Stripped, Heather King’s new memoir on faith in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, brought to mind words from Viktor Frankl: “There is one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Pain and illness, loss and persecution, are moral and spiritual issues. They may drive us away from God. We may seek revenge on those we believe have harmed us. Or, we may discover how deeply we need God and answer God’s higher call to embrace suffering as a spiritual practice and a necessary part of life.
Episcopalian priest, Alan Jones, notes that spirituality deals with the unfixables, the necessary struggles that are part of every good life, the realities of mortality, aging, finitude, death, sin, and imperfection. We can ease the pain and grow through life’s struggles but we can never fully avoid all of them. In the words of Psalm 23, “though I go through the valley of death, you are with me.” The Psalmist doesn’t say – “over” or “around.” Rather, “through,” and there are some painful realities that we must simply face and try to find wholeness in the midst of anxiety, brokenness, fear, sickness, and death. There is no one way to go through the valley. Heather King has her path; she chose not to pursue chemotherapy or radiation in the treatment of breast cancer. Another person might chose to throw the whole kitchen sink of medical treatments in response to a cancer diagnosis. Both might be authentic acts of faith.
Frankl also notes that the last of human freedoms is “the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” Everything else can stripped from a person, as King and Frankl note, except our choice of how we respond to the challenges of life. We can’t choose the circumstances of life, despite our freedom and creativity. Many things simply happen. But, our grandeur and spiritual maturity lies in our willingness to embrace the reality of suffering and find God in the midst of pain. Alfred North Whitehead says, “God is the fellow sufferer who understands.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that “only a suffering God can save.”King discovers her freedom and calm, despite fear and trembling, in relationship to God. God in Christ suffers with us, for us, and in us. We can be worthy of our sufferings by seeing the way of suffering as the way of the cross, and in so doing gaining a larger heart, a compassionate heart, to embrace the sufferings of others.
Pain can constrict our experience. We can focus, and sometimes this is inevitable, solely on the anguish of body, mind, and spirit we experience. But, pain can also be the open door to God. We can, as the great Christian reformer Martin Luther, affirms become “little Christs,” sharing the graces that we’ve received with others who are suffering. We can become “bodhisattvas,” as the Buddhist tradition counsels, deferring escape and enlightenment to care for others. We can live the way of Jesus, as did the apostle Paul, discovering God’s grace is sufficient and that in apparent weakness, we are strong in God.
This is not self-help or ultimately a matter of will power, although it involves creativity, freedom, and agency. It is the gift of holy interdependence, trusting God with what we cannot change and relying on grace rather than our own individual efforts.
King shows us a faithful path. Her path is through the struggle and pain, and discovering that even in life’s boundary situations, in which we are most perplexed, God is with us and God’s grace is sufficient in this life and the next.