On Suffering

Grief and the age-old question : “If God is so loving, why does he allow pain and suffering in the world?”

A sweet friend of mine who has experienced her fair share of grief, shared a great article from Relevant this week on this exact topic. While I liked their point that it is how we respond to our grief that determines what comes after, I kept thinking about how pain, like love, is universal and such a core aspect of the human experience. This morning I had some downtime at work and while pondering this question, remembered one of the most profound paragraphs I’ve ever read in literature, written by Tolkien (naturally) in his Silmarillion.
First, some background info before jumping into the excerpt. Tolkien was a devote Catholic, and although he had mixed feelings about his work being considered as allegory, it is easy to see the parallels between the mythology that he created and the Biblical story. They both tell of a world brought to life by a divine being and quickly corrupted by a creation of their own, leaving a world that is broken and reeling from destruction that should never have happened. 
Here Tolkien describes Nienna, one of the Valar (angels of sorts), and her role for the world (Arda) after it had been scarred and perverted by Melkor (aka Lucifer):

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.”

Our current culture teaches that happiness is the key to life, that depression is an attitude rather than illness, that there could not be a perfect God who also allows suffering. But here, Nienna, a queen of the Valar and of mourning, is considered mighty. She is not broken by her grieving but rather strengthens others through it. Her lamentations teach pity and endurance in hope. She brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.
Without pity, and I would extend that to empathy as well, are we able to truly understand and connect to others? Without endurance through hope, would we ever know how to fight through to the end or believe that there is something at the end to be hoped for? If we never sorrow, would we ever gain wisdom or strength of spirit?
We avoid pain and hardships, convincing ourselves that our life is better without them or that by experiencing them we are being punished. But if the world is marred, pain isn’t caused…it happens. But we don’t have to stay angry about it, point fingers, try to find the silver lining, or deny that it’s happening. Suffering is hard and isolating at times. It is unfair, often unexpected and unwanted. However, suffering is also profoundly, simultaneously Human and Sacred, and there is strength, wisdom and hope to be found in it too.

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