Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

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