Upon losing his wife to cancer, C. S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”1
Life offers no exit from suffering. In fact, the older you get the more suffering you’ll inevitably experience. But while that suffering comes in different forms and in different contexts it all seems to involve loneliness, grief, fear, and angst. Suffering strikes at the very core of one’s humanity—in the soul.
Loneliness and Grief
When I was 19 years old, my older brother Frank took his life after a long battle with drug addiction, mental health challenges, and a period of incarceration. It was the first time I had experienced grief and the shock of my brother’s suicide caused the anguish to be quite intense. Reflecting back on those sad days I remember that my sorrow took the form of intense loneliness. At the time, I told my mother that I felt a deep sense of aloneness. Yet my sadness paled in comparison to my parents’ profound heartache at losing their son.
Fear and Angst
Twelve years ago I fell deathly ill due to a rare bacterial infection. Initially my doctor thought I had stage-four brain cancer, which is almost always terminal. So at 45 years old I was forced to seriously contemplate my mortality. I experienced both fear of death and a deep sense of existential angst at the expectation of leaving my wife and our three small children. The combined sense of fear and angst that I experienced in this close brush with death felt very similar to my earlier encounter with loneliness and grief at the death of my brother.
So, is it possible that loneliness, grief, fear, and angst are all the same inner sorrowfulness? Or are they all elements of suffering that create an estrangement in the soul? I don’t know the exact answer to these questions, which relate to what philosophers call theodicy—the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.
Medicine for the Soul: Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace
By the grace of God I have experienced at least a foretaste of the antidote to this fourfold storm of suffering. For me it comes in prayer and contemplation of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When I focus my trust in the Lord, I encounter God’s unique love, joy, hope, and peace. I can’t say I always live in this state of rest, but my historic Christian faith teaches me “God can be depended upon in every circumstance of life.”2
Thus the only medicine for the suffering that crushes the soul is found in knowing and enjoying the unique God of love—the Abba Father who eternally loves his Son in the Spirit. Since the Triune God of historic Christianity is analogous to a family, this God is grounded in love and is love (1 John 4:8). Through salvation in Jesus Christ that Trinitarian love splashes over to all God’s adopted and anguishing children (Galatians 4:6).
By God’s sovereign and mysterious grace, the good Lord used this fourfold storm of suffering to reveal his fourfold medicine of grace in my life. Thus suffering is paradoxically a severe mercy.