Soothe the Suffering

Excerpted From
Prayer in the Night
By Tish Harrison Warren

When my eldest daughter was learning to read, she would sometimes ask to lead us in Compline. As she said this prayer, she would confidently ask God to “smooth” the suffering, which is what our family prays to this day in her honor.

Categories of human vulnerability—the sick, weary, dying, suffering, afflicted, joyous—are clearly not little boxes that we each fit neatly inside. They blur and shade together. The sick, the dying, the weary and the afflicted are also “the suffering.” Yet we pray for each, one by one. This is not accidental or verbose. Praying for each in turn allows us to pause to honor each kind of human need. We taste different notes in each bitter wine of human misery.

Our common humanity can be found in our shared suffering. We all suffer loss. All of our hearts have been broken. All of us know disappointment. And yet we hold the commonality of our suffering in tension with the reality that hardship is not distributed evenly.

Some have it worse than others. Some of us carry particularly weighty burdens.

It’s difficult to discuss suffering generally, since it covers such vast and variegated terrain of human experience. There is physical, emotional and spiritual suffering—and we each experience these contextually and uniquely. Suffering cannot be painted with a broad brush.

Yet here we are, asking God to soothe the suffering. Or to smooth them, as the case may be.

Scripted prayers—the prayers of Compline, the Psalms or any other received prayers—are not static. As we pray them, we read our own lives back into the words we pray. Our own biographies shape our understanding of these prayers as much as these prayers shape us and our own stories.

Over years of praying Compline, I have come to think of “the suffering” as those in acute times of pain. There are particular events that divide our lives into before and after. There are seasons of deep darkness, failure and loss that indelibly mark us.

The year 2017 made me a different person. Before that, I had never lost a parent or a baby. Now I have. For a period of about six months, I was suffering profoundly (and mourning for a long time after that). During that year, nighttime amplified every loneliness and loss; aches echoed and pain roared. Grief was fresh and sharp. Things in my life that had been solid were shaken apart, and the rebuilding had not yet begun.

Here, I am distinguishing between “the suffering” and “the afflicted” because, while periods of suffering do not leave us the same—while they shape the geography of who we are—wounds can lessen with time. Suffering ebbs and flows. It never quite vanishes, but we learn to live again.

The prayer for the afflicted, which comes next in this litany of vulnerability, addresses long-term, chronic suffering. But first, we pray for those in the thick of it, those in intense times of crisis or loss. We pray for those in seasons when the agony and effort of life—of just making it through the day—is pressing and dire, when the darkness seems so vast and terrifying that it threatens to drown all else.

When does one’s suffering become enduring and unchanging enough to be counted among “the afflicted?” There’s no litmus test. We won’t always know whether the suffering we are enduring is temporary or permanent. Not knowing is a part of our vulnerability, and part of what makes suffering scary and difficult. We do not know how long it will last. We do not know when healing will come.

“The extreme greatness of Christianity,” wrote Simone Weil, “lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.” Christians have always looked to suffering not only as a place of pain, but as a place of meeting God. Suffering does not merely happen to us. It works in us.

Saint Isaac the Syrian wrote, “The Love of God proceeds from our conversing with him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.” Notice the order: learning to love God flows from prayer, which flows from stillness, which flows from “the stripping away of the self ”—the excruciating relinquishment of our desires and plans.

Suffering strips away the self. This sounds terribly painful, and it is. But the meaning and object of suffering isn’t pain; it is to learn to give and receive love. God isn’t a sadist who delights in using agony to teach us a lesson. But in the alchemy of redemption, God can take what is only sorrow and transform it into the very path by which we learn to love God and let ourselves be loved. This is the strange (and usually unwanted) way of abundant life—the dying necessary to bring resurrection. Scott Cairns writes, “The hard way is pretty much the only way that most of us manage to learn anything. Affliction, suffering and pain are—even if they are nothing else remarkably effective.”

There is an entire class of flowers that only bloom at night. Moonflowers, evening primroses and other night bloomers can only be glimpsed in full glory if you venture out after dark. And there are things in our spiritual lives, too, that only bloom in the dark.

I’m afraid of the dark, but increasingly I’m more afraid of missing the kind of beauty and growth that can only be found there.

Both Paul and Peter tell us that our suffering shares in Christ’s own sufferings (Phil. 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13). In suffering we find not only a descent into the depths of anguish, but also—often slowly, and always miraculously—an ascent into Christ’s actual life. Not only does Jesus deign to be with us at the graveside of a beloved friend or in triage in the emergency room, but in our suffering we join him in the torment of Gethsemane, the torture of the cross and the darkness of his own grave.

Paul even says that his own suffering “[fills] up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). This has confounded many a theologian (and led to a lot of debate, which helps keep theologians in business). What could it mean? I don’t think it means that Jesus didn’t quite suffer enough so we need to pony up some misery to clinch our salvation. But it does mean that to find ourselves in Jesus always entails knowing him in pain and suffering. As Augustine puts it, “Jesus’ sufferings weren’t deficient, but they also continue in and through the church.”

In Christ, God did not buy us a ticket to a life of ease and nonstop happiness. Instead, we are united to him, so that we grow up into his story through our own stories. The biography of Jesus continues through us, through the church, even through—perhaps especially through—our adversity.

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Excerpted from Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright © 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Tish Harrison Warren
Tish Harrison Warren

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, serving at Resurrection South Austin. She is a columnist for Christianity Today magazine and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (both IVP).