Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:

shutterstock_113875279Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.

my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-meSix months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?

tears2During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.

Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

Cappella_Sistina_Sistine_Chapel_2476394326Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionI can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through. ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

cropped-there-is-always-hope-2516881-1Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.

See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

Some thoughts on Remembrance Sunday: War, pacifism, and chaplains

British Army Medics Depart To Provide Ebola Support In  Sierra-LeoneWhen I was a child, most of our holidays were based close to army barracks. My dad was a chaplain for the army cadets and the territorial army, so we would travel with him to our destination, where he would work for a week in the barracks and we would holiday in a town close by. He would then join us for the second week of our holiday. I never knew really what he did in those barracks, but I remember the worry that, if a big war broke out, my dad could be called up to be shipped out with the soldiers. That time never came, thank God, and, by now, I know a little more of the amazing pastoral work carried out by the chaplains of the armed forces. Just last week, I was talking to someone whose friend is the chaplain of the military medics who have recently travelled down to the West Coast of Africa to assist with the humanitarian and health workers who are fighting Ebola.

British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+Afghan+Operations+PuXZR6qSQnklMy understanding of, and respect for, the chaplains of the armed forces increased further recently when I read the memoirs of Sergeant Sidney Stewart. Stewart was a survivor of the famous Bataan Death March during the Second World War – the forcible transfer of around 80,000 prisoners, who were made to walk many miles to a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines. After 12 days of walking, with over 14,000 men dying on the march, Stewart describes how even the survivors themselves were “dying men at the end, haunted by fear, eaten by pain and fever”. Yet one man brought hope, comfort, and calm to the tormented and beleaguered prisoners. This was a chaplain, called Father Cummings, who was inspired into selfless compassion at the silent, hopeless faces all around him. “’I must work harder;’ he said to Stewart with a sigh, ‘these men need me’”.

Father CummingsOnce they were at the camp, the hardships continued and within two years another 8,000 prisoners had died. Yet Father Cummings urged the survivors to let go of their hatred of the captors. Teaching forgiveness and love, Stewart notes that he himself, and others around him, began to change their view of those persecuting them. He notes that one prisoner, inspired by the chaplain, put it this way: “we’ve learnt to understand… their beliefs, their religion, their way of life. Many of them are like men all over the world, no better, no worse. They too like to take out their photographs and show pictures of their wives and children. They too long the war to end so they can go home again”.

DSC_6665smallTowards the end of the war, Father Cummings’s final gift to the prisoners, as they were herded back to Manila, and then on to Japan, in the foul hold of ships, was to teach them the power of the Lord’s Prayer. “Suddenly from the depths of the hold I heard a voice like the voice of God. Father Cummings began to speak. The sound was clear and resonant and made me feel he was talking to me alone. The men became quiet. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…’” Every few hours, the lone chaplain would pray that prayer out loud, and, when he did, a calm descended and all the crying and shouting ceased. The Prayer “floated like a benediction through the hold, caressing everyone of us… I felt that God listened, that God watched us, and that God cared… I lived only for that prayer of faith and hope. It was the only strength I had. His voice was like the voice of God to me”. Stewart claimed that his own survival was, in no small part, due to the faith and hope that Father Cummings inspired. As for the lowly chaplain himself, he died in the arms of the Sergeant, towards the end of the sea journey. Appropriately, he passed away while reciting the Lord’s Prayer one final time – his last words being “give us this day our daily bread”.

Nicholas+Cook+British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+zePhvjDxou6lAs someone who abhors war and especially the thought of any civilian casualties and deaths, I am glad I do not have to make decisions regarding the safety of our country and other countries worldwide. My heart leans heavily towards pacifism, but it does battle with my head when I consider so-called “just” causes. Ultimately, I simply can’t ignore Jesus’s radical call in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. This battle between my heart and head will, no doubt, continue. What I do know, though, is that the chaplains to the armed forces have down the years, and continue this day to, give their lives to stand alongside young, frightened men and women who are sent to places of conflict and war. In the midst of fear, hatred, and death, they champion to them lives of love, compassion, and forgiveness. That is the “daily bread” they offer them. For this, we should be grateful to them.

“Pencils in the Hand of God”: Some thoughts on All Saints Day

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Trystan Owain Hughes

Real God in the Real WorldBelow is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all…

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