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Presence In Suffering

Anguish. Image by Malacki M Beser

In junior high school I hit a rough patch. I experienced a combination of family issues, financial uncertainties, difficult living situations, and social traumas. I began to doubt God’s presence in my life. 

As an earliteen, the Psalms intrigued me. I found their themes compelling and I loved their form. (Poems in general excited me, and I wrote some of my own brooding poetry to process my feelings of hopelessness.) When reading psalms that embraced difficult questions, the Bible felt relatable. 

Revisiting the psalms in this week’s lesson, I remembered how the Psalms comforted me. Seeing doubt and sadness expressed in the Bible gave me hope in my own darkness. The Psalms taught me early on that it wasn’t sinful to feel sorrow or to express misgivings. I remember feeling relieved—then and now—to read words in Scripture that resonate with experiences of exile, grief, loneliness, and uncertainty.

These psalms also underscore the power of presence and advocacy as antidotes to suffering. They join other biblical passages that call on us to attend to the hurting, to be the body of Christ, and to serve as witnesses, affirming that what we have done for the least we have done for Christ, himself. 

When reading the psalms this week that question where God is amid human misery, I wondered whether we, the readers, might be the answer. Maybe when we cry out with the psalmist and inquire why God isn’t showing up for the needs of the world, God is asking us the same thing. If there is a gift suffering provides, it’s that anguish engenders empathy.

Reflecting on my most desolate times, I’ve recognized two outcomes. First, I clung more tightly to God because I felt as though he alone showed up for me. That resulted in a deepening trust. Second, I became more empathetic to other suffering people because of what I went through. And what I found is that people experiencing hardships often receive comfort and validation from those who have gone through comparable experiences. Likewise, people who have survived trauma represent hope for those enduring similar traumas.

Suffering prompts us to act and reminds us of our shared humanity. Sociologist Irving Goffman in his book Stigma (1963) refers to it as becoming wise. Wise people, Goffman says, are intimately aware of and enter into the stigma of the one who suffers and whom society otherizes. For Goffman, such wise people become places where the suffering have a voice—a circle of caring souls providing acceptance akin to family. A wise person becomes the body of Christ to the one who is suffering so they do not suffer alone, something the church could learn to do better!

While reading Thursday’s lesson on Psalm 73, I noted that the text’s description of evil could pertain equally to the world outside the church and the church itself. The heartbreaking reality is that the church can cause suffering, and those who claim to be godly sometimes become oppressors. Consider Psalm 73, verses 7-8: “…imaginings spill from their heart. They mock and speak with malice, from on high they speak out oppression.” 

In his 2009 commentary on the Psalms, Robert Alter writes, “…imaginings spill from their heart – the Hebrew refers to graven images, so the sense might be that in their arrogance they spin out all sorts of presumptuous schemes or images of their own superiority” (pg. 253). 

As was true of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, Psalms 73 warns against faith that is used for personal gain and that causes oppression. When religious people embody evil (Jesus called it “wolves in sheep’s clothing”), incredible harm results. Religious settings should be the place where those who are suffering find reprieve, but the opposite is too often the case. When Jesus pronounced woes on the Pharisees in Matthew 23, he proclaimed truths that resonate deeply with people traumatized by those wielding spiritual power. 

But what if churches were brave enough to examine the ways they cause harm? Do churches succeed at someone’s expense? Do they exile people with their words or policies? Do churches gain wealth from someone else’s impoverishment? Do they valorize, even fetishize the pain people experience? What if self-reflection made churches places of healing and comfort, not of hurt?

In my darkest time of life, during the period when things felt incredibly turbulent, I found that God was still present. Although I often didn’t perceive it in the moment, looking back I experienced God as being unfazed by my pounding his chest with my fists, unafraid of my questioning, and holding me when I felt broken. I encountered what Psalm 73:23-25 says: “…You grasped my right hand…whom else do I have in the heavens, and beside you whom would I want upon earth?” 

May the depths of God’s presence that we experience, even in our suffering, compel us to provide the same for others in their suffering.

Image: Malicki M Beser on Unsplash

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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