To live is to suffer. To survive is to find some meaning in the midst of the suffering.
In medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events; the situation is an extension of previous events and will be developed in later action.
The tendency to wrap our lives in storied wardrobe is a fundamentally human habit. We are a people driven by stories; our lives ache for narrative arch – a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we receive blessing, we tell our friends, family, and neighbors the story as if it were written out for us. When tragedy hits, we trace the contours of why and when and how and pine for purpose in the pages of our suffering. Culling a narrative out of the circumstances of daily life is as common as eating, drinking, sleeping.
However, if we were to take the time to think about the things that happen to us on a daily basis, particularly suffering, we might find that it hits us in the midst of our already moving lives. It’s an interruption. When tragedy strikes, we aren’t immediately privy to the chapter delineations, the character development, or the themes being worked into our story of suffering. It hits us like a slap in the face. It hurts, and it often doesn’t seem to make sense. Because we are so deeply storied, we yearn to make sense of pain. We are desperate to make narrative sense out of the suffering because we believe if we can make sense of it then we can cope with it more adequately.
Unfortunately, God didn’t design suffering that way. Yes, suffering has a story – a beginning, a middle, and an end – but we are only able to make sense of that story once we’ve endured the suffering for a period of time and have been helped by others in the process: fellow pilgrims traveling the Way, not tourists snap-shotting medicating spiritual verbiage. We can only make sense of our own personal story of suffering when we situate it within the larger narrative of God’s Big Story of redemption. Suffering comes to us in media res, but as we fumble through the flashbacks of our past, the doubts of our present, and the anxieties and hopes of our future, the Spirit helps us craft a narrative out of our suffering that eventually takes up residence within the framework of God’s unchanging Story.
In the coming days, the following reflections on the experience of suffering in the life of a Christ-follower come from my recent experiences. Many have suffered more and many have suffered less, but loss is loss. The knee-jerk tendency to overwrite pain with comparison is an inept defense mechanism we too often employ because we are uncomfortable admitting that we are hurting. In all of the following reflections, I hope to tether the tragedy to the inexhaustible richness of being unified with Christ in his death and resurrection. As St. Augustine says, “There are many moments in the life of a Christian where he must suffer the silence of God, but never his absence.” Because our Savior is a Sufferer, we don’t have to fabricate meaning to cope with our pain, we merely need to locate it in the presence of Christ always already in us.
What’s more, before I proceed, I think it’s important to identify a dangerous habit in the lives of well meaning co-sufferers in the Way. Suffering is too often characterized as the devil’s work. Spiritual attack. Distractions from what “God really wants us to be focusing on”. If you’re suffering, its because you aren’t focusing on God and you’re letting Satan hijack your identity. If you would just “pray suffering away”, everything would be peachy. Exercising spiritual gifts and spiritual jargon are used as functional dream-catchers to ward off the bad juju and sidestep suffering. I think this is a paltry and, ironically, demonic characterization of suffering. It’s rooted in the belief that what God wants for us more than anything is comfort. If God wants us to be comfortable, then suffering is certainly a tactic of the devil. However, if we recall the story of Job, the devil had to ask God’s permission to bring suffering upon Job. The tragedy of Job was signed-off on by the Lord. When we as individuals or as churches go through seasons of struggle and suffering and difficulty, the first mine we ought to quarry shouldn’t be “spiritual attack” – that’s lazy, near-sighted, unproductive and irreverent. The question we ought to ask ourselves is, “How can this suffering unify me with the suffering of Christ, and how can I endure it with humility and patience?” in other words “What is God trying to show me in this season of suffering?” As Paul says in Romans 8, “that which we hope for, we are willing to endure with patience.”
J. Todd Billings, in his sobering book, Rejoicing in Lament, says that all suffering is contoured like the Psalms. There is permission for the Christian to lament the pain and struggle and doubt accompanying their trial, but in the midst of their lament, there is a deep awareness of the sovereignty of God and his good, gracious hand in the suffering that leads to eventual rejoicing. Very often, there are seasons of rejoicing and lament that occur at the same time. The Holy Spirit isn’t given to us to sidestep suffering, minimize suffering, or ward it away. The Holy Spirit is given to groan with us as we keel over in pain and eagerly await the revelation of God’s purpose – the ending of the Story. The pregnancy pains are temporary, and the Spirit is our midwife guiding us through to the other side. The Spirit is our co-suffering friend, not our spiritual garlic clove. When we understand that our suffering is deeply felt by the Lord and thoroughly controlled by the Lord, we can approach it with honest lament and sincere rejoicing. We don’t have to chase it away like a rabid dog or hide from it like fearful children. We can endure it because we know that our present sufferings don’t compare to the riches of Christ that will be revealed in us. To suffer in media res is to suffer in Christ.