Friday, October 8, 2010

Reflections on Suffering

Title: Reflections on Suffering
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 8 Oct 2010
After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” (Job 3:1)
When we lose a loved one, is it ever possible to ‘get over it?’ Will life ever return to normal? Can we ever recover from deep grief?

MAIN POINT: This week in SabbathWalk, I shall attempt to answer the above questions, believing that grief and grieving is a process we have to boldly go through, and not skipped around with shortcuts or half-baked quickie ‘solutions.’ My key belief is that in moments of pain and suffering, it is more important to learn and to grow with it.

Jerry teaches theology at a University in Washington state. His wife, Lynda home schools the children. Lynda follows the education curriculum earnestly. Toward the end of one module, which is native American culture, she decides to give her children a firsthand experience at a native community. That day, Jerry’s mother happens to visit them. Using this opportunity make the occasion a real family experience, Jerry, Lynda, Jerry’s mother and their 4 children hop into a minivan to learn and to explore the great countryside. After all, home schooling need not be restricted to only the kids, right?

That Friday afternoon, the whole family eat with their native hosts. They dance. They chat. They develop a special bond not only with the tribal leaders but also with each other. By evening, they decide to head back home. Through no fault of theirs, an oncoming car vaults away from its lane and crashes head on into their minivan. Out of the seven, only four of them return home alive. It is drunk driving at its worst.

In one night, Jerry loses 3 generations in a single crash. He watches his wife, his mother and his third daughter die before his very eyes, through no fault of his. The one who causes their deaths, a drunk driver survives even though it is all his fault. How can we explain this?

A) An Unreasonable World
My mind screams: “This is simply too cruel and unfair!

My heart bursts out: “This is so heartbreaking!

My fist gesticulates: “So angry that justice must be done!

Quietly, my stunned soul asks: “Where is God during events like these?

Indeed, where is God? Why must ‘no-fault’ Jerry suffers for the antics of the ‘all-fault’ drunk driver? This is all so unreasonable.

Why must Jerry’s mother visit them that weekend and not others? Why didn’t Jerry talk Lynda out of her excursion idea? Why does he has to bring along his 4-year old daughter? Reasonable questions. Unreasonable answers. Tragedy more often than not is never logical. In his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the Irish author Oscar Wilde writes:
It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that.” (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: CRW Publishing, 2003, p129)

B) Job: Spinning Out of the Orbit of Rationale
Not everything in life can be reasoned. Many things are beyond man’s rationalizing capacity. The author of Job makes it clear that no-fault living does not necessarily lead to a ‘happy and victorious’ life. This goes against those who perpetrate a form of good-feel teaching that spells prosperity-driving strategies and invokes health-quickening formulas. They rank high in momentary ecstasy, but rates low in longer-term reality. Such antics cheapen faith. They depreciate life. 

In the first 2 chapters of Job, we read that Job is practically blameless. The Bible states it (Job 1:1). God declares Job righteous (Job 2:3). Job even tries to take any blame for his family by offering sacrifices on his children’s behalf (Job 1:5). No matter how you read it, Job is one man who is so upright and faultless that you can find no reason why he should ever suffer. God vindicates Job saying:
...And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” (Job 2:3b)
For no reason, a righteous man like Job suffers an unjust fate of losing his loved ones (Job 1 & 2). Likewise, for no reason, Jerry suffers a tragic loss of three women in his life through an unreasonable act of drunk driving. Their stories tell of a cruel world that spins beyond all human rationale.

C) Sense and Sensibilities of Grieving
Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
These words from Jesus are priceless. They present truth at its core. Time is the best antidote for the long process of grieving. Notice how Jesus never tries to explain away tragedies. Instead, He enters into the tragedy of tragedies, willingly to the Cross. He is faultless, and blameless, but in the eyes of a cruel world, He must die. This sense of Jesus willingly accepting blame on behalf of all mankind is something that is beyond reason.

I am still grieving over my father’s death. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about having any form of celebration. Even when I minister to my Church members, I do feel a bit of apprehension on where to place my emotions. Can I tell my congregation to rejoice, when I do not feel like rejoicing? Can I exhort them with words of encouragement when I myself need a boost of cheer? How can I comfort others even as I go through the valley of discomfort and pain?

D) What We can Do / Not Do?
I am experiencing first hand what to do and what not to do. Here are 5 suggestions I am cultivating. The first three are what NOT to do. The last two talks about what you CAN do.

#1 - Do NOT try to talk reason into a grieving person
No amount of reasoning can explain away either tragedy, suffering or death. Even Job, declared righteous by God suffers for no reason.

#2 - Do NOT attempt to inject other people’s experience into another
A common practice among well-intentioned people is to say things like:

  • False Empathy: “I know how you feel.”
           [No you don’t know how I feel. You’re not me.]
  • Distant Sympathy: “My friend’s brother’s friend has also suffered like that.
           [What has your friend’s friend got to do with my mourning?]
  • Disguised Apathy: “Oh, things will get better over time.
           [How do you know the future?]

#3 - NO Scriptural Plasters, Please
A favorite strategy used by Christians is to use what I call scriptural plasters. People send short messages using their cellphones or emails or Twitter to try to console their friends or loved ones as if the biblical verses can work its magical healing.

I remember once a fellow Christian was going through a really difficult time. I hastily shoot off Romans 8:28 on my cellphone about all things working out for good. Instead, I received a nasty reply that reprimands my insensitivity. Thinking back, I am insensitive. In fact, I am overly naive to think that problems can be easily resolved by plastering scriptural references all over.

#4 - You CAN Pray
You may be lost for words but you can still pray. During times of pain and suffering, we are called to embark upon prayer that is beyond solving problems or getting things done. Like a spacecraft, prayer lifts us away from the gravity of childish things and selfish demands. In prayer, we discover man’s smallness in the light of God’s greatness. Philip Yancey puts it succinctly:
The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.” (Philip Yancey, Prayer, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006, p56)

#5 - You Can Walk with and Listen in
Listening is empathy at its best. Joyce Huggett calls listening a form of ‘catching compassion.’ She writes:
In this last and great commission Jesus commands his followers to love as he loved, to care as he cared, to hurt when others hurt. Such love, he said is the hallmark of the Christian. And such love is one of the basic requirements of anyone who would seek to stretch out a helping hand to others in the middle of life’s crises.” (Joyce Huggett, Listening to Others, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, p31)
We do not need a lot of words, just a lot of ears. We do not need to worry about what to say or how to care. Our minuscule presence and quiet listening is far more helpful than a load of verbal advice.

E) Through The Valley
Let me categorically answer the questions set out at the beginning of this commentary. For the first question, there is no such thing as getting over grief but going THROUGH it. For the second question, life will not become ‘back to normal’ because life will never be the same again. Finally, and thankfully, I project a positive YES to the third question. We CAN recover from deep grief. We CAN be comforted even as we mourn. We CAN be restored in Christ, to become a better person, a more wholesome outlook and a mature heart. When we journey through the valley of the shadow of death, when we venture into a new place, when we learn to seek comfort in the arms of God, then and truly then we have grown to declare this ultimate truth:
“The LORD is my Shepherd; I have all I need.” (Ps 23:1, NLT)
Thought: "The Christian in exile is comforted by a brief visit of a Christian brother, a prayer together and a brother's blessing; indeed, he is strengthened by a letter written by the hand of a Christian." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954, p10)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries.


  1. thank you for your writing. i do enjoy reading them and very much blessed. it's very reflective

  2. Dear Anonymous (Oct 11th, 2010),

    Thank you for your feedback. Hope you are encouraged.