Suffering, Recycled


We have no promise that suffering will be removed, only that it will be redeemed—or, to use a more modern word, recycled.

Some twenty years ago Jerry Sittser, a religion professor at Whitworth College, was involved in a horrific auto accident. A drunk driver hit the vehicle he was driving, killing Jerry’s mother, wife, and four-year-old daughter—three generations at once. Jerry survived, along with three other children who had significant injuries.  Not long afterward he published the book A Grace Disguised giving his reflections on the tragedy and its effect on his faith.

Last year he published a follow-up book, A Grace Revealed, describing what has happened since, including a re-marriage and the challenges of a blended family.  That book has a passage on “redemption,” for Jerry asks what good has come out of the difficult times he lived through.

Most English words that begin with the prefix re-, he notes, look backwards: we re-visit a thought, re-hab an old house, re-sume a school semester after the holidays. The word re-deem points ahead, to God’s promise to re-store creation to its original design.  Sittser adds a further insight, that redemption always involves a cost. To redeem a slave, someone must pay—or, in the case of the U.S. civil war, an entire nation must pay. To redeem the world, someone must die.

I would suggest one further aspect of redemption: though looking to the future, redemption does not erase the past. A ransomed slave still bears the scars and memories of his time of bondage. Creation “groans as in the pains of childbirth,” the apostle Paul says of the redemption process of planet Earth. Jerry Sittser, the victims of war and persecution, the community of Newtown, Connecticut—they may find ways to endure suffering, even redeem it, but the painful memories will never disappear, nor should they.  Even Jesus’ resurrected body retained scars.

Indeed, this notion of redeemed suffering may be the distinctive Christian contribution to the problem of suffering.  Governments respond to suffering by attempting to remove it. The U.S. invades Iraq—oops, there’s Afghanistan! We help freedom fighters in Libya, but along come Egypt and Syria. Where does it stop? Medicine conquers smallpox and polio (almost), but what about malaria, AIDS, MRSA, and of course cancer? Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown—can we ever stop these tragedies?  No matter how well-intentioned and admirable, our attempts to remove suffering most often end up resembling the carnival game Whack-a-mole.

Each major religion has its own slant on the universal problem of suffering.  Islam says we should submit and accept all that happens as God’s will. Doctors in Muslim countries tell me that parents rarely protest when their baby dies—grieve, yes, but not protest.  Hinduism goes further, teaching that the suffering we bear is deserved, the result of sins we committed in a previous life. Buddhism frankly admits, “Life is suffering,” and teaches how to embrace it.

The Christian faith encourages protest, even to the extent of including the very words we can use in books like Job, Psalms, Lamentations, Jeremiah.  We pray along with Jesus that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and vigorously oppose the evil and suffering that keeps the prayer from being answered.

Despite what some prosperity-gospel teachers claim, we have no promise that suffering will be removed, only that it will be redeemed—or, to use a more modern word, recycled.  I take used and crushed aluminum cans to a redemption center in hopes that someone will make something useful out of them.  I drop off an outdated computer knowing that someone will remove the gold and rare earths and “redeem” them in new and better ways.

The apostle Paul likened his worldly accomplishments to a pile of dung; yet even that can be recycled, as fertilizer. The sufferings of Martin Luther King Jr., of Nelson Mandela, of Gandhi, of Solzhenitsyn, were all redeemed in ways the persons themselves could not have imagined at the time.  And the hallmark crime of history, the execution of God’s own Son, we remember as Good Friday, not Dark or Tragic Friday.  Jesus said he could have called on legions of angels to prevent the crucifixion.  He did not.  The Christian way is not around pain, but through it.

In the movie Shadowlands, based on the life of C. S. Lewis, his wife Joy Davidman experiences a brief remission from her excruciating bout with cancer.  The two have a romantic interlude in Greece, a moment of exquisite grace.  Looking ahead to what awaits her once the cancer flares up again, Joy says, “The pain I’ll feel then is part of the happiness I feel now.  That’s the deal.”

Joy dies. And in one of the final scenes C. S. Lewis tries to comfort her son David Gresham.  Lewis clung to belief in Heaven as a drowning man clings to a life-preserver, or perhaps as a starving man dreams of food.  He makes a subtle change in Joy’s words: “The pain I feel now is part of the happiness I’ll feel then.  That’s the deal.”


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