Unbearable Suffering: Not What You Think It Means
In one of my favorite movie lines of all time, Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride” responds to his Sicilian boss Vizzini saying “inconceivable” just after something astounding has occurred, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“Unbearable suffering.” I don’t think those words mean what we think they mean.
How can we call something “unbearable” when we have, in fact, borne it? People have horrible suffering all the time, far beyond what they thought they could bear, but they come out the other side alive. Often the suffering will leave a scar, physical or mental, but the suffering has been bearable because they didn’t die.
I think what we usually mean by “unbearable suffering” is what we can’t take in stride and feels beyond our ability to endure at the time.
There is an urban legend among many Christians that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. The problem is Scripture never says that.
In fact, Paul himself writes in II Corinthians 1:8-9 that “we were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” That means Paul experienced unbearable suffering – but which he nonetheless did bear.
This is bad news. I certainly wish we never experienced unbearable suffering. That would be more than nice. Whenever I get a stomach bug, I go through three stages: first, I’m afraid I’ll die, then I’m sure I’ll die, then I’m afraid I won’t die! But the suffering that feels unbearable is, in retrospect, bearable. And other than dreading the next time I will experience it, I’m none the worse for the wear.
There is suffering that has long term negative consequences, namely suffering in which we do not suffer well. What does it mean to suffer well? Continuing to trust God in the middle of the suffering, continuing to call Him good, and believing by faith that the suffering can have a good purpose in our lives if we humbly submit to God and let Him improve our character through it. That’s no small thing when unbearable suffering extends beyond a stomach bug into year upon year and sometimes decade upon decade.
In I Corinthians 10:12-13, Paul writes that God “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can handle it.” Paul’s writing about not being tempted so severely that we have no option but to sin. The 1970's comedian Flip Wilson had a sketch in which he cross-dresses as Geraldine who insists that “the devil made me do it.” Except the devil never makes us do anything. We always have the option not to sin, even at our lowest point. That’s what the Bible promises us.
That sounds like small comfort, but it’s actually very important. It means that our “unbearable suffering” can have a good effect if we submit to God. It means it doesn’t just have to suck, but it can redound to our eternal well-being.
Try believing this when you’re in chronic and severe pain, mentally or physically. It’s a Herculean task to hold on to faith. Despair comes naturally in the midst of suffering. Hope is a learned virtue – and one that can only be cultivated in pain. Hope that is seen is no hope at all.
I have a friend whose suffering has prolonged into four decades. It’s often “unbearable,” yet she bears it by continuing to call God good and believing that, quite apart from any tangible evidence, it will be for her welfare in eternity. This side of heaven, it doesn’t work out that way as far as she can see.
The truth about unbearable suffering is both bad news and good news: bad because many of us will experience it, and good because we can endure it in a way that makes us better.
We can simply dread the experience, or we can go beyond it to preparing ourselves for it. How? By walking with God daily in prayer and Bible study and by practicing seeing our daily struggles as opportunities to grow. These habits teach us about the reason for our hope in God, and they build up our trust muscles so they will be available to us at our point of greatest need.
I often fret about suffering which may come my way that will be more than I can bear well – that I’ll be like Peter who denied Christ leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. The worry is dysfunctional, and I hope to learn to eschew it. In the meantime, I know that if I can practice handling today’s troubles well, I’ll be better prepared to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil because the Lord is with me.
That’s a truer promise than the fake news that I won’t experience more suffering than I can bear.