How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.
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