All Sufferings Great and Small

Last week the Wall Street Journal wrote about how several theme parks in Japan have recently reopened but, in an effort to keep the coronavirus contained, they’ve banned screaming on roller coasters. And to enforce this no-screaming policy, their message is this: “Please scream inside your heart.” Personally, I can’t think of a better motto for 2020. We’ve already been doing that for the past four months! In response to the “no-screaming” campaign, one roller-coaster fan said, “There’s just no way not to scream.” I want to talk about that as a metaphor for the Christian response to suffering that we read about in Paul’s letter to the Romans today.

Several of the people I know who are thinking about seeing a therapist seem to be hung up on the idea that they haven’t suffered enough compared to other people. There’s the notion that, somehow, the depression they’re experiencing is discrediting someone else’s more legitimate depression. We’re seeing this everywhere these days. Turn on the news for five minutes and good luck feeling like you can complain about feeling lonely or about having to parent young kids. If you haven’t experienced something truly devastating during these past few months please scream inside your heart.

It’s worth noting that amidst the doldrums of quarantine there is still so much to be thankful for. And by no means am I trying to diminish the suffering of people who have experienced tragedy. I understand that especially in this age it is important to maintain perspective and acknowledge that there are various degrees of suffering. But I’ve found that even those who have lost their jobs or lost a loved one still use qualifiers, saying that someone somewhere has inevitably suffered more. Our tendency to downplay our own sufferings can often do two things: it can keep us from connecting with other fellow sufferers and it can keep us from connecting with Jesus and our need for him.

The Apostle Paul directly addresses the universal experience of suffering in this excerpt from Romans. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” he writes. “Not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit.” In other words, everybody suffers – Christians, non-Christians, creation, everything.

This is where Buddhism hits a home run with the first of its four noble truths: Life is suffering. Not just life includes suffering, but it IS suffering. And Paul, who experienced loads of suffering throughout his life – shipwrecks, stonings, beatings, imprisonment, all in the name of Jesus – makes clear that the Christian life does not remove one from suffering.

And yet, although suffering is inevitable, if you’re like me, you’ll go to great lengths to try to remove yourself from suffering.

One of America’s great living songwriters, Jeff Tweedy, experienced this firsthand in a rehab center. Tweedy is the front man of a band called Wilco. Years ago, at the height of the band’s success, when they were playing in front of stadiums full of people, he checked himself into rehab for opiate addiction.

During his month-long stay in a city hospital located in an underserved neighborhood of Chicago, he was overwhelmed by the stories of his fellow patients, most of whom had come from extremely abusive backgrounds where they never felt safe – one man spoke of how he witnessed his father murder his mother right in front of him. After hearing these stories from his fellow patients, Tweedy felt embarrassed about how little he had experienced to get him to where he was now. “What was I gonna say when the group got to me?” he says. “I cry a lot. I get scared sometimes. I have headaches?’ That was the worst of it. I was out of my league.” Here’s where it gets interesting. Tweedy writes:

One time, after a group session, a few of us were in the smoking room and I confided to them, I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think my situation compares.”

This big black guy, who towered over me, turned around and started shouting at me. What the [hell] is that? Shut up! We all suffer the same!”

I’m sorry,” I said, backing away. I didn’t mean—”

Listen to me, listen,” he said, getting right up in my face. Mine ain’t about yours! And yours ain’t about mine! We all suffer the same! You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt! Let me say mine, and you say yours, and I’ll be there for you. Okay?”

Tweedy says: It set me straight. I still think it’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. I was trying to put things in perspective by pretending I had no perspective, by denying my own feelings. It’s always going to be important to acknowledge someone else’s pain, but denying your own pain doesn’t do that. It just makes their pain relative to yours, like a yardstick to measure against. It’s a waste of pain. After that I started listening more and I started feeling again.

The Apostle Paul recognizes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains. We are groaning in our own sufferings, we are groaning for a desire to alleviate the sufferings of others. When we allow the hurt that we feel to speak for itself instead of downplaying our grief, frustration and heartache, we find that there is still room for hope.

Paul speaks of how hope can be found amidst suffering because Jesus can be found amidst suffering. Jesus knows what it is to suffer. He experienced loss in the death of his friend Lazarus, the rejection of his friends during his arrest and trial, public humiliation and an unjust execution. Worst of all, on the Cross, He felt abandoned by his heavenly Father. And yet, he didn’t scream inside his heart – he said, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” That gives you permission to do the same.

Rather than removing himself from suffering Jesus entered into it. Likewise, rather than removing you from your current suffering, Jesus enters into it with you so that one day he may be glorified and that he may glorify you. Because of Jesus’ death on the Cross you will never be abandoned by God. And because he was raised from the dead, you can rest in the hope of being raised with him.

The Christian hope is rooted in knowing that your suffering is not the last chapter of your life. Paul says “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Rather than diminishing what you’re going through right now, he is elevating the enormous glory to come. As Christians, we can trust that God is present with us today while all is not well and yet hope for the day when God will make all things well.

For now, while we try to justify ourselves based on the pain we’ve experienced, there is always someone who has suffered more. That is, until you get to Jesus. This is where the Cross puts an end to our comparative suffering. Through Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we are allowed to recognize both our own suffering and the suffering of others. We can simply give thanks that, rather than ranking our sufferings in order of greatest to least, he simply took them, all sufferings great and small. As Isaiah 53 says: he “bore our suffering….and by his wounds we are healed.”