Suffering can be good. It can take us to places where one more season of “comfort” cannot. But suffering can also be terrible.
Destructive suffering inflicts evil on a person’s heart and soul and is totally outside God’s desire. Although God can bring good out of the experience, the experience itself is no good at all. But there is also therapeutic suffering or “growth suffering.”
So the first thing to do is to distinguish between the destructive and the “growth” sufferings.
Some suffering does have value and produces growth. I call this good pain. We all have coping mechanisms that cover up pain, help us deal with fear, cope with relational inabilities and help us hold it all together. Trials and suffering push those mechanisms past the breaking point so we find out where we need to grow. Then true spiritual growth begins at deeper levels and we are healed. Righteousness and character take the place of coping.
This kind of suffering is good. It breaks down the “weak muscle” of the soul and replaces it with stronger muscle. In this suffering, the prize we win is character-a very valuable prize indeed.
Suffering is the path Jesus modeled for us, and he modeled how to do it right. He went through it all with obedience and without sin. This is the difference between those who suffer to a good end and those who suffer to no good end at all.
So, as you are working through things in your own life or are helping others, make sure that you teach and value this kind of suffering. Have people look a their trials with the questions, “What can I learn through this?” As James 1:5 says, have them look to God for wisdom to find out what steps of maturity and growth have to happen in their lives. If those steps are taken and completed, they will not have to take the same course again.
Destructive suffering or “bad pain” comes from repeating old patterns and avoiding the pain it would take to change them. Suffering at the hands of someone else is not valuable at all, neither is this kind of pain. It is destructive and does not go anywhere good.
Many times people suffer because of their own character faults. Then other people come alongside them and give them comfort or a spiritual pep talk about how God is with them in this testing. They usually frame the experience as the testing of an innocent person. “Keep the faith,” these people say, “and God will reward you for persevering.”
The problem is that these people don’t tell the sufferers that the suffering is the fruit of their own character and is of no value unless they see it as a wake-up call. This is bad pain. And bad pain is basically wasted pain. It is the pain we go through to avoid the good pain of growth that comes from pushing through. It is the wasted pain we encounter as we try to avoid grief and the true hurt that needs to be worked through. It is the wasted pain of trying to get a person to love us or approve of us instead of facing the loss of this love and moving on.
In too many support circles, people are supported in ways that do not make them face the growth steps they need to take to keep from repeating their mistakes. They are seen as victims and are then set up for failure all over again.
So, how do you embrace good pain and avoid bad pain? For those growing and those who minister to them the call is three-fold.
- Do not refer to pain and suffering caused by poor character patterns as “growth pain.” Unless you can use this pain as a wake-up call, it is worthless. If you see this as valid suffering, the pain will be wasted, and it will continue or return.
- Help people own worthless pain so that it can be redeemed and turned into “good pain.” If people can see the character patterns causing their pain, they can redeem and change them. If a pattern can be owned, a pattern can be changed. But as long as we mistakenly see it as “legitimate suffering by a victim,” nothing good can happen.
- Help convert worthless suffering into redemptive suffering. Help others see that they are not just victims. Help them to see instead that their suffering is coming from trying to avoid the legitimate pain of growth. It is a very human trait to try to avoid the suffering of discipline and growth. We all do it. But the wiser we become, the more we value the pain of growth and the more we despise the avoidance patterns in our lives.
Grief is the toughest pain we have to deal with. It is not worst human experience, because it leads to resolution. But it is the most difficult for us to enter into voluntarily, which is the only way to get into it. The rest of our human experience pretty much just happens to us: hurt, injury, anxiety, alienation and failure are awful experiences we try to avoid off and can’t. They break through and we suffer. The difference with grief is that it does not “break through,” but is something we enter into.
Unlike the rest of painful human experience, grief is the one that heals all the others. It is the most important pain there is. This is why God calls us to enter into it voluntarily. It heals. It restores. It changes things that have gone bad. It is the only place where we get comforted when things have gone wrong. So God tells us, “Go there.”
Why is that? What is so special about grief? Why is it the “pain that heals?” Because grief is God’s way of our getting finished with the bad stuff of life. It is the process by which we “get over it,” by which we “let it go.” Because it is the process by which things can be “over with,” it becomes the process by which we can be available for new, good things. The soul is freed from painful experience and released for new, good experience.
The soul is designed to finish things. It is designed to grieve. Just as a computer is programmed to run a particular path, so our soul is designed to go down the path of grief. Be sad, and your heart can be made happy. Cry it out, and it will get out. It will be over.
If grief is the answer to so many of life’s problems, why don’t we just do it? If a sad face can make a heart happy, why don’t we have “sadness parties?” Well, we do. They are called funerals. They are gatherings where we can be sad and begin to process our grief. Funerals were a regular part of God’s family practices with the children of Israel, and we have continued that practice, although we have limited funerals severely.
In Israel there was a prescribed period of mourning and people were assigned to carry out the task. We usually only hold funerals when someone dies. But in the growth process, we need to grieve other things as well. The problem is we don’t often see our experiences as losses. So we stay in denial or protest for a long time.
Another important reason people cannot grieve the way they need to is that they lack resources. In short, grief is a letting down and a letting go. And we cannot let down and let go if we are not being held up. If there is not enough love to sustain us, both inside and out, then we cannot let go of anything, even something bad.
This is the answer to the age-old problem that people ask every day, “Why doesn’t she just let it go?” Or, “Why doesn’t he just get over it?” The reality is that often they can’t because they don’t have the resources, either internal or external, to do it. A good analogy is the trapeze: You can only let go of one trapeze if there is another to grab on to. Or surgery: You can only go under the knife if there is life-support keeping you alive while the surgeon does her work.
We basically need two things for grieving. First, we need love, support and comfort. Second, we need structure. We need time and space for grieving. We need structured activities. This is why good support groups that meet at a regular time and do regular tasks are effective in getting people through grief. There is a time, a place, a space, an understanding, and some tasks to do that structure the experience.
This is why I tell people that God put tear ducts in our eyes. Grief is a relational experience, and your pain has to be seen eye to eye with another person. Someone should be looking at us when we are crying, and we should be looking at him or her. Then we know that we are not alone and our tears are seen and heard.
So in your own life and the lives of the people you help, grief may be the answer to your rut. It may be the answer to moving past the suffering. You may be denying a reality lost long ago. You may be protesting something that will never come true. Maybe it is time to give it up. Maybe it is time for you to mourn so that your heart can be made happy again.
To do that, however, you need to get out of the vacuum. You have to have support and structure to get to a new life. If you do, the dead truly are raised. The mourners truly are comforted. The Psalmist was right when he said, “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) The Bible affirms and commands it, and science proves it to be true. There really is such a thing as “good grief.”
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 8 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow