Last fall, as I was shoulder-deep in Tim Keller’s profoundly good book about suffering and providence, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I might have mistaken this column from New York Times‘s David Brooks for an excerpt from it. Brooks begins:
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.
“People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.” Exactly right! This experience of feeling formed is better and deeper than mere happiness, as most of us know, even if we wouldn’t ordinarily choose it. We would choose formation by some easier path than suffering, but God knows suffering is what we usually get. Jesus speaks to this paradoxical truth when he talks about “finding our life by losing it,” denying ourselves, and choosing the narrow, difficult path that leads to life. Jesus promises and delivers us an abundant life, it just doesn’t come the way we want or expect.
As C.S. Lewis put it in probably the best book about Christianity I’ve read:
I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects. I see in loved and revered historical figures, such as Johnson and Cowper, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if the men had been happier. If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.[†]
But as Lewis and Brooks both know, the same potentially soul-making action of suffering can, for some people, be soul-crushing. As Brooks writes,
Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.
What determines whether it’s one or the other? I agree with Viktor Frankl, whom Brooks also refers to. Frankl said that all suffering—and by all, this Auschwitz survivor means all—can potentially be an opportunity for spiritual growth: it only depends on our response.
How does suffering do its soul-making work? Brooks offers this insight:
First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.
Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.
Who can’t relate to this?
In my recent experience as a Christian, a renewed awareness of my own sinfulness and God’s judgment—which might seem either depressing or terrifying to some—had the effect of thrusting me “down into these deeper zones” within myself—at which point I found a gracious God waiting for me.
Isn’t it interesting that Brooks describes sufferers as coming to grips with their own lack of control? That’s what I found, too: through sinful pride, I tried to wrest control of my life from God, and the results were disastrous. A part of repenting and turning back to God means surrendering control. Like the Prodigal Son, we surrender our rights as a son or daughter—”I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—only to receive them back again: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Repentance is a kind of death and rebirth.
Brooks refers to a “divine process beyond individual control,” a “larger providence,” and a “call” that comes from suffering. That’s right: the reason suffering is, or can be, good for us is because God is working in the midst of it, providentially.
Brooks concludes by saying, “The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.”
Imagine: David Brooks just told a secular audience in our present age that suffering is a gift fully equal to happiness. Could he have said anything deeper or more countercultural than that?
Regardless, it has the ring of gospel truth.
† C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 108-9.