Standing Firm in Suffering

I sit down to write this on the morning of April 16th, 2020. We are about one month into the global-scale shutdown due to the COVID-19 virus. There has been so much disruption. Lives are being saved, we are doing what must be done… but the cost is high. There is a lot of suffering and loss in this time. People have lost loved ones, jobs, and precious time with loved ones still alive. Those with mental health issues are hurting, and perhaps even more of us now struggle with depression than before. The undercurrent of loneliness in our society so often brushed under the surface is now surging to the forefront. On top of all of that, on this day every year I pause to remember a great tragedy at my alma mater, Virginia Tech. Thirteen years ago, 32 people were suddenly and pointlessly slaughtered on our campus. This has not been forgotten in Blacksburg, and will never be forgotten.

I allow myself to hurt today. Even though I don’t enjoy this sadness, I don’t try to stop experiencing it when it comes. My soul is heavy, but I know that the heaviness is necessary. One of the most profound ways I have learned the importance of sadness is through learning more and more about the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting. Many of my professors were on campus when it happened – my favorite professor had taught in one of the rooms where the shooting happened the previous semester. I went to memorial events every year. As powerful as all of this is, I am most impacted by one story from a professor of the response of the student body. In the immediate aftermath, news sources were doing interviews with students. Doing their job, they of course wanted to find a diverse range of responses – how was the campus responding? Were people upset with the university? As I heard the story from my professor, interviewers were looking for remarks from students who were both angry with the university, and those who were not. But, after more than 100 interviews, they gave up trying to find even one student who was angry at anybody other than the killer himself. Even a survivor from one of the rooms where the bloodbath happened had only glowing words for the Virginia Tech community at large. Within 24 hours, students had set up a memorial at the center of the campus with 32 Hokie Stones, the same stones used for nearly all buildings on the campus. In the university, nobody resorted to blaming. Instead, the community allowed themselves to mourn openly, and to this day we continue to mourn.

You can feel the reverberation of this tragedy on that campus to this day. From the very first day I set foot there, I almost felt as if the ground itself was permeated by care and empathy. While at that university, I went through a lot. I have had flashbacks that literally paralyzed me, memories so vivid that for a moment I become scared that they are happening all over again. I know what it is to see people I love going through depression and periods of struggle with self-harm, and I know the torment of actually believing that hurting myself would make me feel better. I used to think of myself as literally less than human and not worth caring about. I could go on. But the environment on that campus supported me. There, I was cared for, and eventually I healed. Today, I do not struggle in those ways any more. The main reason I got better is simple – the university culture in which I found myself deeply understands pain, and knows how to walk through pain without ignoring it. The people I met and allowed to see what I was going through did not at first try to convince me that I ought not feel that way about myself – their first response was to acknowledge the reasons I did feel that way about myself and lament the reality of what I’d been going through.

I believe firmly that developing this ability to live inside painful moments and allow them to be felt and understood is something we all must learn. This is how we become mature, caring, loving people. This is how we grow and become wise. We cannot run from the realities of pain. That will only make the pain worse.

Jesus Acknowledges the Reality of Our Suffering

My experience with Christian faith is that this principle is acknowledged and lived out. Let us take, for example, the story of the death of Lazarus. This story takes up most of John, chapter 11. Lazarus was a close friend of Jesus and his followers, and had fallen ill. Before Jesus arrived to see him and heal him, he died from his illness. When Jesus arrived where Lazarus was, here is what we see.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” – John 11:33-36 (ESV)

The amazing thing about this is that just a few verses later, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And when you read the passage, you get the impression throughout that Jesus understood that he was going to do this. It would then at first seem odd to see Jesus hurting emotionally – if you knew your friend was going to be alive again in just a few minutes, why would you be sad? That isn’t how you’d expect Jesus to react.

And yet, Jesus wept. He was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Even though Jesus knew that it wouldn’t be long until things were made right, he paused and took the time to weep. He took the time to acknowledge the real sadness of death. He took the time to allow others to see him hurting and expressing his sorrow. Think about this – God is weeping! There is no hiding from the hideous reality of death. Christ himself, Lord of all, wept at the tomb of his friend before he raised him back to life.

Surely there is a lesson here for us. When dealing with tragedy, it is not appropriate to rush into trying to fix the tragedy without first mourning. If even Jesus wept and was not ashamed, we can too. It would have been wrong for Jesus to not acknowledge the real pain that was present where he was. This is the attitude that eventually brought me out of my frequent flashbacks and dark thoughts. I learned over time to look my suffering in its eyes, so to speak, and not back down or downplay it. Instead of running from anxious memories, thereby heightening the anxiety, I learned to look at them and acknowledge the situation for what it was, including the fact that those memories are just that – memories, not events currently happening. Over time, this enabled me to heal, and has had the benefit of teaching me to help others who are suffering, in particular those facing anxiety, trauma, or depression, as I faced.

My relationship with my Lord is the only reason I have been able to do this. As we see in Hebrews 4:15-16 (ESV translation),

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

He Himself has gone through the fire and storms of life, just as we do. He can empathize with us, weep with us, and help us. But what He doesn’t do is allow us to run away from the bad things we experience. He did not run – he faced an unimaginably agonizing death by torture followed by crucifixion. He did not back down, and He can give us the strength of heart to stand firm in our own storms. I feel every day the strength He has given me, strength without which I might not have survived my storms.

This strength is available to all who come to Him with an open heart. If you are a follow of Jesus, turn to Him for your strength in this time of great trial we are now facing. If you do not follow Jesus, I encourage you to read the gospels for yourself to see the love He has for us all and to take encouragement from the example He has set. If you want to find this strength offered by Christ, I’d love to talk with you and help you move towards Him, for the Bible tells us that he is not far from us (Acts 17:27).

God bless you all, and I hope each one of us experiences growth even in this time of pain.

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