Suffering and Justice:

Finding Meaning in Your Suffering When There Seems to be None

Edited by Drew Friesen

Photo Courtesy of Josue Verdejo

By Nate Dunn

Published September 1st 2020

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.

-Jeremiah 6:14 ESV

"Forgive and Forget"

            It is not uncommon for there to be a call to forgiveness before a call to repentance has been made. Injustice runs rampant throughout our world — leaving a trail of tears — and yet those tears are too often forgotten and shunned. Through Jesus, we can find meaning in our suffering. Finding meaning in our suffering gives us hope that what we have gone through might yet have a purpose.[1] But to do that, one must first stop denying their pain and look at it within the whole of their story, reading their own story within the grand narrative of the Gospel. 
            Anyone who has once been a child has heard the phrase “forgive and forget.” It is so drilled into us in our youth that it is usually the first place we go when someone causes us pain.  Adam Young, a social worker and podcaster, often tells the stories of intense trauma and its following effect. In one of his episodes, Young shows how in many cases, forgiveness has been convoluted with forgetting and how in reality, they are incompatible.[2]


The Problem with "Forgive and Forget"

            Young also shows how the concept of “forgive and forget” is devastating to the healing process.[3] To most people, it seems only right that if we have forgiven our offender, we will also forget the offense and stop bringing it up. After all, if we have truly forgiven someone, shouldn’t we let it go and stop bringing it up? No.
            “Forgive and forget” has made us grossly undervalue forgiveness.[4] We had made it cheap when it was meant to be costly. We must first become acquainted with our pain before we might forgive. Can we forgive for something that we do not know? Many times it takes years to parse out how exactly violence has harmed us. I may think that I have forgiven someone, but years later learn that that pain kept me from connecting to my spouse. I now have something new to forgive. Forgiveness is a process, and it takes becoming intimate with your story and your pain. “Forgive and forget” stunts our emotional growth, and in cases of trauma, it will undoubtedly lead to further scarring. 


Why We Want to "Forgive and Forget"

            “Forgive and forget” is so attractive to both the abused and the abuser, precisely because it offers a fantasy to a person who wishes dearly to escape reality — the place that they were abused, taken advantage of, harmed. It is a natural wish. It makes sense. It seems hopeless that reality could ever have anything good to offer. 
            One of the most potent reasons to ignore reality is that to forget our pain gives God an out. When we forget, we no longer have to ask God, “How could you let this happen?” “Where were you when I was alone?” Instead, we turn it in toward ourselves. We say, “I should not have trusted him. That will teach me. Now, I’ll stop thinking about it and move on.” Now, instead of bringing our pain before God, we have denied our pain and cursed our beauty. When was the last time, instead of this response, you cried out to God, 
 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
-Psalm 13 ESV

as David did in Psalm 13? We learn in 1 John that we might have confidence when approaching God (1 Jn. 5:14), yet we fear God and doubt his love for us. 
            If you take up the call that this article is attempting to make and engage with your story, you will invariably have to feel and vocalize your anger at God. There have been times in your life where you have felt abandoned by God. Those will need to be expressed, not forgotten, and yet it can be scary even to feel anger at the God you love, let alone go to him directly with these hurts.


Acknowledging Your Pain, Your Wounds, and Telling Your Story

            While forgetting seems the far easier of the two options, it is usually impossible and always unhelpful. Instead, telling your story to loving ears can lead to restoration. That being said, it is no easy task becoming intimate with one’s story. It is time-consuming and leads back through the darkest parts of your life in an attempt to read meaning into those situations and to grieve. It is only once we begin to see the deep questions of life through our story and our story as a scene in God’s grand narrative that we might begin to heal.[5] 


Suffering Well in Your Pain

            If we do not forget our suffering, nor the scars given to us, what do we do with them? How are we to understand the pain that is all around us and enters our own lives frequently? This is a difficult question to answer. The main option given is to forget and ignore the injustice and the pain, but Christ calls us to live honestly in the world. 
            There is a song by Hillsong Worship called “Oh Praise the Name,” and it begins rather awkwardly by saying, 

I cast my mind to Calvary
where Jesus bled and died for me.
I see His wounds, His hands, His feet. 
My Savior on that cursed tree. 


