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Does Suffering Make Us Stronger?

suffering and pain

Evangelicals often say that suffering makes us stronger. According to them, their God uses suffering to test, try, chastise, and even “save” people. (What a perverse God this deity is.) The goal of suffering, then, is to bring people into submission to God’s purpose and plan; to humble them before God; to make them stronger. Theology aside, does suffering really make us stronger?

I have an intimate relationship with suffering (an abusive spouse if there ever was one). There’s not a moment or day in my life that I don’t suffer from unrelenting pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, and, since my diagnosis with gastroparesis in 2020, nausea, lack of appetite, and vomiting. My body hurts from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet — literally. Yes, I take narcotic pain medications and powerful muscle relaxers, along with a drug for sleep. They “help,” but they don’t make the pain magically disappear. The best these drugs do is improve my quality of life. And some days, they don’t even do that. Some days demand I put a stick in my mouth, bite down, and hope, plead, and “pray” that the pain will recede.

Nights are the worst. It takes from 3-5 hours for me to fall asleep once I lie down. I read, watch TV on my iPad Pro, or get up and walk the well-worn path in the carpet of our home, begging and pleading for the pain to go away. On occasion, I will take a hot bath — and “hot” for me is straight hot water. During the night hours, my body pisses off the fluid that has collected in my legs during the day, requiring numerous trips to the bathroom or the use of a portable urinal. Eventually, I will fall asleep (though I typically sleep 2-3 hours at a time), only to wake up the next day and start the process all over again.

Now to the question: does suffering makes us stronger? For me, no. There’s nothing in my experiences with suffering that have made me “stronger.” I am a weak, frail man, prone to thoughts of suicide, knowing that the medical means to my end are but two or three pill bottles away. I hang on for my beautiful wife of forty-three years, my six wonderful children, and thirteen supercalifragilisticexpialidocious grandchildren. I hang on because I still feel I have important work to do through this blog. I hang on because there are still things I want to see and places I want to go. So . . . I endure. Has my suffering made me stronger? Absolutely not. I endure out of a raw, naked desire to live, to see my grandchildren go to college, graduate, and do great things in the world. I want to hold in my arms my first great-grandchild. And I want to see the Bengals win a Super Bowl, the Reds win another World Series, my book published (no I haven’t given up — yet), and Bethany marry Rascal Flatts. 🙂 I still have reasons to get up in the morning. And the day I don’t?

Early in the morning hours, in a weeping moment of despair, I texted Polly:

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you or worry you. I love you with all my heart. But, I’m tired. I’m in so much pain — head to toe. Mentally, I’m in Pilgrim’s slough of despondency with, seemingly, no way out. I feel very alone. I know you are right here, yet everyone seems so distant. I feel like I’m being sucked under by quicksand while those who love me stand by and say, “Dad/Bruce/Butch [my nickname, only used by my siblings, aunts and uncles] will figure a way out.” And when I don’t or can’t?

Unrelenting chronic pain and suffering bring depression and despair. How could it be otherwise? That’s why I have been seeing counselors for the past ten years. (I recently changed therapists. I am seeing a woman this time.) These counselors have literally saved my life. I wish things were different for me, but “wishing” changes nothing. I am a realist, a pragmatist. Life is what it is. All I know to do is to endure. The Bible says, “he that’s endureth to the end shall be saved.” And what “saves” us, in the end, is death, not Jesus. As a chronic pain sufferer, death is my savior. Until then, I hang on until my savior appears in the sky.

This post is not a cry for help, nor is it a request for unsolicited medical advice. This is just me talking out loud and being real with the readers of this blog. I am sure some of my Evangelical critics will seize on this post as an example of the hopelessness of atheism or some sort of character flaw in my life. All I can say to them is this: fuck off.

Other Posts on Suffering

Bruce, Your “Suffering” is Nothing Compared to Job’s

Quote of the Day: Theological Beliefs Force People to Endure Needless Suffering

Do Evangelical Beliefs Cause Suffering?

An Argument Against the Existence of God: The Suffering of Animals

Quote of the Day: The Kind of Suffering That is a Problem by Bart Ehrman

Quit Complaining, Your Suffering is Nothing Compared to What Jesus Faced

Bart Ehrman on God, the Bible, and the Problem of Suffering

How Fundamentalist Prohibitions Cause Needless Suffering and Pain

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Yeah, even if suffering from chronic pain built character? Decades of pain erode our sense of happiness, and we look forward and sometimes it’s only despair. And it doesn’t even help that you aren’t alone. I can empathize with my family member who is sicker and our levels of pain overlap, so I can get it. At the same time, I don’t cry for him anymore although if I started to have a discussion about it in-depth with anyone, I’d probably cry as the pain is still there.

    I’m so sorry, Bruce. You do help so many people and that makes a difference.

  2. Avatar
    Astreja

    The body knows what’s going on when we’re in pain. Chronic suffering messes with the chemical balance, and no amount of wishful thinking can turn that off. All this folderol about “character” seems to come from other people, particularly those people who want us to suck it up and get back to meeting their needs instead of our own. >:-(

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce: To me, your pain is an argument against “God’s justice.” Why would such a being or power force you to endure such hardship when you’ve given so much?

