Jerry Sittser on the hope and growth that can spring from deep suffering. Excerpt from A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (eBook).
During his years in Nazi death camps during World War II, [Dr. Viktor Frankl] observed that the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to their circumstances displayed dignity, courage, and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering. Some chose to believe in God in spite of all the evidence to the contrary… They chose to love, however hateful the environment in which they lived.
In other words, they refused to yield ultimate power to their captors and circumstances. Though the world was horrible to them, they identified with another world — a world inside themselves, over which they had some control. They affirmed that they were more than the product of their circumstances. As Frankl observed [in his book Man's Search for Meaning], these few people tried “turning life into an inner triumph” and so grew spiritually beyond themselves.
It became clear to Frankl that “the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.” In the end he asserts: “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.” …
The soul is elastic, like a balloon.
It was this power to choose that kept the prisoners alive, Frankl noted… They learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain, for hope as well as for dejection. The soul contains a capacity to know and love God, to become virtuous, to learn truth, and to live by moral conviction. The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love. What we consider opposites — east and west, night and light, sorrow and joy, weakness and strength, anger and love, despair and hope, death and life—are no more mutually exclusive than winter and sunlight. The soul has the capacity to experience these opposites, even at the same time.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher … who lost his adult son in a tragic mountain-climbing accident a number of years ago … came to a conclusion similar to Frankl’s. At one point in [his book Lament for a Son] he comments on his own experience of pain:
And sometimes, when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears: a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith. In that radiance we see best what humanity was meant to be… In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making…
‘The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.’ -Nicholas Wolterstorff
My own catastrophic loss thus taught me the incredible power of choice — to enter the darkness and to feel sorrow, as I did after the accident, even as I continued to work and to care for people, especially my children. I wanted to gain as much as I could from the loss without neglecting ordinary responsibilities. I wanted to integrate my pain into my life in order to ease some of its sting. I wanted to learn wisdom and to grow in character. I had had enough of destruction, and I did not want to respond to the tragedy in a way that would exacerbate the evil I had already experienced. I knew that running from the darkness would only lead to greater darkness later on. I also knew that my soul had the capacity to grow — to absorb evil and good, to die and live again, to suffer abandonment and find God. In choosing to face the night, I took my first steps toward the sunrise.
- Jerry Sittser
If you’re like me, it sounds impossible to “[turn] life into an inner triumph” all on our own initiative.
Thankfully, victory doesn’t ultimately depend on us. Paul writes: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, NIV).
Learn more about A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (eBook).
I’m looking forward to Sittser’s upcoming book A Grace Revealed!
-Adam Forrest, Zondervan
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