The Winter of 2023 marks ten years since the suicide of my friend Greg. His death had the emotional impact of a blow to the chest; Greg’s death left me with a gaping emotional and spiritual wound. I pivoted between overwhelming sadness, profound disbelief, and furious anger at the God who had not only allowed such tragedy to tear through my life and community, but who seemingly left me to scream into the void of grief alone.
As I grieved Greg’s passing, the silence of the divine was deafening, and my response quickly followed suit. Personal rhythms of prayer, musical worship, and honest witness to God’s presence and work in my life evaporated.
What’s more, questions surrounding the reality of God’s power, ability to heal, and proximity to those in pain clouded my mind and became a crushing weight in my soul.
My suffering had become a place of isolation, doubt, and excruciating pain.
Can you relate to the experience of life-altering tragedy, and the accompanying uncertainty, despair, and disillusionment? If so, you’re not alone. Notable figures throughout Scripture, such as the disciple John, Naomi, and Paul the Apostle, had their lives turned upside down by the cruel reality of suffering.
Yet amid hardship, these individuals experienced hope-filled and transformational realities: encountering the presence of God, experiencing faithful friendship, and feeling deepened compassion to serve those who suffer.
Suffering and Encountering God
The rocky, windswept coast of the Greek island of Patmos is where John the Apostle was forcibly taken to die. Torn from his family, community, and homeland, John was one of the countless Christ-followers who endured the cruelty of anti-Christian sentiment sweeping across the Roman empire under the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian in the first century.
Rome intended for John’s exile to be mentally, physically, and emotionally excruciating; instead, exile became the context for a profound encounter with the living God. In that place of pain, uncertainty, and loss, John received a vision of the resurrected Christ and the apocalyptic message of the book of Revelation, a message through which God encounters and encourages a Church struggling to persevere under harsh persecution.
Encountering God was the last thing on my mind when, a few grief-filled weeks after my friend’s death, I haltingly joined my church family on Easter Sunday. I spent the service mentally and emotionally shut down towards what was taking place around me, refusing to pray, sing, or engage with the message shared. As the service drew to a close, worshippers were invited forward to participate in communion. Despite my apathy and doubt, I joined them.
There, as the elements were placed in my hands, I was gently enveloped by a deep awareness that God was present. My pain did not disappear, nor did my questions and grief. However, I discovered that underneath everything broken in my life was the compassionate embrace of Christ, the Suffering Servant who understands, accompanies, and heals.
Suffering and Experiencing Friendship
Due to the tragic loss of her husband and sons, Naomi was forced to return to her homeland as a destitute widow. Confronted with the burden of grief and daily struggling to meet basic needs, the true calibre of Naomi’s friendship with Ruth emerged. Ruth’s unswerving loyalty to Naomi became a lifeline, ultimately resulting in the hope of a newfound family. In suffering, Naomi discovered the vibrant reality of faithful friendship.
I’ve heard it said that suffering reveals the true character of the one suffering. I would add that suffering reveals the true character of those in proximity to the one suffering.
As I stumbled through the process of grieving, multiple friends journeyed with me: putting an arm around me as I wept my way through a worship service, giving me a meal, or offering free access to a quiet retreat centre.
These men and women showed unflinching loyalty and a willingness to be proximate to the messy reality of my grief. In doing so, they taught me a rich lesson: enduring suffering involves leaning into faithful friendships, and extending the same loyal love to others in pain.
Suffering as a Catalyst for Compassion
A veteran of severe hardship, Paul the Apostle was keenly aware that his suffering gave him unique empathy for others enduring hardship. As he notes in 2 Corinthians 1:4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” The reality of persecution, injury, imprisonment, prison, and injustice became the resumé of experiential legitimacy in Paul’s life for ministering to the suffering of others.
Like Paul, I discovered that as others witnessed my scars, they welcomed me into the places of greatest hurt in their own lives. Unexpectedly, I found myself comforting a peer confronting the tragedy of losing her sister in a car accident. A close friend came to me repeatedly for prayer as their parents’ marriage dissolved. A woman who had experienced the tragedy of suicide in her community sought me out as someone who could understand the nature of her grief.
I was uniquely able to care for these individuals not despite my suffering, but because of it.
Redemption Isn’t a Simple Answer
I still have unanswered questions of God related to Greg’s death. I wish the last ten years were marked by our deepening friendship and shared memories rather than grieving his absence. Yet I’m learning that suffering can become the context for God’s redemptive presence and purposes to be worked out in our lives.
Like John in exile, or Naomi starting over, or Paul persevering through imprisonment, our suffering can become the context for God’s redemptive presence and purposes to be revealed in us. My prayer is that through seasons of pain, we may encounter our Wounded Healer, experience loyal friendship, and discover deeper ways of compassionately caring for those who grieve.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article first appeared at www.loveismoving.ca