How does a Christian respond when there's just too much suffering?
The Syrian refugee crisis is the latest national debate, played out, as debates are these days, on Facebook feeds and talk shows, on blogs and in political discourses.
Some want to shut down our borders, a decision not stemming from maliciousness but rather a genuine fear that not doing so would put our country at risk. Others recall the parable of the Good Samaritan, contending that we have a duty to shelter, comfort and help these people, for they too are our brothers and sisters.
Regardless of where people stand, the recent events in Paris have jarred us—they’ve given us view to not only horror and violence, but a deep, harrowing sense of human suffering.
When I first learned of the news about the attack in Paris, I felt tremendous sadness, sorrow and anger. Even more, what I felt was an aching helplessness. How do we as Christians respond to this suffering—to the suffering families in France, to the suffering mass of refugees without a home or country, to the suffering people being terrorized and killed throughout the world?
It’s true that we must be guided by the spirit of the law—which is love—rather than a blind legalism or poisonous apathy that tempts us to ignore our responsibility of imaging Christ to others—even when these “others” come ashore with some potentially dangerous unknowns.
But what does this actually look like in a world infected with a frightening amount of suffering, misery and evil, especially when the suffering, often, is too great for us to remedy. Instead, we learn that God sometimes asks us to simply mourn with him—to enter into the world’s suffering just as he did.
Suffering doesn’t always come in the way of irrational violence but sometimes in unexplainable illness, far-reaching poverty, debilitating addictions, abusive and broken relationships and countless other forms. In a modern, technological world that grants instant and constant access to sobering news of human misery, how do we keep our eyes open? How do we not give into a stoicism or cynicism that prevents us from facing the ugliness of the world without losing hope?
We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.
—Saint Vincent de Paul
In keeping our hearts and eyes open to witnessing the suffering of others, no matter how bad, we are able to act. Our response may only be a prayer offered in humility, knowing that we are incapable of doing anything else but uniting our hearts to the God who suffers with us. Or it may be a response to love concretely and sacramentally—to befriend a lonely stranger, sit in the company of a sick relative, or offer the gift of food and friendship to a neighbor without either. Whatever the response, it’s always one that doesn’t come easy.
“Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to a place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”
—Henri J. M. Nouwen
While we will surely see the fruit of our efforts to relieve others’ suffering at times, most often we won’t. We’ll look out at a suffering world and have nothing to offer but a prayer of longing. Often we’ll see that the suffering around us is too great, and we too small to shoulder it.
And often we’ll see that we weren’t called to eliminate the world’s suffering after all, but rather, to enter into it as Christ did—as the Son of God did while hanging from a tree naked, vulnerable and utterly helpless. In some mysterious way, in our helplessness, we learn to hold onto the world’s suffering with a spirit of unwavering hope—knowing without a doubt that in the fullness of time, God will make all things new.
As we enter into this Advent season, and prepare ourselves for the birth of our King, let us not remain blind to the suffering of others, but instead reach out to them regardless of the visible outcome, with the patient love that knows no limits.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheerOur spirits by Thine advent hereDisperse the gloomy clouds of nightAnd death’s dark shadows put to flight.Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
—O Come, O Come, Emmanuel