Helping people suffer

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By Greg Forster; part one of a series.

I just dropped off my daughter at ice skating camp. Normally my wife does it, but not today. Today is a pain day. It’s the kind of day we need to talk about more in the faith and work movement.

My wife is a hard-working woman, when she can be, but she struggles with several chronic illnesses. A few years ago, her doctor told her that if she’d been born thirty years earlier, she wouldn’t even have lived to this age; the medical care to treat her conditions hadn’t been invented. As things are, she’s in no immediate danger. She does, however, have daily pain and other symptoms – always bad, sometimes too much to let her do anything.

I know that one of her greatest struggles is with the sense of failure she feels when she can’t do her usual work. That’s the Accuser getting at her, of course. But knowing that doesn’t make it much easier.

She has a very strong sense of divine vocation to her work as a mother. When she was in grade school, her class was once asked what they wanted to be when they grew up and she said she wanted to be a mom, like her mom. The teacher informed her that wasn’t an acceptable answer and she had to name a real job. I would pay a lot to be able to go back and be a fly on the wall during the discussion that shortly ensued between the teacher and my mother-in-law, who is of German stock and was raised in Queens. A delightful woman, as long as you don’t trifle with her young. Beth’s vocation to motherhood was subsequently deemed legitimate by the authorities.

It’s hard to live with a sense of grace deep enough that we can put even our most cherished earthly vocations on the altar for sacrifice.

This isn’t the only way in which suffering affects people in their vocations. Even if we limit the discussion to physical suffering, it’s still a much more pervasive reality than we normally like to acknowledge.

More common than the person who can’t work because of physical suffering is the person whose work causes their physical suffering. In the famous bubble quiz, which diagnoses how deep inside the bubble of elite culture you are, one of the most striking questions is this: “Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?” In the most recent version, this fascinating caveat was added: “Headaches don’t count, neither does carpal tunnel syndrome, nor does a sore rear end from sitting all day in front of a computer screen.”

What does the faith and work movement have to say about jobs that make our bodies ache at the end of the day?

Endurance through suffering is a key biblical theme, often associated with daily work. We see this not only in the narratives of captivity in Egypt or Babylon, but also in the wisdom literature that tells us to expect suffering even when we’re free and life is good. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” And then there is the great masterpiece, Job, which puts the question of suffering front and center.

God loves us and made us for work, so that we could love him and each other through our work. But in a fallen world love is hard. To love God and neighbor in our broken condition is to endure suffering. That we do so willingly, rejoicing in the Lord, and that we are willing to forego work for the Lord as well, is how we know “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

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