Suffering shows our soul its softness. It sends away our dreams of being secure as stone. It reminds us that the movement we feel in life isn't our bounding forward into some greater version of freedom; it's our spinning on a potter's wheel kicked into motion by a God with great feet. Our longing is to stop the spinning, to firm up in the sun, and to remain as we are. But suffering says "no" to sameness and "yes" to softening and shaping.
How do you respond to hard things? If you're like me, your instinct is to eliminate them, to get them out of your life as soon as possible. To switch metaphors, if suffering is a beggar looking for heavy gifts, we want him to leave, to get out, to walk beyond the borders of our quiet country. Seldom do we even get to the point of asking him that simple but piercing question, What are you doing here? That's a soul question. A growth question. It's a question that invites the Grand Potter into our fortified city so that he can use this unwanted beggar as a tool at his spinning wheel. And the tool is always effective, always sharp, always cutting, since suffering is a hard thing, and clay is soft.
The difficult thing is the silence that follows that question. There's no divine voice booming from the clouds, no clean and clarifying answer that cuts through our doubt or dismay. At least, that doesn't come for a while, if it comes at all. Instead, we're left with the quiet, left sitting on the pond of silence hoping for ripples. And for many of us, that's where we stay until we're distracted or grow frustrated or make some effort to live our lives around the hole that's been pushed through us by our suffering.
The Next Step
The next step, however, is the most crucial. It's a step that comes through a combination of hearing God's words, uttering words back to him, and contemplating the suffering. It's a cyclical movement from Scripture to prayer to hindsight, and then back to Scripture.
What are we hoping to find in this cycle? The answer to our question. What is the suffering doing here? And I should say at the outset that taking this approach isn't a quick fix. It can take years and involves some Scripture-informed speculation on our part. But it seems to be the only way we can make sense of what God himself tells us about our suffering: (1) that all of our suffering is meant to shape us to the image of Christ and (2) that our sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10) is meant to give us resurrection life (2 Cor. 4:10). And that resurrection life, in my experience, often takes the form of profound joy and gratitude at being able to give myself to others. That giving takes the form of sympathy, prayer, and encouragement.
I'll give you an example. But keep in mind that this example worked itself out over a decade. In soul-shaping, God works at his own pace, which is usually slow and symphonic, never rushed or flippant. I'll give you the example of my grief over the early death of my father, which I've written about at length in Finding Hope in Hard Things.
In soul-shaping, God works at his own pace, which is usually slow and symphonic, never rushed or flippant.
The Brokenness of Grief
A glass shattering on a kitchen floor—that's how I'd describe losing your father when you're still a boy. Up to that point, your dreams of strength and stability in a world of rock are still intact. Nothing has threatened your sense of security or challenged the idiocy that you're the one person who might actually live forever. You see yourself as a crystal—beautifully unbroken.
And then it happens. You watch your father take his last three breaths. And with each one, your sense of security fractures, mapping out through your world from the small center of your heart. The pain . . . it does something. It offers "a way in" (David Whyte, Consolations, 155). To what, exactly? To what your soul was after in the first place, what it was always meant to be after. You may not know what that "thing" is at first. It's something that grows more visible with time. But eventually you see it: love. Lasting love. Evergreen love. And that love can only come from one place.
Scripture on the Fatherhood of God
Because I was raised in the church and my father was a preacher, I knew many passages that spoke of the "Fatherhood" of God. The absence of my father made those passages painful reminders of what I didn't have. At least, that's where I started. The Fatherhood of God was some abstract cloud of theology, drifting in the distance of my concrete life. "Yes, God is my Father. But my real father is dead now."
Years later I came across a passage from one of my favorite theologians. (Who knew back then that I'd ever even have an interest in theology?) "This name of 'Father' . . . is not a metaphor derived from the earth and attributed to God. Exactly the opposite is true: fatherhood on earth is but a distant and vague reflection of the fatherhood of God (Eph. 3:14-15). God is Father in the true and complete sense of the term" (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:307). So, I hadn't lost my Father; I had only lost my father. And my earthly father was only "a distant and vague reflection" of my eternal Father to begin with. It became embarrassingly clear that I didn't know my eternal Father very well.
