The alarm screams on the nightstand. Morning grips and twists our deepest core and fills our whole self with the gut-wrenching pain we all know as… Monday. Now, this can be a humorous example of what we call suffering. Funny because it is both commonly experienced and commonly over exaggerated. We see T-shirts, coffee mugs and thousands of memes filled with the sentiment, “Please, God, no… it’s Monday.”
But there is a different type of suffering that is also common, a suffering that would be distasteful to print on T-shirts and coffee mugs: the loss of a loved one, betrayal, a struggle with faith or a dark night of the soul, and the list goes on. We all know… the list goes on. We can’t laugh it off the same way we shrug off sleep on a Monday morning. These things leave wounds that only time can heal, and sometimes not even time wears away the ache we feel.
In this state of deep pain, we might ask ourselves fair questions such as “Where is God?”, or “Can a loving God allow such pain?” I don’t pretend to have an answer to these questions, and I would even dare to say that no one does. I would, however, like to present one simple perspective on suffering that might serve to shed a small ray of hope on the seeming darkness and pointlessness of pain.
Authors always make their protagonists suffer. Think of any story. Whether it be the 1997 film Titanic, Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic A Tale of Two Cities, or Homer’s Iliad written hundreds of years before Christ, we always find the same thing, protagonists who suffer. They are brought to the edge of human hope. We might ask ourselves, what’s the point? Why make them go through so much darkness when the author could solve all their problems and make his protagonists perfectly happy and comfortable?
After watching Pixar’s brilliant animated film, Moana, I spent the next couple days going over the themes in my head. At one point I thought I had discovered a huge plot hole. The ocean is personified as some kind of omniscient and powerful deity, and I realized that the entire problem of the story could have been solved if the ocean would have just returned the Heart of Te Fiti on its own. Instead, it chose to drag Moana through days of risk and hardship, bringing her to the point of despair and total self-doubt. But for what? Why inflict so much pain when it all could have been solved so easily?
G.K. Chesterton’s book, The Man who was Thursday, poses a similar question. A poet named Gabriel Syme joins an undercover police force to undermine a group of anarchists meeting secretly in England. A complex plot is unhatches while Syme discovers that each member of the anarchist council (each named after a different day of the week) is himself an undercover policeman. In the end, they chase the mysterious leader of the council, named Sunday, to a mansion where they discover that he himself was the one who recruited them to undermine the council. As they sit at a banquet, they ask Sunday one by one why he made them chase after one another and go through so much pain and hardship. What was the point?
God is the author of our lives. Why does he let us suffer when he could solve it all so easily? I once heard a simple story that illustrates this question beautifully and gives an insight to a possible solution.
A farmer was in his field one day when an angel of the Lord came to him. “You see that boulder?” he said. “Yup,” the farmer replied. “God wants you to go push that boulder. He promises amazing things will happen if you do.” The farmer smiled and ran to the boulder. He shoved it with his hands, rammed his shoulder into it and heaved with all his might. Nothing happened. “Just keep doing that every day until God fulfills his promise,” the angel said. The farmer nodded happily and returned to his small country home. For a year he pushed that boulder every day. He pushed it in the rain and in the snow, heaving with all his strength, and still, after so long, nothing happened. Eventually he got fed up and called out to heaven, “Why are you having me spend so much effort and going through all this hardship for nothing?” God replied, “Don’t you see that I have already fulfilled my promise? See how your muscles have thickened and rounded with the effort you’ve exerted? See how beautifully tanned your skin has become after spending day after day in the sun? See how strong your character and will power have grown as you persevered every day, rain or shine?” The farmer looked at himself and marveled at what he had become. God spoke to him, “While you were looking at the boulder, I was looking at you.”
We see suffering. God sees us.
Authors let their protagonists go through suffering because they want to draw out the best of their character. They want their characters to grow and develop and that only happens by applying pressure. They construct personalized storms for their creation in order to make them shine most brilliantly.
My triumph at tearing down Pixar’s most illustrious plot designers crumbles hopelessly when confronted with this concept. Yes, the ocean could have solved the problem, but it chose to take Moana on an adventure in order to pull out her truest self and to let it shine before the world, a task that can only be done by well-crafted, perfectly designed suffering. While Moana looked only at the difficulties, the ocean was looking at her, sculpting her, perfecting her. If the ocean had restored the Heart of Te Fiti in her stead, there would be no growth, no passion, and ultimately, no story.
The Man who was Thursday ends beautifully. Each policeman spews out frustration at Sunday. Only one of them, Gabriel Syme, the poet called Thursday, understands and accepts the action of Sunday. He realizes how much he himself has grown through the adventure and appreciates the intricate story that unfolded in the process. During the banquet Sunday reveals his true name as “the Silence of God”. Only the poet understands the silence of God in the midst of suffering. He discovers the passionate story behind the hardship and marvels at what he becomes because of it.
God is the author of our lives. We are his protagonists. He loves us far more than any writer loves his characters. We aren’t merely his fantasy. We’re his children. Can we trust that he is omniscient enough to know how to draw out our fullest selves? He created depths of beauty within us that we ourselves don’t even know. Through perfect storms that he allows, we discover alongside him the fullness that we are meant to be. Do we dare believe this?
He loves us and wants to see us shine. He wants to show us the exquisite handiwork that we are. Each human soul holds a universe of beauty. God built diamonds and stars for man to enjoy, but he made man for himself. God wants to bask in our beauty and wants to teach each of us the gift that we are. But, just as in storytelling there is no plot or exposition of a character’s heart without suffering, hard decisions and pressure, just so, there is no self-discovery in the real world without pain and hardship.
This reflection leaves us with many questions. Can I trust that God will somehow bring my story to fulfillment and glory? Is it fair that God lets me be pushed around like that? Is it irresponsible of him to leave his children under such heavy burdens? As I mentioned earlier, I don’t pretend to have the answers. Perhaps the only way to find out is to keep pushing forward, and see for ourselves at the end of the story. I encourage you, if you dare, to ask him these questions yourself. Like any author, he loves and respects his protagonists. And I’m sure he would love to spend time discussing your beautiful story with you, however painful it may be.