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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

Making Sense of Suffering

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl

Christmas is about hope coming into the world. It’s about the birth of Christ and the hope his life and death brought with it. Hope carries with it the idea of meaning. That is, we put our hope in something meaningful. But the unavoidable nature of suffering brings confusion into the human experience.

So, we are asked to find hope and meaning in the midst of suffering and not apart from it. I write this to help you grasp how to find hope and meaning through understanding the usefulness of your suffering. I will do this by deconstructing two different biblical passages and applying a psychoanalytical understanding to them.

Part I: Pick Up Your Cross & Follow Me

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” – Matthew 16:24

What does this mean?

Pick up your cross. This part of the statement means that you’re going to have to put some effort into your life if you want it to mean anything. It means that we all have an obligation to bear our own suffering – because that’s what a cross represents – suffering. As you bear your suffering, do everything in your power not to make it worse than it needs to be.

There will be lots of pain throughout your life and much of that pain will seem unfairly poured out upon you. You must resist the temptation to become a resentful, cynical, hateful person.

But how will you do that?

You’ll have to be careful that the cross you bear doesn’t transform you into what it is – suffering and misery. It’s one thing to suffer, but it’s something else entirely to subject yourself to the hell of self-imposed misery. From time to time, you will find yourself in some dark, terrible place, but when you do, don’t knowingly do things that turn that dark place into something much worse than it already is; don’t make your life worse than it needs to be by becoming what you hate.

Follow me. The last part of that statement also carries deep meaning. It means that we all need someone to follow. For the Christian, the person we follow is Christ. 'Follow me' means that we, as human beings, live our lives looking for some ideal to follow. All of us have people we look up to that represent the ideals we wish we were.

When we find a worthy ideal, we aim at becoming that ideal. As we aim at our ideal, we focus our efforts and move in that direction. But there’s a catch: we have to bear our cross as we move toward our ideal. Carrying a cross is tiresome, difficult work so we're constantly tempted to lay it down because we think it interferes with following our ideal. Bearing your suffering and following your ideal are interwoven, you can’t have one without the other, because 'follow me' necessarily means that you are 'bearing your cross.'

You know what I’m writing is true if you stop long enough to think about it for a bit.

Do you know anyone who, through comfort, effortlessness, and convenience has overcome the terrible hardships of life and developed into a healthy human being? What hero worthy of imitating became such without some element of suffering? No, we strive to imitate these archetypes for the simple fact that they overcame their circumstances despite the cross they bore, not because they escaped bearing it. The greatest minds from our collective human past attest to this principle.

Finally, contemplate the words of the Apostle Paul:

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” – Romans 5:3

Part II: Follow the Star[1]

“…they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” – Matthew 2:9

The willingness to humble yourself is the first step in the process of change. You know where you must go, but you see that the path is too complex for you to navigate alone. You also need to know what you’ll be transforming yourself into along the way. You need a guide; you need something to follow. There are many stars you could follow, but there is only one meta-star; one brightest star in the sky, that is Christ.

You need to find the brightest star because you need a star to guide you. “Jon, why do I need to follow something? Why can’t I be my own guide?” Because life is too complex to successfully navigate without one. Without a guiding star you will become overwhelmed and thrown off course by the sheer volume and severity of suffering and chaos in life.

What does follow the star mean?

First, stars are above you and far beyond where you are now. It requires you to look up and rise to an occasion.[2] (It’s not by mistake that if you look up at the stars at night you get a general idea that there is something beyond you, something infinite.)[3]

Second, following different stars will take you different places. Be careful what star you follow because the star you follow will determine the path you take, and the path you take will determine your destination. Following different stars leads to different places.

Third, in order to see a star, it has to be dark. The darker it is, the brighter the stars appear. So, you will follow the star in darkness; your path in life will not be well lit. Moving in darkness is cumbersome and will cause you to stumble, but if you pay attention to the mistakes you make along the way, navigating the darkness will become easier and easier.

You’ll stumble less.

If you pay attention to your errors – and make the necessary corrections – you will become more experienced at walking in the darkness, and your competence will make the darkness seem less overwhelming. Of course, it’s still just as dark as it always has been.

