Abraham Lincoln. Virginia Woolf. Winston Churchill. Vincent van Gogh. The Apostle Paul. Jesus Christ.
What do all these people have in common?
Two things: they all made incredible contributions to society which changed the world forever.
And: they suffered. A lot.
Abraham Lincoln was known for bouts of “melancholia” that lasted days at a time. (As a matter of fact, so was Winston Churchill!) And we all know about both the suffering and the creative genius of Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh.
Is suffering a requirement for making lasting contributions to the world and society?
When it comes to suffering, most of us want to avoid it. We can’t even tolerate a bad cold or a bruised finger without throwing medication at them to make the pain stop.
As for emotional suffering (grief, fear, anger, and sadness)…forget about it! Just think about something else. And if you can’t, have a drink or five.
We don’t seem to ever allow ourselves to experience suffering for more than a few minutes at a time.
And when we see other people suffering, our instinct is to turn away. If we can’t fix it, we don’t want to know about it.
What would happen if we really embraced suffering, allowed it into our lives, and let it teach us its lessons?
In 2 Corinthians, Paul has this to say about suffering: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Many people have speculated about what exactly this “thorn” might have been. It could have been a physical illness or disability. Or he might just have been talking about the persecutions he faced. In any case, Paul embraced suffering. He believed it made him stronger because it forced him to rely completely on God for everything. And it does seem to have made him stronger; Paul probably did more to spread the gospel all over the world than any other single person.
As for Jesus, he took on the ultimate suffering in order to bring God’s grace to humanity. And if you go back and read the accounts of his Passion and crucifixion, you can clearly see how real and horrific his suffering was.
What does suffering do for us? Maybe it helps us see with greater clarity the problems of this world and motivates us to reimagine a world in which these problems can be solved. Maybe it opens up our minds and hearts to the suffering of others so that we can walk alongside them instead of turning away from their pain in disgust and fear. Or maybe it strips us of our own feeble powers and replaces them with the power of God instead.
For those of us who have a mental illness (or any kind of chronic illness, really), there is no escape from suffering. We carry despair and fear within us all the time. We understand the frailty and futility of this world better than anyone else. Is this weakness? Or is it a unique path to finding the strength of God?
In my own lifelong walk with the pain of severe depression and anxiety, I have had to trust God fully every moment of every day. In fact, my life has depended upon the relationship I’ve had with Him. I’ve often thought that if anyone else had to spend even two minutes inside my head, they would run away screaming with torment. But still, I go about my work in the world every day, sometimes even with a genuine smile. As Paul did, I feel that I can boast in my weakness, because it has given me the strength of God.
If I hadn’t suffered so keenly, would I have had the opportunity to know God so intimately? It’s hard to say.
But I do know that His power allows me to experience suffering without being destroyed by it.
And with that power of God on our side…there’s really nothing we can’t do.