Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
There is an old Negro Spiritual called “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, and it’s true for all of us. During the course of our lives we both see and experience a good deal of trouble, much of it deeply personal. It is unrealistic to expect anyone else to understand the impact these troubles have on us. As the song goes on to say, “Nobody knows but Jesus.”
Every human person suffers. In our baser moments, we tend to assume that the other fellow hasn’t suffered as much as we have, or perhaps hasn’t even suffered at all, or (in our very basest moments) hasn’t suffered as much as he deserves. But this is a fallacy arising from the simple fact that we can’t really feel another’s pain. We can feel only our own, even if at times the suffering of another person causes us pain as well.
The reality is that the sources of personal suffering are not always simple or obvious; sometimes they are amazingly complex. Situations or conditions or anxieties or fears that bother one person very little might well cause serious pain to another. Our suffering is profoundly conditioned by who we are as well as by what happens to us. Every single person who has ever lived can honestly say that nobody knows the trouble he’s seen. Nobody, that is, but Jesus.
While some people must suffer horrible physical afflictions such as sickness, disability, injury or torture, even that sort of obvious suffering is deeply influenced by how we respond to it. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis discussed the differences in the suffering of persons and animals. Animals suffer primarily in a succession of moments. By contrast, every human suffering is made worse by anticipation, worry, feelings of inadequacy, and remembrance. Such things can’t be seen or touched, yet they can cause serious problems even in the absence of any objective external cause.
This explains why others generally fail to fully appreciate our own particular sufferings; instead, they frequently urge us to “get over it” or “grow up” or even “put it in God’s hands” as if this were a trivial exercise that any fool ought to be able to accomplish without a moment’s hesitation. If your sufferings are not obvious and physical, most people will just figure you’re weak. And even if your sufferings are physical, after a certain period of time those without your affliction will begin to be surprised that you’re still concerned about it. They’ve moved on; the suffering wasn’t theirs.
But Jesus doesn’t move on. While it is true that every human person suffers, only one Divine Person has done so, and He did it by an act of human solidarity so inexhaustibly complete that he not only suffered His own pains but participated in every other suffering that has ever been or will ever be. He shared your suffering of yesterday, your current suffering, and all your sufferings yet to come, because he carried the whole vast weight of sin which is mysteriously at the root of every kind and instance of suffering throughout time. There is a sense, of course, in which God the Father and the Holy Spirit both “know” our sufferings, but even they don’t know in the fullest sense, the sense that Mary used when she said she did not know man. In that sense, even among the Trinity, nobody knows but Jesus.
A few paragraphs back, I indicated how unsatisfactory we will inevitably find the response of others to our own suffering. This is not entirely true, of course. A few people are naturally empathetic, and Christ Himself makes possible deeper bonds of solidarity as we grow in union with Him. Insofar as it is not I who live, but Christ in me, I gain the ability to participate somewhat in another’s suffering; to affirm my oneness with all who suffer; to forge a union among the other person, Christ and myself in prayer; and so to mitigate the selfish, preoccupied tendency to “move on”. But “I” would never claim to “know” the other’s suffering. This bond of solidarity is possible only through Christ.
The lives of the saints and other outstanding Christians provide an enormous body of evidence to show that those who suffer recognize Christian solidarity as a special form of love which brings peace and hope. We too, when we suffer, have our special moments: In a flash, often through the kindness of a friend, we may suddenly realize that God is on our side, and suffering becomes, briefly, joy. Then, over time, our particular suffering may be removed, but perhaps even more frequently it is simply transformed. To put the matter more precisely, it is we who are transformed. Our suffering, which is so thoroughly conditioned by who we are, is transformed again by who we have become.
In the meantime, naturally, we struggle with our suffering, and with the transformations it demands, which are not at all clear and may even be, for ourselves alone, impossible. As I’ve said, we also find plenty of reasons to fault the responses of those around us who fail to take our afflictions as seriously as they should. Too often others appear to be reminded of the old joke that says the title of our Negro Spiritual should actually be “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been.” Perhaps we can admit that this too bears thinking about, for when we are suffering, we’re generally quite a lot of trouble, not all of which is (shall we say) strictly necessary. But in the end we may mix our chagrin with our consolation, because this new title is not precisely true either. In both cases, nobody knows but Jesus.
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