The alien landscape of suffering is a world that exists on the other side of a tissue-thin membrane. We are separated from this world of seemingly ‘untouchables’ by gossamer-thin fibres of favourable circumstances that isolate the wounded from the walking. Those who suffer are caught in this nightmare world: even in sleep, the craved for escape eludes them. In this alien world time warps ― it enters slow motion― people’s lips move soundlessly. This lonely and isolated landscape can be torturous solitary confinement.
When we sit awhile in the landscape of another’s existential crisis we begin to attend to their pain and attune to their utterances of loss. However, this is not an easy place to sit. We are easily assailed by an overwhelming desire to restore that which was lost; to fill voids with solutions, and fix things up to stem the tide of our own overwhelming fear and anxiety – if this tragedy could befall one person it could befall anyone. We are forced to choose a vantage point, for there is no view from nowhere. We might choose to soar above the situation, theorising and categorising: retreating into our systematic and biblical theology to understand this loss in the sweep of all of creation and redemption. Or we might observe events from a psychological or medical perspective trying to situate events within structure and frameworks of mental and physical health and disease orientating us to find a solution to the current distress.
These different viewpoints map onto Frame’s triperspectival framework. Each theological viewpoint is a different type of lens on reality. The Normative lens captures an overview of reality capturing themes and patterns. From this normative lens are principles, doctrines, typologies and the salient turning points of salvation history are seen theologically from the divine viewpoint. The Situational lens is a long lens that captures what can be observed and described from history, nature, culture, society, psychology ― the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs provide examples and the situational lens on reality. The Existential lens is limited to the depth of field to which a particular person in a particular place and circumstance can see. The Book of Job (excluding the divine speeches) provides a salient example of the Existential lens.
The normative and situational lens serve to orientate and stabilise the soul carer. These lenses provide anchor points from which the carer can descent down into the existential suffering of another. By differentiating between the purposes of the lens of Scripture, the carer avoids using Bible as a book of solutions or oughts, shoulds, and musts for people who in the present time are unable to will themselves to climb up on to the first rung. Psalm 137 poignantly captures feelings of the desolation of such a people, the exiles who are sitting, weeping and remembering. For the exiles, perceptions of reality are shaken. They need to find new categories to process the experience, this takes time.
Many of the psalms of lamentation and Psalm 88 in particular paint a harrowing picture of a person who feels desolate, destitute and utterly abandoned by God. The sufferer is unable to come out to us we must enter into the alien landscape. For a sufferer undergoing a Psalm 88 experience, we also must descend into the dark regions below, sustained by the normative and situational knowledge that God is not absent even in Sheol or the pit, or beneath the overwhelming waves. We sit beside, we weep with those who weep, we pray, we wait and stay in the present, enduring how it is now for the sufferer.
It is an act of grace to stand with the sufferer and share their existential lens limiting our vista to their vista, trying to see things from their perspective – below where they are – not from God’s global perspective. To feel the events from their perspective – beside – this is not a time for putting things into perspective. Severe trauma and stress place a person in a continual present: the only starting point. We must stay beside the sufferer and ‘be now‘ in their present, being careful not to run ahead of them or pull them back, it is a dance where we must learn the sufferer’s dance steps.
Only by being in their present is there any possibility of scaffolding them into the future. There are times for remembering the past and times for looking forward and providing a reason to go on, but not at the expense of denying someone the opportunity to express the pain they are feeling now, today.
Once we are able to abide in the landscape, we have to learn to stand with the sufferer and allow our eyes to adjust to the surrounding darkness we also can accompany them. If we listen carefully we might hear the predawn birdsong as we wait for the predawn light, a thread of hope of a home where there is no more crying, no more pain – a quiet whisper; a plea that there must be more to life than this. We enter the chaos as one of Christ’s people and stand with the sufferer and turn our face towards the light.
Some of the content of this post was first published as “The Alien Landscape of Suffering,” by Kate Bradford, edited by Margaret Wesley, Loss and Discovery: Responding to Grief with the Compassion of Christ and the Skills of All God’s People. (Wipf & Stock Publishers) 2013. pp 166 -174.
Frame and Poythress Triperspectivalism
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