Suffering as Idol or Icon

I won’t mince any words. The past six weeks have run the gamut from delightful to downright awful.

In early December, I woke up with heart-pounding, stomach-clenching anxiety like I haven’t had since comp exams.

And it continued. And continued. I finally called my dear friend Kimberlee and she packed me up to her house, put me on the couch, and fed me dinner.  Jack and Jane drew me pictures, which I have taped above my sink. A few days before all hell broke loose, I had waxed poetic to Jack about the Book of Kells and showed him pictures of the illuminated manuscript on-line. He drew me an illuminated picture of my name. I could not see it for the tears.

Later, Kimberlee and I sat by candle-light late into the evening and talked about dreams and regrets and hopes. A healing, holy moment. For awhile the panic abated.

Yet over the next weeks, I continued to lose sleep, have migraines, and stomach aches.  The fear and trembling would strike at the oddest times, then disappear.

At one point, pacing around the living room where I’d had the worst of the panic, I kept saying, “I don’t want to go there again.”

But as clear as can be, I sensed a surprising response: “But Susan, it is a door to your heart, to love and compassion for others. Don’t look at it like a pit you can’t escape, but a door to my redemption.”

Pit or door. Idol or icon.

Suffering can become an idol. We flee from it in terror or sacrifice to it in hopes of relief.  We don’t want to ever go through it again, so we build the walls to keep it out. We move away, or hide away. We offer it tokens to buy an uneasy peace. It can become a petty god, demanding our lives in submission. Idols stop our gaze at themselves–there seems to be nothing more to life.

Or, suffering can be an icon. Never as an end in itself, never to be sought, but when experienced, walked through as a door into a wider reality, a reality where hearts of stone can break and reveal the flesh of Christ’s own love.

A heart that feels grief can also find love painfully present. When I focused on the love, the door opened wide.

I stopped at the exact spot on the carpet where, the night before, grief had filled me,  a beige shag abyss of panic, and realized that I never need flee or appease the suffering again. I could simply step into it…and through. I continued to feel the panic in my very marrow and cry out of the depths with the psalmist, but I did not fear it. God could and would redeem the experience. Every experience. No matter what. And not for me alone, but for others, too. The icon beckoned me beyond.

“God comforts us, not to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” –J. Henry Jowett

Or as scripture tells us:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” –2 Corinthians 1:3-5


(Not long after this, I got on a plane, weary and spent, to visit my parents for Christmas. During the two wonderful weeks there, my heart began to ease through their loving care and conversation. And a trip to the hospital revealed that, whatever else may be going on, I have acid reflux, which can have very similar symptoms to heart-pounding panic. The treatment helped and I finally slept. Thanks be to God!)