The Joy of Suffering: This is Real

My daughter Heather is a blogger. For several years I’ve noticed what a fine writer she is, but now she’s really hit her stride and found her voice. It’s a deep voice, deeply thought and felt, and she expresses herself beautifully and in surprising ways.

 Here’s just one example from her account of a three-week canoe trip in the wilderness area of Temagami. It began as a very difficult trip, with many obstacles to overcome—one explanation, I think, for why her writing about it is so vibrant. But let’s jump to the last day as she’s paddling home:

We wake at 5:15 am to the beginnings of rain. We sleep until 6:00 and, with the rain persisting, I feel God say it’s time to get up. We’re on the water by 7:00, no morning dip, chased out of camp by the rain. We make good time down Obabika Lake, light rain and wind but nothing obtrusive. As I paddle I pause mid-stroke to look around me. The air is saturated with the scent of water and pine, the wild tops of the ancient forest in the foreground and the hills rising up through distant fog. This is real.

Our car grows ever closer, and with it, thoughts of home. TV, computers, iPhone…. So much of my life in the city is lived either in fantasy land or vicariously online. But this, here, now, this is real. Paddling down Obabika, relying on the strength of my body, the gear in our packs and our mind’s wits to survive and propel us forward, pushing water with my paddle so we move quickly through the rain, content to be in this moment.

Dusk, Montreal River, Temagami – by Heather Mills

Reading Heather’s account, I’m struck by that word real. 

This is real.

It makes me wonder: What, in my own life, is real? 

I can point to many things: My relationship with Jesus Christ, certainly; my marriage to Karen; my love for Heather and her husband Sean; other precious relationships; my calling as a writer. 

And, yes, my own love for nature. I don’t go on long canoe trips to immerse myself for weeks in the wilderness. But I do spend time, every day, just gazing my fill at what there is to see from where I live: a beautiful river and waterfall, magnificent trees, sun and moon, wind and rain, the sky painted more splendidly than any canvas, stars zillions of light years distant. 

Yes, all these things are real. But today, the thing that feels most real to me is none of the above, but something else. 

It’s something that might surprise you. It certainly surprised me when I allowed myself to realize it. 

It’s suffering. 

Like everyone else in this world, I suffer. And like everyone else, I suffer excruciatingly. 

Now, compared to the suffering of many others, my suffering may seem small, petty, neurotic. It’s not cancer, it’s not any other serious disease, it’s not a relational problem, it’s really nothing worth complaining about at all. However, it’s my suffering, uniquely fitted for me, and it hurts. It hurts like hell. I do not know what to do about it, how to cope, how to understand it. It’s not bigger than God, but it’s much bigger than I am. At times it feels more than I can endure. 

But here’s one thing I can say about it: It’s real. 

I’m reminded of a poem by Emily Dickinson: 

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true. 

Another poet, Rosario Castellanos, may have been echoing these lines when she wrote: 

It hurts—therefore
it is true.

No doubt about it, suffering is one of the things in my life that passes the reality test. It touches bedrock. 

And today it occurs to me that, for this very reason, I can love it. I can embrace it as mine. I can say to my suffering, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said to the Gulag, “Bless you, prison … for it was in you that I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies, not as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.” 

Suffering is real because it reveals all the world’s sham. This present life is shown for what it is: finite, inadequate, utterly incapable of truly satisfying. In suffering we learn that this world is not our home but, to some extent, our enemy. In suffering the world tries its utmost to reject us, to alienate us, to throw us out. To throw us, in fact, onto the breast of God. 

Does Christian faith give one an advantage over suffering? Not really. The suffering of believers is at least as bad, and probably more so, as anyone else’s. Excruciating suffering is one of the great gospel promises. It’s part of the deal. We are “companions in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (Rev 1:9). 

Twice above I’ve used the word excruciating, which comes from Latin ex, meaning out of or from, and crux, meaning cross. Our suffering flows directly from the cross of Christ. 

What could be more real than that? In this world of increasing artificiality—TV, computers, iPhone—this means a very great deal. Suffering connects us to what is real, and that is cause for rejoicing. 

Which is why James so blithely writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (1:2). The cross is our connection with Christ, our fastening to Him, our blood tie.

Read more of Heather’s wilderness adventures on her blog page at  WatermarkWords.org. 

Next Post:  The Person From Porlock: How Interruptible Are You? 

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