distressing and suffering

Recall for a minute some of the statements made in the Bible by heroes going through distressing events,

  • If I perish, I perish... Esther as she decides to risk her life by breaking the law to defend her people (Esther 4:16b)
  • You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good... Joseph as he offers his brothers mercy for their evil deeds (Genesis 50:20a)
  • The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him... Jeremiah after lamenting over God’s destruction of Israel (Lamentations 3:25a)
  • Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes…no sheep... yet I will rejoice in the Lord... Habakkuk after learning of God’s impending doom on Judah (Habakkuk 3:17f)
  • Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering... But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ... Peter to suffering believers (1 Peter 4:12-13)

These and many other pictures from Scripture might suggest to some that increasing maturity in the faith not only enables one to be obedient, even rejoicing, in the face of personal distress, but also decreases the sensation of distress. The examples above might lead some to think that faith and fear/anxiety are incompatible, that faith and angst, faith and lament, faith and spiritual struggle cannot go hand-in-hand.

Why do I think this? Because many of my Christian clients wonder why their faith does not seem to reduce their own distress.

“Why does it still bother me that [former family member] hasn’t repented for betraying me?”
“How come I still struggle with fear every time I remember my abuse?”
“How come I can’t seem to stop grieving over the loss of my brother?”

Does gaining confidence in God reduce distress? Not necessarily

I would like to suggest that spiritual growth and maturity may increase spiritual distress in some particular ways even as it may give us the strength and confidence to follow Jesus into difficult and distressing settings. Notice Jeremiah ends his lament with something that sounds like, “…if you haven’t forgotten us already or are angry beyond measure” (Lamentations 5:22). Notice too that Jesus’ trust and reliance on the Lord does not limit his agony,

O Jerusalem, how I long…Let this cup pass…Why have you forsaken me?

Spiritual maturity is evidenced in increasing trust of God and obedience. But let us not assume that maturity leads to necessary reduction in spiritual distress.

Why not? Spiritual maturity increases our vision of just how broken the world is, just how helpless we are to save ourselves, just how naïve we are to think that we can help others with our own wisdom. It causes us to lament more, grieve more, and get angry more with the state of the world and with the level of unrighteousness among God’s people. Indeed, spiritual maturity strengthens trust in God, but may also trigger more and more questions of God, questions like that found in Psalm 88.

In the world of posttraumatic stress disorder research, there is an increased discussion of “posttraumatic growth” or the positive changes that occur in some people after experiencing traumatic events. Some come through traumatic events with greater sense of purpose, increased self-understanding, and solidified values. Researchers are studying this phenomenon in order to understand why trauma crushes some people but seems to deepen resiliency in others. Many have discussed trauma symptoms and traumatic growth as if the two are opposing ends of a continuum. But a recent article suggests this is NOT a good analogy. In actuality, those who show the highest levels of posttraumatic growth actually have the highest levels of trauma symptoms (e.g., intrusive distressing memories, triggers, tendency to numb, disrupted sleep, etc.). One review of 77 different studies found that those with the highest growth did have lower depression symptoms and higher sense of self but they also had the highest PTSD symptoms. Such results suggest that after traumatic events, those who garner the most mature, confident, and realistic view of self and the world may get to that position by going through the greatest trial by fire.

This makes sense. If I have very little distress, I don’t have to come to grips with my limits, the reality of evil, or the mystery of God. I’m not forced to challenge my worldview. Instead, I can live in a fantasy of my own making. But when I truly suffer, I must contend with my own inability to rescue myself. I also must contend with the fact that I am not God nor do I fully understand his ways. Thus, as I place my trust and hope in God for help both now and in heaven, I must open my eyes to the desperate groaning of Creation that reminds us that we are not yet in paradise.

This begs a serious question. What does the peace of Christ look like? Especially, what does it look like in the midst of a serious trial? I think Psalm 23 might give us a little hint. In the presence of enemies who are ready to attack you, do you want to eat? Peace may mean eating (which requires you to at least put down a weapon from one hand) even though you have no assurance that one of those enemies might let an arrow fly. Maybe it looks a bit more like that than a Thomas Kinkade painting.


0 # Andrew J. Schmutzer 2014-04-24 08:55
Actually Phil, I think you're spot on. Your discussion, however, is counter to popular Christian thought, which is geared to: affirmation, self-preservation, limited liability, and divine obligation to personal enrichment--but NOT through suffering! In popular thought, pain means someone screwed up. I co-teach a class on Theology of Suffering. For a generation steeped in broken homes and global terrorism, it's the most popular class at Moody--for those who can stomach paradox.
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0 # Marjorie LoVette 2014-04-24 13:11
Great post. What does the peace of Christ look like? It looks like a head on a pillow when the boat rocks in the storm, it is the amen in a prayer that was left to the Sprit's groans, it is holding on to a floating object when the ship goes down, it is the waiting in Jerusalem for the Promise to come, it is the singing in prison, it is while wearing chains, it is an island of just knowing you are in the center of the will of God while all else around you works against your very breath…it is being in His hands when life hits hard. That is peace.
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0 # Marjorie LoVette 2014-04-24 13:14
Job was spiritually mature - but have you ever noticed that GOD brought up his name before Satan…hmmm, must be going to work to get Job to mature even more. God will sometimes allow our negative circumstances to remain the same in order to change our character.
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0 # Ellen Mary Dykas 2014-04-25 12:45
Phil, this is excellent! Thank you so much for posting! I've only recently been doing some reading and study of PTGS, and how growth can come in deep ways post-trauma. Combining this with spiritual maturity and how our 'maturing' process leads us actually to be more honest and aware of how distressing this world is...brilliant!
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0 # Philip Monroe 2014-04-25 13:28
Thanks all. Andrew, I have a similar experience when I teach on a theology of suffering in my psychopathology class.
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0 # Cynthia Pollet 2014-04-27 08:22
Great thoughts! I was just reading about stress reduction on a secular site and it mentioned "engaging one or more of your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch." In both this article and yours, I thought that taste/eating during distress can be a good thing--but also a very destructive behavior as well. Many of us are "stress eaters" and believe that feeding ourselves will eliminate the stress. I guess the operative word in Ps.23 would be "table." When you are able to enjoy a meal (not stuff some Little Debbie snacks into your mouth) in the midst of trials, that's peace.
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