Compassion and Suffering

Willow Tree

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

Henri Nouwen

It is easy to live in America and catch on to the idea that life is about prosperity, health and happiness. But the more I follow Jesus, the more I become aware of how antithetical this mindset is to the gospel.

Because the more I follow him, the more I realize that he rarely leads me away from the dark, broken places. Almost always, he leads me straight to them. I do not get to escape pain by following him.

This past Mother’s Day brought a negative pregnancy test. Another failed cycle. Another morning that I couldn’t bring myself to go to church, because my uterus wouldn’t comply with the prevailing traditions around me. My broken body will not allow me to be a mother, and so I sit alone while others are honored for their health and wholeness. It feels so very unfair.

And so, I skipped church and sat outside under our willow tree. The dogs sat happily by me, and we listened to the birds sing and enjoyed the bright sky and green life around us.

I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a book that my mom had given me the week before. And as I read, this book healed me. Because it told of suffering, immense, awful suffering. And yet, I have never read a book that was filled with more joy, more gospel. I was reminded of who Jesus is and what love is on every single page. And I was reminded that following the way of love rarely means escape from suffering. Love always leads us to the very center of suffering, because this Love is the embodiment of compassion. 

As I spend more time thinking about the gospel and Jesus and what it means for the church today, I am more aware of how essential suffering is for our spiritual well-being. It is impossible to be a compassionate person without having suffered yourself. And so following Jesus will always lead us to places of despair, so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received in our despair. This cycle occurs over and over again in my life, and I’m beginning to realize that it will never end.

Later in the week, I found out that a friend, who is also in the midst of infertility, got a negative pregnancy test on Mother’s Day as well. She, too, could not bring herself to go to church. And she, too, spent most of the day outside, allowing the beautiful day to heal her heart. It was helpful to know that we were in solidarity on that day, even though we didn’t know it until later. And I know Love led us there together, to the fertile ground of suffering in which compassion is bred.

Much of the last ten years has been a process of unwinding my theology, evaluating my harmful pictures of God. And one of the most poisonous pieces was that God causes suffering, that he is the originator of evil. I have fought this over and over again, and I am finally in a place where I do not believe this. He does not cause pain. There is more than enough pain in this world for him to need to make more.

And yet, he always leads us to the existing pain. And he often does not heal us from the brokenness that rages in our bodies, because he knows it is better for us to experience it.

It is a requirement of following Jesus, walking this path of death and resurrection. We will die over and over and over again. And this death is an essential aspect of the christian life.

But so is resurrection. And in the most barren places, life springs up, joy forms in ways that would not be possible had the suffering not happened.