    And to think that for some of those folks who tell you “suffering builds character “‘or “God won’t give you what you can’t handle,” wearing a mask is too difficult!

  4. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    I am more than willing to just sit quietly and listen to you. Everyone needs a vent, an outlet, an overload pressure valve, etc. Mine is often talking about how much it hurts emotionally when there is someone to listen. Most times, just getting it all outside of myself makes things feel a little better. Sick people are like women. They are not necessarily looking for answers, strategies, tactics, or solutions. They sometimes just need others to “shut up” and listen.

  5. Avatar
    GeoffT

    There’s a very small element of truth in the claim that some suffering can help us in the longer run, in that pain is one of the body’s ways of alerting us to issues that require attention. The trouble is that our bodies are an evolutionary set of ‘bodges’ that just succeed in enabling some of us to live relatively trouble free for a fairly limited time. We are anatomically dreadful, with the result that pain becomes totally pointless: stubbing my toe hurts like hell, but why won’t it switch off the pain once I’ve treated it? In any event, the suffering of others hardly helps me. I’ve even seen apologists justify the murder of 6 million Jews as providing a ‘salutary’ lesson to mankind, but that hardly helped the individuals concerned.

    Bruce, I’ve no idea what an apologist might say about your suffering (other than the usual pathetic nonsense) so I simply continue to be amazed that you can continue to write in the quantity that you do. I can’t do anything to help with your bodily ailments but I can at least pay you the respect of reading everything that you write here.

  6. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    This is rude, but screw the people who tell you that suffering makes you stronger, or it’s some deity’s will, or that it’s a gift or a curse from a deity depending on the point that the speaker wants to make. Screw them all. I am sorry you are going through all that. The fact that you have so many things you still live and want to do is courageous AF.

  7. Avatar
    clubschadenfreude

    every instance of a suicide, especially by a christian, shows they are complete liars. the bullshit of “god will only give you as much as you can handle” is disgusting. and then it leads to victim blaming since the only way they can excuse their god’s failure is insisting that something was wrong with the human being.

  8. Avatar
    JW

    This is one of the deeper “thousand cuts” that is destroying my faith (or maybe it already has and I just can’t quite admit it yet). For more than twenty years I have been watching my wife’s health erode from chronic illness. I can’t even guess how many thousands of prayers from myself, family, friends, pastors and even strangers have gone up, but no response has ever come back down. Instead I get to watch my wife slowly decline from an active, adventurous woman to one struggling with everyday activity as she deals with all the embarrassment and frustrations that entails without any reply from God.

    I’ve heard the pat answers so many times:

    “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘not yet’ or even ‘no.’”–I’d accept one of the those, but silence isn’t an answer.

    “You can find God’s answer in his Word.”–You mean like Luke 17:6, or Mat 7:8-11, or James 5:14-15?

    “God’s timing isn’t our timing.”–Maybe not, but twenty+ years is still a long time for a human.

    “God has a purpose for this, you just can’t see it yet.”–Is it just so that my wife can “encourage” someone else with the same condition, who will themselves then suffer for decades so they can be a encouragement to the next unfortunate down the line? That seems to be the typical “purpose”.

    “Just remember that God loves your wife more than you ever could.”–and yet I’m the one who wants to relieve my wife’s suffering.

    “Jesus understands. He endured more suffering than any human ever did”” or “Remember the suffering of Job.”–and that is supposed to be a comfort in what way? Misery loves company?

    “It’s a fallen world. Disease is the result of sin.”–Wasn’t her sin removed as far as the East is from the West when she accepted Christ? Does that only count after death?

    “After Jesus returns, we will all have perfect bodies.”–When I can’t see God working in this life, it’s hard to have faith in the afterlife.

    The True Christians are welcome to declare my professions of faith/sinners prayers, repeated several times from childhood through adulthood in case I was insincere before, as self delusion. They can say that God won’t answer my prayers because I was never really in the club. I disagree, vehemently, but fine, I’ll take the blame. Still, at least one of all those others must have had at least “faith as small as a mustard seed”. Why didn’t God respond to their prayer? Heck, a stranger once approached us in a restaurant saying she felt God calling her right then to lay hands on my wife and pray for her healing. It was a little creepy, but I think her heart was in the right place. Surely she had faith…..

    My wife soldiers on with a better attitude than I have, but she’s missed a lot of things we looked forward to as we built a life and raised our kids and it frustrates her. I’ve run out of excuses for why God let’s this happen. Suffering sucks.

  9. Avatar
    Troy

    Suffering does have one character building attribute. You can only truly understand the pain of others once you have had pain yourself. It reminds me when my grandmother died, my mother handled the task of cancelling all of her appointments. Some of the contacts would acknowledge the change in the schedule matter-of-factly, and others would express sympathy, sometimes very intensely.
    This is one reason why I believe it should be a prerequisite for the head of the DEA should be chronic pain sufferers. Physicians who prescribe the necessary amount of pain remediation are watched with scrutiny, and that is truly is obscene.

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Bruce Gerencser