And so began the prayer and the constant Scripture-reading. The prayer was simultaneously a plea for assurance of my own father's safety (that who he was hadn't simply disappeared) and an earnest request to build my faith and joy in God's eternal Fatherhood. And through this prayer came a rebirth of my identity. I had never truly understood who I was in relation to my heavenly Father, only in relation to my earthly father. Finding your true identity is only something you can do in Christ by the power of God's Spirit, in relation to your everlasting Father.
And there's really only one way to get to know your heavenly Father: You have to eat his words. There's not the physical embrace and warm blood of an earthly body to clutch. That's what you get from that "distant and vague" reflection of your heavenly Father. Instead, you get words. They are words that don't just convey messages. They convey personhood. They convey the hope of communion. The words of God form a footpath to the love you have been looking for all your life, a love that knows you deeply and accepts you fully.
The words of God form a footpath to the love you have been looking for all your life, a love that knows you deeply and accepts you fully.
As I ate the words of God, my soul found strength, otherworldly strength. This, again, took years, not days or weeks. I began to see that I would've never walked down this path had my earthly father not died. In some painful and mysterious act of grace, he got out of the way so that I could see my eternal Father, so that I could find my identity in Him. I had grown up understanding my identity in my earthly father's shadow. Now I understood my identity in my heavenly Father's light.
Hindsight: Renewed Fatherhood
One of the most striking implications of all this came when I entered fatherhood in 2013. Having lost my earthly father and found my heavenly Father, I had deep rivers of understanding and empathy carved and ready for love. The rivers were deep because (1) I now could give the gift that I once wanted, and (2) the gift that I was giving was always offered as I stared back at my heavenly Father. All of my fatherly behaviors and emotions—joy, gratitude, frustration, fear, compassion, intentionality, patience—came in the context of God's holy love. Whatever I felt or experienced served as fodder for sacred thoughts about the Fatherhood of God, which led to marveling and worship. Patience with a toddler can teach you much about God's patience with the Israelites, or with David, or with religious leaders, or with you.
The loss that I'd hated, that I had fled from, eventually led to an answer (though perhaps not the answer; we can never have a complete sense of God's movements and purposes) to that question I began with. What are you doing here? In short, the suffering and loss of my father was "here" because I needed to learn much more about fatherhood. I needed to learn about the Fatherhood of God and about how my own attempts at fatherhood were opportunities to learn more about Him, and to respond to that learning with awe and worship.
Learning about the Fatherhood of God and how my father was only a dim reflection of that was a facet of my becoming more like Christ.
And here's the critical part in terms of spiritual formation: Learning about the Fatherhood of God and how my father was only a dim reflection of that was a facet of my becoming more like Christ. Christ understood (and understands) fully how beautiful his Father is, how giving, how accommodating, how present. I didn't understand any of that. And I still have a very long way to go. It's a daily practice, as are most elements of spiritual formation. The development lies in the daily plodding, the routine awakenings we find in little moments throughout the day. That's the pilgrim life, the Christian life. As David Whyte put it, "a pilgrim is someone abroad in a world of impending revelation" (Consolations, 165). Each day brings us the possibility of little revelations, little awakenings that draw us into the great and mysterious glory of God.
Looking at the Question Again
On this side of paradise, we never fully arrive at the answer to our questions about suffering and loss. But if we follow the method I've outlined here, we end up with an answer that shapes us, that bends us more and more to the image of Christ. And that's what it's all about. It's the shaping, the forming, the making of Christ-like creatures. That's what God has in store for each of us.
I don't know where you are right now, but I bet you can ask that shaping question. I bet you can utter it sincerely and seek the answer in Scripture, prayer, and hindsight. And I bet you won't be disappointed with the time you put in to pursuing the answer. God is a giver. He'll always give you what you need. But more important than that is the truth that he'll gently turn you into a giver. He'll gently shape you to Christ, who gave himself away for us.
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