the false view that life is meant to always be fun or exciting or enjoyable, we allow ourselves to take life as it is and allow God the freedom to do His work in our lives without our expectations getting in the way.
So when we have to take care of aging parents or a disabled child, we aren’t overwhelmed by the work.
When we are diagnosed with a degenerative disease that steals our mobility and comfort, we won’t be tempted to give up.
When someone disappoints or abandons us, we find the strength to get up and face another day.
And while it sounds pretty depressing to just lower our expectations, the reality is our hopes for a perfect life were coming from a lie that only the Enemy would espouse.
So, instead of facing tomorrow with the fear of what might come, let’s be like the Proverbs 31 woman who “laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31: 25b) because we know we won’t face the future alone.