Lessons from Suffering

Survivors of some horrible plague or battle often find themselves wracked with guilt: why did I live while so many died? Though I had no battle scars, I used to feel a similar sense of guilt. I married the only woman I’ve ever loved. We have three terrific children whom Ruth and I adore and who, much to our surprise, actually seem to like their parents. (I don’t know how that happened.) I have a secure job that I enjoy and that pays well. Sometimes I would ask God: Why have you been so kind to me? Why have I gotten such an easy life?

I don’t ask those questions anymore. A little over nine years ago, when driving home from a family vacation, my car got a flat tire. When I started to change it, something nasty happened at the base of my back. Ever since, my lower back and the top half of my right leg have hurt. I had had a back operation as a teenager in the mid-1970s — they call it a fusion; the doctors take bone from your hip and lock two vertebrae together so they can’t move. After two more fusions, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills, my back and right leg hurt every waking moment. Most of those moments, they hurt a lot. Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up — and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it: the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.

A few months after my back turned south, my family and I moved north: we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia until the summer of 2000, when I accepted a job at Harvard and we moved to New England. Our family began to come apart. One of our children suffered a life-threatening disease, and Ruth’s and my marriage unraveled. Those crises faded with time but left deep scars. Early last year, another piece of bad news rocked my life’s foundation. In February 2008, doctors found a large tumor in my colon; a month later, films turned up tumors in both of my lungs. In the past year, I’ve had two cancer surgeries, and between five and six months of intensive chemotherapy. I’ve been off chemo for a few months, but I’m still nauseous much of the time and exhausted most of the time. Cancer kills, but cancer treatment steals — it takes a portion of cancer patients’ lives, as though one were dying in stages. Some of that stolen life returns when the treatment stops. But only some.

Today, my back and (especially) my right leg hurt as much as they ever have, and the odds are overwhelming that they will hurt for as long as this life lasts. Cancer will very probably kill me sometime in the next two years. I’m fifty years old.

Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse, and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes — why me? — makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.

Thankfully, God gives better and more surprising gifts to those living in hard times. Three gifts are especially sweet. First, our God enjoys healing broken bodies — but that’s not all He enjoys. He also relishes redeeming the brokenness: using the worst things in our lives to bring about the best things. Second, Jesus saves sinners — but that’s not all He does. By willingly accepting the worst suffering imaginable, Christ forever changed the character of living with pain and disease. Third, our God remembers us in our suffering — but passionless memory isn’t all He feels for those made in His image. Incredibly, the God of the Universe actually longs for and grieves with us in the midst of our hardship.

Consider those gifts in turn, and begin with the most surprising one: God usually doesn’t remove life’s curses. Instead, he redeems them.

Joseph’s story makes the point. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery, after which he was taken to Egypt. There, he was a servant in Potiphar’s house, where Potiphar’s wife made advances on him which Joseph quite properly refused. Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of trying to rape her, whereupon Joseph was thrown in a dungeon. The story then takes a strange turn. Because Joseph is in that dungeon, he winds up being in a position to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, after which Joseph is taken out of the dungeon and becomes, in effect, Pharaoh’s prime minister. In that role, Joseph makes sure that enough grain is stored away to keep the nation from starving in the midst of the drought he knows is coming. The drought comes, and the nation survives.

Joseph was victimized by two horrible injustices: one at the hands of his brothers, the other thanks to Potiphar’s wife. God did not undo those injustices; they remained real and awful. Instead, God used those wrongs to prevent a much worse one: mass starvation. When Joseph later met with his brothers, he said this about the transaction that started the train rolling: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good: rather, the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited on Joseph. Evil was twisted back on itself, like a gun barrel turned so that it aims at the would-be murderer firing the weapon.

Joseph’s story foreshadows the central story of the gospels. The worst day in human history was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, which saw the worst possible punishment visited on the One who, in all history, least deserved it. Two more sunrises and the Son rose: the best day in human history, the day when God turned death itself against itself — and because He did so, each one of us has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.

That is our God’s trademark: He takes lemons and makes lemonade. Acorns fall to the ground, and great oaks arise in their place. Farmers scatter fertilizer across their fields — think about what that means — and life-sustaining food grows from them. Dirt and water provide the nourishment through which the loveliest flowers bloom. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.