It isn’t the darkness that’s changed. It’s you.

As you become proficient at navigating the darkness something paradoxical will begin to happen: as you move your star will move ahead of you. Because the thing that guides you moves, you must move with it. Because you have changed, the thing that guides you also changes. Your guiding star encourages you to grow.

This principle can be found in other biblical stories: the story of the wise men following the star of Bethlehem that led them to Jesus. The story of God leading the nation of Israel through the wilderness in the book of Exodus. God guided the Israelites through the wilderness using a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night. The pillar moved ahead of them, guiding them, and as they walked toward the light it moved away from them, signifying that where they were wasn’t where they were meant to stay.

Like the Israelites traveling in the wilderness, everywhere you travel will be riddled with uncertainty, danger, doubt, and suffering. But that’s not all that will be in the wilderness of your life – there will be good, blessings, joy, and gratitude in those places too.

If you stop moving forward – if you choose to stand still – you will fall backwards. If you stand still it will seem as if the world is moving away from you. It is. It will feel like the things you want to achieve are further away from you than they were yesterday. They are. The lesson you must learn is this: there is no standing still in life,[4] there is only moving forward or moving backward. Again, you know what I’m writing is true if you stop long enough to think about it.

When have you ever stopped dealing with the challenges set before you and they quietly faded away? If you stop moving forward you will have betrayed all the progress you’ve made up until that point. Staying in one place leaves you no hope of ever leaving the wilderness.

As you follow the star another phenomenon will take place: the changes you undergo will become less and less painful. You’re becoming resilient. You’re getting tougher. With each transformation there’s less and less of you that needs to be burned away.[5] As you walk in the dark you’ll still stumble, but it won’t be as frustrating and painful when you do because you’ve learned from your mistakes (hopefully), and you’ll begin to see the bigger picture. Unpleasant as it may be, you’ll begin to accept your suffering.

Accepting your suffering helps you make sense of it, and that makes all the difference in the world.

What Now?

If you want to make sense of suffering you will have to fully realize and accept the fact that you will have to make sacrifices[6] in the present to make your future better. Being aware of the future in a general way points you toward being aware of your future in a specific sense. Think about where you are now and ask yourself,

  1. Am I carrying the cross(es) I know I need to carry, or am I trying to avoid it?

  2. Have I found a worthy star to follow, and if I have, am I moving toward it?

Your initial reaction to these questions might be to make excuses for yourself and why you haven’t, to date, accomplished these things. If that’s you, ignore that impulse. Instead, embrace who you are right here, right now, in humility.

It’s only after you realize that you are completely lost in the chaotic wilderness of life, without a star to guide you, that you will be able to begin the process of transformation. Once you’ve done that, you have a starting point. You’ve chosen to set aside the lies that have kept you adrift in life; you’ve set aside your false self and acknowledge who and where you really are – you are utterly lost and in desperate need of a guide.

Congratulations. You’ve taken the courageous first step and opened the door to setting yourself aright.

Now – and only now – can you pick up your cross, acknowledge Christ as the one and only true star, and follow His perfect ideal. May His mercy, blessing and favor be upon you in doing so.


[1] This section has been adapted from the following lecture:

[2] We use language in our day-to-day lives that reflects this idea. We say that we’ve “risen above” our circumstances. We’re “climbing the mountain.” We say that he/she has “overcome their situation.” The opposite is true as well. When people feel as though they have no hope – no guiding star – they look down, away from Heaven, away from God, and away from anything that might guide them. Depressed people usually look down, at the floor. In Genesis 4:5 we see that when Cain refused to take responsibility for his actions, he “became very angry and his countenance fell.”

[3] Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

[4] Stasis is the term I use in clinical settings to describe the idea of “standing still in life.”

[5] The concept of “burning away” imperfections in people is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Job, Zechariah, Psalms, Proverbs, Malachi, 1 Peter, and Titus all discuss the refiner’s fire. In every case the concept of suffering is present, but perhaps the most poignant passage is found in Isaiah 48:10: Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.

[6] A good way to think about a sacrifice is that it is something willingly offered up for destruction in order to establish or maintain a higher purpose. The more costly the sacrifice the more meaningful the purpose.

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