What the Apostle Paul Wants You to Know About Suffering


Much of what Paul says about suffering in The New Testament writing encourages us to believe that, when we suffer, we are never truly alone.

It’s a watercolor illustration of a beautiful but injured collie dog, who has hidden under a bush to avoid detection. Her muzzle rests on her non-wounded paw, and you can see resignation and pain in every painted line of her body. The mute misery of this image imprinted on my brain when I read the book as a kid, and it resurfaces whenever I think of solitary suffering. (And, yes, the dog’s name is Lassie.)

The way “Lassie Come Home” presents it, vanishing under a bush is the right thing for Lassie to do: she is hurt and vulnerable, so she needs safety and protection until she’s ready to face the world again. As a kid, accustomed to running to my parents with my pain, the thought that another creature’s best option was isolation seemed hauntingly sad to me.

But, as I’ve grown, I’ve come to understand a little better Lassie’s animal instinct to withdraw. Isolation is an intuitive response to pain, particularly emotional trauma. When we deal with broken hearts instead of broken legs, we start looking for the human equivalent of a bush to crawl under until the throbbing subsides. It can be counter-intuitive to reach out when we’re in pain.

The Apostle Paul has a lot to say about suffering, in his letters. An article entitled “10 Things Paul Wants You to Know about Suffering,” by Elizabeth Turnage, contains a compilation of his teachings.

And I’d like to draw out a few of the principles on Turnage’s list, specifically the ones that relate to the isolating influence of pain. Suffering has innumerable difficult consequences, but seclusion can be one of the most difficult. 

The first is this: We are not alone in suffering.

Ok, ok, we all know this. The hard thing is that when you’re suffering you feel alone. That horrible, half-drowned feeling of being absolutely the only person in the world who feels the way you do makes it seem like you are, indeed, underwater. There may be things that you know are true, but they seem out of focus and impossible to grasp. For these moments, Paul in Philippians 4:5-6 would remind you: “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything.” There is also Psalm 34:18, which says simply “God is near to the broken-hearted.” If you do not feel God’s presence, it does not mean he is not close.

Which is, perhaps, where faith comes in. Having faith does not guarantee that you will always be flooded with an overwhelming assurance of God’s love and faithfulness. When I feel the most alone, this is what I feel God challenging me to do: consider the possibility that I might not be alone. That God might be present whether I feel him or not. As someone who has reflexively crawled under many, many bushes, I tend to believe that when you’re in pain, being willing to entertain the notion that you are not alone is one of the bravest, most faithful things that you can do.

Secondly, God comforts us so we can comfort others.

Most suffering is an exercise in soul-expansion, shaping you, like clay, into a vessel that is able to carry more instead of less. Often, this includes taking care of the people around you. Once you come out from under the bush, you will notice others stuck in the same predicament and have greater empathy and ability to help them recover. In Galatians 6:2, Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Often, we are better able to help each other once we have an inkling of what another person is going through. If we never suffered ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to understand each other’s pain.

We can wield suffering as a tool to grow closer to God and the people around us. We as humans are not designed to hide until the pain goes away.]

The upshot of these observations, I think, is actually that we can wield suffering as a tool to grow closer to God and the people around us. We as humans are not designed to hide until the pain goes away. We may retreat for a little while, perhaps, but not forever. The facts that you are not alone and that God comforts us so that we can comfort others are bits of truth. And the beautiful thing about capital-T Truth is that it always there, ready to be taken hold of. If you are holed up under a bush right now, don’t feel pressured to act immediately. I like to imagine Lassie eventually feeling well enough to continue her journey home.

Just know that you are loved and not alone, that these things are true, and that bit by bit they are coaxing you back into the light.