Suffering That Hurts vs. Suffering That Helps

suffering that hurts -- suffering that helps -- man alone suffering

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My original post on this topic concluded with these lines:

Both living in truth and living in falsehood bring suffering.

In my next post, I’ll talk about why the suffering that truth brings is better.

Have you ever had a terrible, miserable, horrible, awful experience that, when it’s over, you look back on it and say, “That was beyond horrible– but I wouldn’t trade it for anything”?

Most people have.

Severe illness of yourself or illness/death of a loved one.

A major business/financial failure.

A divorce.

To live is to have horrible experiences, to go through stuff that really, really sucks.

It sucks away your passion.

It sucks away your enthusiasm and joy.

For a while, it sucks away a lot of what you have always recognized as your life.

But when you look back on those experiences and know you wouldn’t trade them for anything, that’s because they were redemptive. Something good came out of them. You know you’re better for all the suffering you did.

You’re better. Or stronger. Or wiser. Or more compassionate. Or deeper. Or gentler. Or more humble, or calm, or patient, or honest.

You’re just better.

Often suffering isn’t in our control, but sometimes it is.

And anytime you  have a choice in the matter, always choose redemptive suffering over non-redemptive suffering.

Non-redemptive is stuff that sucks, but it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t deepen you, or grow you, or make you stronger. Ironically, it usually happens happens because you were trying to avoid suffering.

“I don’t want to think about these bills and how much money I owe, so I’ll just let them sit in the bill box.”

[Result: Financial suffering.]

“My wife said we need to talk. I’m afraid of what she’s going to say, so I’ll just keep telling her everything’s fine.”

[Result: Relational suffering]

“My garage really needs to be cleaned. But I’m just going to get depressed and frustrated going through all that junk, so I’ll let it sit a while longer.”

[Result: Mental (and perhaps relational!) suffering]

All of these situations are just getting worse. They are all going to have to be dealt with at some point. But it’s too difficult, too frustrating, too painful. So you think maybe you’ll just ignore it.

Your mom isn’t treating your wife very well and you need to say something to her. That’s gonna be awkward. Just sit on it and hope it goes away.

Your husband has started drinking again lately. You’re scared to death of this conversation. Maybe it’ll get better if you keep quiet.

Your child is getting involved with the wrong crowd. You don’t want to push her away. Maybe you should just pray about it and hope it gets better.

Non-redemptive suffering is always the suffering you experience because you refused to suffer legitimately, over the right things, when you had the chance to make a choice.

N0n-redemptive suffering is hard to avoid because there always is the real but remote possibility that things will improve on their own. Or that your intervention will make things worse.

So you sit on it.

Ignore it.

Deny it.

Then one day your ability to choose is gone, and you have a situation you did not directly choose, your suffering feels overwhelming, and you’re suffering in a big way now simply because you were not willing to suffer in a smaller way earlier.

Think about it.

Controlling your spending is painful, but it’s worth the pain. You’ll be better for it.

Marriage counseling is painful, but it’s worth the pain. You’ll be better for it.

Cleaning your garage is painful, but it’s worth the pain. You’ll be better for it.

I could go on and on, and I sometimes wonder if I should. Seriously. I sometimes feel like maybe it would be helpful for me to list as many sources of non-redemptive suffering as possible so people can identify their own situations easily and directly.

“My tooth hurts. Maybe it’ll go away on its own.” (fear of physical pain)

“My best friend really hurt my feelings. Maybe I should suck it up and keep it to myself.” (fear of confrontation)

“I lost that promotion at work I really wanted. I’ll just act macho about it. After all, admitting it won’t get me the promotion, and I’ll just lose face at home.” (fear of losing respect and showing feelings)

“Sure I took that woman home after work, and sure I went up to her apartment for a drink. But we didn’t do anything! I’m not in danger! I’m not an idiot! I trust myself!” (fear of disciplining one’s desires, of never finding love, of growing old)

“What my child did was wrong, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her. I’ll just let it slide this one time.” (fear of losing a child’s love)

“I just took a few dollars from the safe at work. It’s no big deal, they’ll never find out.” (fear of telling others the truth)

“I’ll just have this one last drink and then I’m turning over a new leaf.” (fear of telling one’s self the truth)

“Yes, I yelled at my husband, but I was in a terrible mood. He knows I didn’t mean it.” (fear of apologizing and being seen as wrong)

See the pattern? Non-redemptive suffering nearly always comes from fear — fear of some other, smaller suffering you are being required to do now, that you don’t want to do, so you put it off and put it off, until the circumstances change, and some much larger, scarier, more brutal suffering forces itself upon you.

