Suffering and Surety

"You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, 'Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.'" (Psalm 77:4-6)

 Encaustic and Oil on Panel by Laura Williams

Encaustic and Oil on Panel by Laura Williams

At the recommendation of a couple people who are way smarter than me, last year I spent time during Lent reading Fleming Rutledge's The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

You know, just a little light reading.

It’s dense stuff, but I pushed through it because I love Rutledge’s insistence that we cannot talk about the resurrection without talking about the crucifixion. She explains it in this way at one point:

"The setting of Easter over against the cross and its significance is in conflict with apostolic preaching. There was no thought of separating cross and resurrection, or of elevating one over the other. If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, you can’t have the crucifixion without the resurrection—and vice versa. The resurrection is not just the reappearance of a dead person. It is the mighty act of God to vindicate the One whose very right to exist was thought to have been negated by the powers that nailed him to a cross. At the same time, however, the One who is gloriously risen is the same One who suffered crucifixion."

I appreciate her position on the matter—and this particular passage—for two reasons. One, I will always get behind any attempt to explain elements of faith with the help of sandwich references. Two, her argument that glory and suffering go together speaks directly to my experience as a Christian and as a human.

For the majority of my adult life I have lived with chronic, severe depression—sometimes so severe that I know it is only through the grace of God and the love of His church that I am still here.

I used to hesitate to refer to my depression as suffering. A refrain would bounce around in my head: I’m a middle class white person living in the United States. My husband and I are both employed. Our son is here and well. My family is healthy. My problems are nothing compared to what other people go through.

Well, Present-Val calls BS on Past-Val. As a friend told me once, "Your potatoes might seem small compared to other people’s, but they’re still your potatoes and you still have to carry them."

Suffering implies pain and hardship that someone must bear. It’s both a verb and a noun. It’s ongoing. It can be relentless. And even if the context of your suffering is different from someone else’s, that doesn’t make it any less terrible–or any less important to God.

So, yes. I suffer. I suffer every single day, in some way. I believe that my suffering has made me more empathetic to the suffering of others. And I know that my suffering has given me little-to-no tolerance for the implication that pain, sadness, and despair are somehow a failure of faith.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the platitudes so often thrust upon Christians when they share their struggles with depression. But far too many people, once they've bravely let others into their pain, are greeted with statements like, "You need to focus on all of the good things God has given you" and the SUPER HELPFUL "Have you tried praying about it?"

Those suggestion aren’t necessarily bad things. We all should meditate on God's care for us, and prayer is good. But when uttered in the context of someone bringing his or her burden and pain to you, they’re dismissive of the very real suffering being felt. And, in my opinion, these statements, said in that context, can carry with them the implication that a person can’t experience true faith and true hardship at the same time.

I can love God and despise my illness at the same time.

I can glorify His presence and grieve my losses at the same time.

I can believe wholly in God’s goodness and in my brokenness at the same time.

I can rest in His care and wrestle with my pain at the same time.

God wants us to bring both the good and bad to Him; He wants to sit with us in both. And I know I would not be able to look at the realities of my depression were it not for the assurance that I have in who God is and what He has done through His son, my Savior and yours. I could not even consider approaching the abyss of my mental illness were it not for knowing that I am tethered to my good, good Father as I do so.

Were it not for my suffering, I might not know God’s glory.

I don’t say that to imply that I think my depression is a gift. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t think I will ever know for sure—not this side of heaven, anyway. But my faith has never been of the happy-clappy variety. There are moments of inexplicable awe and of peace, make no mistake. However, at this point in my life, it’s more often raw and fraught and complex. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it feels like suffering.

But Jesus also suffered. I find comfort in that. It was through His suffering that He was brought to glory–and brings us to glory, too.

(Written by Val Catrow)