Houston Graduate School of Theology

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Suffering and Joy

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by Dr. Jerry Terrill, Professor of Counseling and Director of the Counseling Program at Houston Graduate School of Theology He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

Isaiah 53 speaks of the Man (or Woman) of Sorrows. In Medieval times this scripture was understood to be a portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ and His suffering. Christianity embraces suffering as a part of everyday life. Each of us will experience suffering and pain at some time. This is exemplified in Job 30:27: “The churning inside me never stops; the days of suffering confront me.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was such an individual. During the Bubonic plague in England, Julian came down with illness unto death. In her period of recovery, she experienced Frankl’s “white heat” of suffering. She recorded a series of visions in a book entitled Revelations of Divine Love, thereby becoming the first female English author.  Her writings focus on the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering. “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me…but there was shown that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”

We read in Rom 5:3, “But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.” As St. Teresa of Avila states, “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.” Julian of Norwich adds that one should “[p]ray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty sick or weak, at such time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian, pastor, prophet, and martyr—in one of his last letters from prison, writes, “Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise would have remained hidden… [but] the even holier angel is joy, joy in God” (21 November 1943).

Even in light of Hurricane Harvey; Sandy Hook; Parkland, Florida; and Sutherland Springs, Texas, when we experience pain and suffering, grief and bereavement, we have the sure knowledge that God will bring joy out of our life-changing experience. Rom 8:28 reminds us that “all things work together for good.” This is difficult to comprehend in the midst of trauma.  We begin to seek God’s grace as we move to a new beginning, a radical acceptance of the new normal. As St. John of the Cross writes, “'What is Grace?' I asked God. And he said, 'All that happens.'” For the Man or Woman of Sorrows, suffering brings a new understanding of perseverance, character, hope, victory, and joy.

Rom 5:3: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”