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.


Pity or Compassion?

I rolled this quote around in my head this morning, as I drove to work and contemplated my current aversion to pity. I don’t always love my commute, but there are times when it is the most sacred time of my day, forty-five full minutes in which I am unable to distract myself with my phone or meaningless tasks. I sit, and I think. And if I am smart, I let Jesus into my thoughts, allowing him to think with me.

I had my first meeting with an infertility counselor last night, and I talked through my issue with a particular person, how I can’t handle being around them because I feel as though they pity me. And I do not want to be pitied. I can handle most reactions toward us these days, but pity is not one of them. Pity makes me want to hide in a closet and never come out.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want people to care. It is painful when I feel as though people don’t care. And the majority of the people around me care deeply, but they do not make me feel pitied at all. Tom has been out of town the last week, so I have spent my evenings meeting with several dear friends who make me feel loved and cherished and cared for. Around them, I am more than my suffering. I am more than a pity case.

So what is the difference between pity and compassion? Why do some reactions to our infertility grate on me, while others fill me with hope? The above quote help me formulate my thoughts about it, helped me turn my thoughts into a prayer and discussion with God.

Pity is looking at someone who is poor and thinking, “I am so sad for them. I am glad I have my riches.” Compassion is looking at someone who is poor and saying “They are so beautiful. I must share my riches.”

Pity sees the sadness but does not see the injustice. Compassion sees the beauty in the sadness and can not ignore the injustice. The compassionate person sees all the brokenness, but they also see more than the brokenness.

Luke tells us that when Jesus looked upon the crowds of people, most of whom were living in extreme poverty, he had compassion on them. He saw their suffering, but he also saw them as more than their suffering. So much so that he called them blessed. He acknowledged the injustice, but with his words, he exalted them above their suffering.

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh. (Luke 6)

Pity sees me as my infertility. Pity sees me as someone they would never want to be. Pity makes me feel like less of a person, as though my life will only be worth living if I achieve the thing I lack. Pity weeps. But that’s all pity does.

Compassion sees me as Rebecca. I am infertile, but that is not all that I am. I love to read, I love to listen. I love my dogs and my husband and my friends and coffee. I love Jesus, because he loves the least of these. I love gay people, and I will tell anyone who wants to listen about how much I love them (and think Jesus loves them, too). I love chemistry and naming chemicals and teaching students who are afraid to learn. I think and process all the time, which makes me an anxious person but also an attentive person. I am more than my suffering. I am more.

How do I look at those in my life who are suffering? Do I treat them as a pity case, or do I look at them with love and compassion?

Jesus, help me to look upon the poor and the hungry and the weeping as you did. Help me to see them as blessed and then fight for them to receive the blessings they deserve. 

‘Til We Finally Meet


When we awoke you were not to be
You never swam in our blue sea
Now you’ve gone to different oceans
Than the one we floated our hopes in

When we lost our baby, I did not know how to grieve. So I didn’t. I treated it like a failed cycle and put my hand to the plow, pulling my heart and body toward the next thing. We will get pregnant again, I told myself. That will make it all better. Lets pretend this never happened.

You were a breaking in the clouds
We barely said these things aloud
There was a question you were the answer
We heard music you were the dancer

But in the in-between time, waiting for my body to recover so we could begin treatment again, it eventually became too much to ignore that we had a child. Two children, I guess, though my mind can’t possibly comprehend the existence of that other one, the empty sac that never grew beyond four or five weeks. But that beautiful miracle on the ultrasound scream, the sound of the doctor exclaiming “There’s a baby with a heartbeat!” when we were sure we would see a lifeless blob,  that was our baby.

Peace, sweet dreams
May you be in our memories
‘Til we finally meet

She is gone, and I’m not sure where she is. I believe in an in-between space, a heaven before heaven-on-earth, but I’m not sure what goes on there and what that should mean for me. The Bible isn’t very concerned with telling us about that. I guess it thinks that we should concern ourselves more with this “kingdom come to earth” thing.

But I do believe that things changed with the resurrection and that, one day, all will be redeemed. Will this look like my daughter running freely, healthy and whole? I hope so. I know that resurrection always looks better than we could imagine it looking.

I had a dream I was alone
The sun was hot, oh how it shone
And I was tired but I kept going
Wild winds were blowing

These lyrics are from the song ‘Til We Finally Meet, by Waterdeep. I got their album for free on Noisetrade, and I listened to this song on repeat during my run on Monday. I have no idea to whom or for what situation this song was written, but it felt like it was written for me. Like God was speaking to me through it, whispering that it is time, time to remember and mourn and celebrate this child of mine.

So, this month, as I once again resume nightly shots in my stomach, regular ultrasounds of my ovaries, and desperate prayers that this would please, please work, I am also starting to admit that my baby existed. I am starting to not just grieve her, but celebrate her. She gave me hope, she gave me a dream. She was a life, and no life is insignificant in this Kingdom, no death too small for resurrection.

And I looked up I raised my eyes
Your mighty branches filled the skies
And I found shade beneath your leaves 
What wonder sorrow sees