When Amanda Held Opelt suffered a season of loss - including three miscarriages and the death of her sister, Rachel Held Evans - she was confronted with sorrow she didn’t know to how face. Why do so many Christians insist on an immediate, redemptive story arc when they experience suffering? 


Source: Photo by Tara Winstead: pexels.com

Nearly five years ago, I entered a season of profound loss. It began with the death of my grandmother, followed by three heartbreaking miscarriages. And then, my only sibling died unexpectedly. She had always been my “true north,” so her death left me completely disoriented. It displaced all my landmarks and removed any feeling of security or certainty I’d ever had.

It was in the aftermath of these losses that I noticed something strange. While the people who surrounded me in my grief were kind and empathetic, the words many of them offered were laced with sentimental optimism and saccharine reassurance. They spoke of hope, of my loved ones being in a better place. They spoke of the wonderful spiritual lessons I would learn as a result of this trial, asserting that everything happens for a reason.

Finding the silver lining

These well-meaning platitudes echoed an impulse I felt deep within my own heart: the desire to immediately find the silver lining, the ‘bright side’; the redemptive story arc.

Discovering a purpose in our pain is no new endeavour. The ancient biblical story of Job features long-winded speeches from friends trying to articulate why God had allowed a righteous man to experience tribulation. But the insistence on a speedy relief from difficult emotions seems to be of particular value in our current day and age.

I must believe then, that pain is not an aberration or failure of faith

I am an American, and so it could be argued that a desire for a brighter future is written in my DNA. Most of my ancestors arrived on these shores to escape the hardship of their homelands. Western thought throughout the last century has been decidedly shaped by proponents of the self-help movement, who assert that we can achieve success and happiness through the power of positive thinking. The prosperity gospel, which continues to gain huge ground in our religious landscape, insists that we can avoid poverty and pain if only we have enough faith in God and in ourselves.

A quick fix

Ours is a privileged and affluent society. Compared to generations past, we have unprecedented access to food, medical care and shelter. Even our mildest discomforts and inconveniences can be quickly remedied with palliatives and time saving mechanisms. Food is fast, pills provide relief for pain of body and mind, and phones offer constant access to distracting forms of entertainment. We have endless ways of insulating ourselves from unhappiness.

Every day, we contend with the illusion that we can control our outcomes if only we maintain our faith and optimism. And so, suffering and sorrow can feel a lot like defeat; like we have failed somehow. Immediate ease is our psychological muscle memory. But it is not always possible.

Christians, of all people, should know that there is no shame in feeling unremitting sorrow. The Bible never bypasses anguish. In fact, it almost seems to platform it, to indulge it. Nearly one third of the Psalms are songs of lament. Most of our biblical heroes walked through seasons of great turmoil, and their pain reverberates off the pages of our holy text. Israel’s story begins with 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness. God himself expresses difficult emotions: grief, longing, rage and regret.

Even Jesus Christ – who clearly had a well-formed theology of suffering, who knew the joy set before him, and who had the benefit of a birds-eye view of history – wept aloud in Gethsemane. He was so overcome by his anguish that he sweated drops of blood. When he hung on the cross, he spoke not of silver linings or faith over fear. Instead, he cried out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Pain and pleasure

I must believe then, that pain is not an aberration or failure of faith. It is part of both the human and divine story. As much as we want to categorise our lives as either happy or sad, blessed or cursed, the reality is that life is rarely either/or. It is both/and.

Every day, we contend with the illusion that we can control our outcomes if only we maintain our faith and optimism

Perhaps we desire to find instantaneous redemption in our suffering because it’s difficult to understand how an all-good, all-powerful God would allow bad things to happen. But the story of the gospel tells us that God enters into that suffering with us, experiences it himself and, through Christ, takes it to the cross.

May we come to see these wails of lament as worship, as the Psalmist did. May we realise that we need not immediately transform the bad thing into something good. We don’t have to label suffering as a ‘blessing in disguise’. We can confront it with honesty and call it utterly terrible, trusting that sorrow and joy can exist alongside one another.

Grief is awful. God is good. Both things can be true. Sadness is as holy as happiness, for God is present in both.