Christians err when we imagine that God is supposed to heal all our diseases. That is not promised to us, not in this life. More the opposite: Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” — not “might have,” but “will have.” But while God does not offer to take my cancer or my pain away, He offers something even better: that good will come from those illnesses, and that the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Romans 8:28 says that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him.” Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly, killing things, enemies of all who love life and beauty. But try as they might, those enemies do not get the last word. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. God sees to it. That is an enormous mercy.

The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as that greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed when He gave Himself up to be tortured and killed. Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as though I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.

Some days — but not most days, thanks to the manner of Jesus’ life and death. Imagine Barack Obama putting on a bad suit or Angelina Jolie wearing an ugly dress. The suit wouldn’t look bad, and that dress wouldn’t be ugly. These are incredibly attractive people. Their attractiveness spills over onto their clothing, changes its meaning, changes the way other people respond to it. If Obama or Jolie wear it, it’s a good-looking outfit. If they wear it often enough, it becomes a good-looking outfit even when you or I wear it. God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine-yet-still-human Person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But His suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all He touches. Just as His years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain He bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.

A great line from a great movie captures that reality. The Shawshank Redemption is about a prisoner convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. That prisoner escapes by crawling through a sewer line until he’s outside the prison walls. The narrator describes the transaction this way: “He crawled through a river of [dung] and came out clean on the other side.” God the Son did that, and He did it for the likes of me — so that I too, and many more like me, might come out clean on the other side. That truth doesn’t just change my life after I die. It changes my life here, now.

The third gift is the most remarkable. Our God remembers even His most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover.

The foreign-ness of that kind of memory is apparent in a transaction that happened while Jesus was being crucified. One of the two convicts executed with him said this: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded by telling him that he would be in paradise that very day. As we use the word “remember,” that story sounds off, as though the thief on the cross and the Son of God were talking past each other.

The story sounds off because the concept of remembrance means something very different in Scripture than in our culture. To us, remembrance means recall — I remember when I connect a student’s name to her face, or when I can summon up some fact or the image of some past event. That kind of remembrance is a sterile enterprise, lacking both action and commitment. In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart of the one doing the remembering; and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that He brought them out of Egypt, He says much more than “get your history right.” A better paraphrase would go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and you act on it too.”

Job understood that sensibility. Speaking with God Himself about what will follow Job’s death, he utters these words: “You will call, and I will answer. You will long for the creature Your hands have made. Surely then You will count my steps but not keep track of my sin.” Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it: hence his belief that the Lord of the Universe remembers each of his steps but forgets his many sins. Satan seeks to use those pains to destroy that relationship. But our God is not so easily defeated. He is the lover who will not rest until His arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.

Our faith is no mere set of abstract propositions.

Philosophers and scientists and law professors (my line of work) are not the people in the best position to understand the Christian story. Musicians and painters and writers of fiction are much better situated — because the Christian story is a story, not a theory or an argument and definitely not a moral or legal code. Our faith is, to use C.S. Lewis’ apt words, the myth that became fact. Our faith is a painting so captivating that you can’t take your eyes off it. Our faith is a love song so achingly beautiful that you weep each time you hear it. At the center of that myth, that painting, that song stands a God who does vastly more than remember His image in us. He pursues us as lovers pursue one another. It sounds too good to be true, and yet it is true. So I have found, in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer. So may you find in the midst of your own hard times.

Each of us longs for that God. Though I haven’t always realized it, I’ve longed for Him all my life. Here’s the amazing news: He longs for me, and He longs for you too. God grant that we would remember that truth, and act on it.

Bill Stuntz was the Henry J. Friendly Professor at Harvard Law School. Dr. Stuntz passed away in 2011 after teaching for over a decade at both Harvard Law and the University of Virginia Law School and fighting a three year battle with colon cancer. This testimony was written and contributed to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Graduate & Faculty Ministries in March 2009.

Two of Dr. Stuntz's books, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice and The Political Heart of Criminal Procedure: Essays on Themes of William J. Stuntz were published posthumously and are both now available in paperback. Follow these links to read more about the impact of Professor Stuntz on his students and colleagues as well as legal professionals. This interview with Dr. Stuntz brings insight into his faith and thoughtfulness. 

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