His body bound and drenched in tears. 
They laid Him down in Joseph's tomb. 
The entrance sealed by heavy stone 
Messiah still and all alone.[6]
 

It is not at this point in the song that people have their hands up clapping and are jumping up and down. Why? Because this is a strange and unresolved part of the story. This verse leaves us on Holy Saturday! Who wants to be left there? And to add insult to injury, Hillsong has the gall to follow this up with, “Oh praise the name of the Lord our God.” 
            The Psalms are full of David expressing his pain to God and in the same breath praising him. How can David do this? There are two ways to find meaning in the midst of what would otherwise seem to be meaningless suffering. Firstly, we may have faith that God has purposes beyond our knowledge. Victor Frankl is best utilized here. When attempting to describe transcendence’s effect on meaning to a classroom full of students, he asked a question. “The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum and for this reason punctured, again and again, would be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable.” [7] Our inability to read meaning into a situation does not equal an actual lack of purpose. We understand God to be a kind and loving God; at times, we must trust that he will make our sufferings worthwhile, even when the situation is as bleak as it has ever been. 
            Likewise, there was a study done by the Yale School of Medicine post-Vietnam. Researchers were shocked at the number of Vietnam POWs who, despite the torturous conditions of the camp, said they “benefited from the captivity experience, seeing it as a growth experience.”[8] Perhaps it is time to rethink modern concepts of suffering and look at it as something that God might use for our good. 
            Secondly, there is a day coming, when good shall win, and justice will once again reign. We might still praise God, despite (and perhaps “because of”) our suffering because Saturday turned into Sunday. In that same song, “O Praise the Name,” the lyrics do not forget the pain of Saturday, two-thousand years later, and we are still mourning and experiencing that tragedy. Even so, they do not forget the victory that followed, giving meaning to the suffering. The next two verses go like this,

And then on the third at break of dawn
The Son of heaven rose again
O trampled death where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King


He shall return in robes of white
The blazing sun shall pierce the night
And I will rise among the saints
My gaze transfixed on Jesus' face.[9]
 

Do not be destroyed by misfortune, my brothers and sisters. Mourn it. Face it. Do not be consumed by it. Search for meaning, but if none is to be found, have faith that there is both unseen purpose and future justice. God loves you far more than you could love yourself and will be sure to deal justice to all who act unjustly to you. Hold fast to his faithful promises: 

“[I]t is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” 
- Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV


 “[W]hile we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
- Romans 5:8 ESV


For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 
- Romans 10:12 ESV


Whoever says to the wicked, “You are in the right,” will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations, but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.
- Proverbs 24:24-25 ESV


Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
- Romans 12:19 ESV
 

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] See Rom. 5:1-5

 

            [2]Adam Young, “28 Forgiveness: What It’s Not” The Place We Find Ourselves, podcast audio, Dec 10, 2018, https://theplacewefindourselves.libsyn.com/28-forgiveness-what-its-not.


            [3] Ibid. 


            [4] Adam Young, "29 Forgiveness: What It Is" The Place We Find Ourselves, podcast audio, Dec 17, 2018, https://theplacewefindourselves.libsyn.com/29-forgiveness-what-it-is. 


            [5] Dan Allender, Healing the Wounded Heart The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 31.


            [6] Hillsong Worship, "O Praise The Name (Anástasis)," track 1 on O Praise the Name (Anástasis), Hillsong (HIL), 2015, digital. 


            [7] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 118.


            [8] W. H. Sledge, J. A. Boydstun and A. J. Rabe, “Self-Concept Changes Related to War Captivity,” Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 37 (1980), 430-443.


            [9] Hillsong Worship, “O Praise the Name”

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