Obviously most illnesses, deaths, job losses, etc. are completely beyond our control and in those circumstances all we can do is learn to understand and deal with our suffering in redemptive ways. But always choose redemptive suffering when you have a chance. Always choose the small suffering you can do now, to avoid the large suffering you will otherwise have to do later.

And above all, remember this: Continuing to tell yourself that the big suffering isn’t on its way is one of the main ways of avoiding suffering. After all, it hurts to admit that what you’re doing, saying, or thinking right now is going to cause a great deal of damage later, so you can easily deny it, push it out of your mind, deal with it “later.” But eventually the suffering appears in a way you can’t avoid, as a direct result of your refusal to take action when you had a choice.

What are your thoughts and experiences with redemptive suffering versus non-redemptive suffering? Let me know in the Comments section!

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  • Kevin

    I agree that living in truth and living in falsehood brings suffering. The truth will set you free. Practicing self denial will only increase suffering and not allow one to have true inner peace spiritually. In keeping with truth Dave, what is your opininion on gray area thinking? Gray area in my opinion, only causes confusion of what is truth and a falsehood which augments to the concept of suffering.

    • That’s an excellent question, Kevin. What most people call gray area thinking, I call nuanced thinking. Nuanced thinking is thinking that is able to see very, very, very fine details, differences in situations that render similar situations nevertheless essentially different, and able to comprehend, or make, very subtle distinctions between one point and another.

      Most people want the truth, or think the truth “should be,” or is, black and white. This is rarely the case. The heart of wisdom is being able to discern precisely how truth should be applied at any given moment to any given situation, and it is the novice who looks for a formula, a one-size-fits-all approach. Jesus was a stunning master of knowing how to apply truth to different situations, and it was almost never in the clear ways the Pharisees thought it should be. His parables are so ingenious because in them he shows fantastic subtlety of thought and beautiful nuance.

      What may appear to many to be gray area thinking, and cause great suffering to them because they are unable to discern the truth in it, may be quite clear to another person, but just not as clear as others need it to be. I think often the truth is actually found in the gray areas, in the exceptions to the general rule. I’m very comfortable with it, Kevin. Again, great question.

      BTW, read theology and you’ll see almost nothing but arguments over very, very, very fine distinctions. One theologian says “Jesus is like the father,” and the next will say, “I could agree with that, depending on what you mean by the word ‘is.'” Bill Clinton would be proud. 🙂

  • Ame

    When I look at my “suffering” it feels so petty compared to what others go through.
    I am the youngest of my siblings. My parents started separating/divorcing my junior/senior year of high school. It made me super independent. I convinced myself I didn’t need anyone. Being recognized for my accomplishments became super important to me. In college I became very depressive and rejection and loneliness reigned.
    My result: I push people away before they can push me, I feel like I don’t fit in 79.4% of the time, I don’t connect with others and I don’t show empathy.
    I guess I’m glad I took the step toward therapy……

    • It’s too bad so many Christians are so suspicious about therapy. That is the place where people will encounter God more substantively than in any church service. So glad you’re on your journey!

    • Good for you! Seriously, it’s too bad so much of the church has been dismissive, even paranoid, about counseling because I believe most people will encounter God there more truly and deeply than they are ever likely to in church.

      • Ame

        My blog yesterday talked about my session yesterday and how Paul talked to me about needing to reach out and ask God for support!!

        • Please send me the URL for that blog again. I need to put that someplace where I can access it easily.

          • Ame

            emab316.wordpress.com