And what is the purpose of suffering?
I once worked with a man who started limping around the office one day. He had tripped during a recent half-marathon and thought his ankle was just taking longer than usual to recover. But then he started to trip when walking down the hallway and couldn’t keep his balance when leaning over the fountain for a drink of water. One time he walked into my office to deliver a letter and fell forward as if he’d been shoved hard from behind. He was flustered and embarrassed, and I felt awful for him. Within months he had his diagnosis.
For the next nine months he trekked into work while the disease went about its nasty work inside his body. It wasn’t long before he needed a walker to get a drink from the water fountain. In less than one year’s time, he went from running half marathons to moving as slowly and robotically as any person I’ve ever seen. It was devastating to watch. What must it have been like to live through?
Soon thereafter, at barely forty years old, he was forced to retire. The week he left the office for the last time, one of my colleagues observed that this man was now “going home to face his cross.” Everyone in the room gave solemn nods of agreement. I just stood there thinking, This is so unfair.
And it was. And it is.
He died a short time later.
I hand-fed him a meal a few weeks before his death, and I have never seen a more ravaging disease in my life. The kind of physical suffering this man endured was beyond my comprehension. I wouldn’t wish this form of death on my worst enemy.
You know other stories like this one. Perhaps you’ve even lived one or are living one right now. As I write these words, my phone is pinging with news updates that Kobe Bryant, his thirteen-year-old daughter, and seven other people have perished in a helicopter crash. What? On average, twenty-five thousand people die of starvation each day.1 Are you kidding me? A client of mine is currently facing charges of aggravated assault. If she receives time in prison, she’s decided she’d rather die by suicide than face imprisonment. Please, no.
Why is this the world we live in?
The best answer I can find is the one revealed in the first pages of Genesis when God created humans and made them distinct from other creatures in a very particular manner: He gave us freedom.
God told Adam and Eve that they could have their run of the garden of Eden. They had total dominion over the land and could do as they saw fit with only one exception: They were not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But you know the story. They did just that, demonstrating in that moment what has been and remains true for all of humanity: we have the freedom to choose what we do in this life.
God, apparently, loves freedom. And since God created humanity in His own image, it must necessarily be the case that we, too, are free and designed to love and explore our freedom. Unlike the beasts of the earth who operate by instinct, we humans can choose to resist our instincts and make decisions by using more complex moral constructs, like right and wrong, to make decisions. If we were unable to veer away from good, we would not be truly free.
Could God have set this whole affair up differently? Of course. God is God, and God can do whatever God wants to do. But this is what God has done. This is the world we live in, and this is the world we must learn to make sense of if we are to find some semblance of peace within the suffering.
But what about mental illness when there is no choice involved? I can understand that God did not will Hitler to murder millions of Jewish people but rather that Hitler and others like him were the cause of that immeasurable suffering. But what about brain abnormalities that cause perfectly kind people to believe the trees in the park are trying to eat them? And what about mothers who give birth to their children and want nothing more than to hold and care for them but are stricken so hard by postpartum depression they must be readmitted to the hospital and kept away from the babies they just carried for nine months? How does God’s love for freedom help us to make sense of this kind of suffering?
Again, I wish I had a better answer for you, but the best I can find also comes from Genesis.
From the moment Adam and Eve made the decision to stray away from God’s intentional plans for life on earth, nothing has been the same. And this includes our bodies and the illnesses that plague them. I want to be careful here. I am not suggesting that illnesses are God’s way of punishing humans but that they are simply another reality of our living in a fallen world. Mental illness is not the fault of any one individual but rather a disappointing reality for what it means to live life on this earth. Should I say it again, just in case?
Mental illness is not a punishment. It is just one of the gnarly waves of suffering we humans ride in this thing called life.
To accept this mindset requires a certain deference and humility toward God, for it could be easy to stamp our feet and demand that it ought not to be so. We want to say, God should have done this! God should have done that! God should have done better! But then, where would that get us? As Job learned, we are not God. And we cannot undo what God has already done. This brand of humility is exemplified quite beautifully in the words from a survivor of Auschwitz:
It never occurred to me to question God’s doing or lack of doings while I was an inmate at Auschwitz, although of course, I understand others did… I was no less or no more religious because of what the Nazis did to us; and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least. It just never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame Him, or to believe in Him less or to cease believing in Him at all because He didn’t come to our aid.
God doesn’t owe us that. Or anything. We owe our lives to Him. If someone believes God is responsible for the death of six million because He didn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed. We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live, and we have the duty to worship Him and do all that He commands us. That’s what we’re here on this earth for, to be in God’s service, to do God’s bidding.2
There is something to this. It is hard to swallow, for sure, but there is a deep truth in these words. If our purpose in life is to journey back to God and become fully human along the way, then, yes, we must oppose suffering at every opportunity; but to find ourselves stuck in an existential crisis over the nature of this existence is to miss the boat entirely. The point, as a Christian, is not to eradicate all suffering or even overcome suffering but to endure it faithfully and ease it in people and places when we are able to do so, as Jesus did. All of this makes it a little easier for me to swallow the reality of mental illness.
What helps the most, however, is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. The truth is that I’m not sure I could worship a God who hadn’t tasted the bitterness of the kind of suffering we humans experience on a daily basis, especially those of us who suffer in the mind.
But when I look at the cross, I see a God so intent on loving and living with his people that he was willing to crawl into the deepest pit of suffering known to humanity so all of humanity might know there is no darkness into which He will not give chase.
During one of my particularly brutal battles with depression and misuse of alcohol, I went away for in-patient rehab in California. As you can imagine, when I first got there, I was in a very dark place. I had not only hurt a lot of people on my way there, but being there now meant I had left my wife at home to care for our two sons alone while also fielding countless calls from friends and onlookers who were wanting to know what was going on with me. Why had Ryan suddenly disappeared? The guilt I felt was so overwhelming, I was all but certain it would take me under.
On one of the worst nights during treatment, I hid away in my room and read from Elie Wiesel’s book Night. I had always wanted to read this book but had never taken the time to do so. Going to rehab has its perks, I suppose. Anyway, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. One of the passages that wedged into my heart that night, which I have never forgotten, was about a young boy who was hanged in Wiesel’s concentration camp. Because the child was so small and light, he did not die immediately when the SS tipped over his chair but instead suffered for more than half an hour. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone asked who was standing behind Wiesel in the crowd of onlookers. “For God’s sake, where is God?” And Wiesel wrote that, from within him, he heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.”3
That passage helped me understand that God doesn’t stop every panic attack, nor does He stay the finger on the trigger of a barrel pointed in one’s own mouth. He doesn’t prevent the brain from sloshing into dementia, nor does He protect children from a father who promises to come home early but stays at the bar all night instead. He doesn’t stop these things. What He does, I believe, is experience them with us.
He rides out the panic attack, feeling its uncontrolled bursts of adrenaline, and His hands shake as the suicidal person quakes with fear and hatred and utter despair. He comes alongside the disappointed boy, who only wished to see his father for a few moments before bedtime.
He does not take this pain away. What He does is envelope Himself in it and whisper:
Watch the video
1. John Holmes, “Losing 25,000 to Hunger Every Day,” UN Chronicle 45, no. 2 & 3 (April 2008), https://unchronicle.un.org/article/losing-25000-hunger-every-day.
2. Reeve Robert Brenner, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2014), 102.
3. Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).
Excerpted with permission from Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About by Ryan Casey Waller, copyright Ryan Casey Waller.
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How has anxiety, depression, or other suffering affected you or someone you love? What does it mean to you to know we have a God who knows what it is to suffer? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.