Suffering as a Spiritual Discipline

When we talk about Spiritual Disciplines, we like to think of things we are adding into our lives. Rhythms, practices, prayers. Maybe it’s painting or journaling, perhaps it’s times spent wandering a trail in nature or a different way of allocating our time. Regardless of the method, the goal is the same: to connect with God.

Other times, the rhythms we find are unexpected. Throughout my adult life, I’ve watched a pattern of jobs, housing, relationships, follow a two-year pattern of loss and transition. Sometimes this pattern was intentional–like a two-year graduate school program. More often these transitions and loss looked like a series of unplanned moves, broken relationships and finding out I wasn’t a good “organizational fit” in certain jobs and churches.

Each of these transitions has brought a wilderness and a wandering that have left me with more questions than answers. I’m a pro at questioning God and find myself drawn to figures and images in the Bible that express this lament and protest. But I’m starting to embrace this suffering and loss as a spiritual rhythm, too.

After graduate school, I landed a full-time job, moved into an apartment and got a new roommate. Our second year living together and in my full-time job, I wondered about buying a home. This was the most consistent life had been. This wondering wasn’t wrong, but for the first time, I saw an ease and consistency in my life I hadn’t had before. This is the first time I’ve lived in an apartment three years in a row. I had been so used to constant change and moving.  

I was starting to understand how comfort and consistency can easily distance us from the urgency of some of our daily basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter.  Ease makes our hearts forget, but the wandering calls us to remembrance. Maybe this is why Jesus used examples like “daily bread” as an illustration for how we are to look for Him.  We need to be hungry beyond the food on our plates and wealthy beyond the dollars in our bank accounts or retirement funds. But rarely, are we willing to embrace our suffering.

The work of the Kingdom is so deeply entrenched in a pattern of loss and renewal, but so often we try and avoid the hurt and suffering we miss this. Maybe this is why so few find it. When we see Jesus teach us about the Kingdom we are given examples of what people had to “give up.” Family. Wealth. Certainty.  After all, we are called to share in Christ’s suffering. Suffering is given as the path toward the Kingdom.

I want to acknowledge that while God can be found in our suffering, some of it is still a mystery. We can’t always know why we suffer. What do we do with the thousands of displaced Syrians, women who have disappeared and homeless teens? The brokenness of this earth leaves us in shadows that do not completely satiate our grief, pain or heartache. But I do think some of our suffering can be redemptive.

The rhythms we find of loss and suffering are not about solving or fixing, but being present. If I can’t even be present in my suffering, how am I supposed to look for God there? I’ve tried to embrace this rhythm of loss as a space of rest, but that only came when I embraced what was going on in my heart, soul, and mind in this transition.

I know I’ve spent more of my energy arguing, trying to fix, resolve or overcoming my suffering rather than just “being” in it. This last transition I intended to give myself a sabbatical of three months…I needed a break and some rest after a few rough bouts of employment. The three months stretched to eight, but this time has been easiest when I haven’t resisted it. The moments I chose to just be in it have been some of the most rewarding and kind.

Suffering has connected me to God in ways ease could not. Suffering has taught me endurance, it solidified my hope. When I let it, suffering drives the seeking, the searching out for Kingdom. When we allow ourselves to be present in suffering patiently shifts our hope and desire as we give into its rhythm of loss. It teaches us the great price of the pearl– our comfort, our things, our families, and certainty. 

And so I want to leave you with a Benediction of Suffering. May we be aware of the spiritual rhythms that are found in the harder parts of life. May we open ourselves to our own suffering and the suffering around us and dare to be present in the mystery that is there.

A Benediction of Suffering

I wish you suffering

so your will know how small your God is

and how big He can be

I wish you longing and aching

so you find a Kingdom that is more wild than you imagine

I wish you tears that are bitter

so you will find the sweetness of surrender

in the paradox that darkness

allows us to see more clearly

and that goodness can be

both dark and light

Ruthie Johnson