11/18/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Does Suffering Bring Us Closer to God?

I'm going to be brutally honest here. I know it's a popular theory that the means to God is through suffering, but I'm not a proponent. In fact, I'm not a believer in suffering as a means to anything, really, except pain. When my son was critically ill, some well-meaning people would say, "We're so much closer to God when we're suffering," and I would think, "What? Are you crazy?" Because to be honest, I never felt more distant. And neither did my son. I watched helplessly as his faith dwindled and crashed out of a sense of sheer divine abandonment. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?" We had expected a sense of overwhelming peace and protection that would see us through the worst. It did not come. And whereas canned theology says, "God is always with you," that's far too simple and obtuse a concept when you are starved for consolation.

No, I am not a believer in suffering as a means to God. But because so many spiritual teachings promote that theory, I have investigated it as thoroughly as a person in a single lifetime can. What I have found is that suffering works well in the lives of people who have been running in the wrong direction, in which case pain can be a valuable reset button. In those cases, pain has the power to stop the momentum and turn a person around in the right direction, the direction of hope, light, and awareness. But suffering can also enter a conscious life of right action and abiding goodness, and in this case it has the power to diminish or even extinguish that faith. And although the suffering may be endured and endured well, it can be many years before that faith is repackaged and returned in a coherent or recognizable form. This is what St. John of the Cross called The Dark Night of the Soul.

It is said in the sacred traditions, that suffering has the power to empty us of the false self--that in great suffering, we are brought before God emotionally naked and that only in that nakedness can we be re-dressed and strengthened. As Thomas Merton wrote, "We are all a body of broken bones in the process of being re-cast." And although I understand this perspective well, I nevertheless maintain that Love, not suffering, is our best teacher. That God is Love--and suffering has less to do with God than with our broken-down world. That in fact, God abhors suffering as much as we do, and empowers us to end it.

Perhaps I feel this way about suffering because mine is not, nor has it ever been, a punishing faith. I have been born into and sustained a spirituality of great joy and abundance, a bounty which I have appreciated greatly and made a conscious effort to pay forward. Still, in my life and in the lives of good people I have known, great suffering has been unavoidable. So here's what I've learned.

I've learned that in the midst of the terrible suffering of a loved one, it is sometimes impossible to find God, because it is here that God enters us in extreme and unfamiliar ways. While we are desperately searching everywhere for divine nurturing and care, it is instead we who have been empowered by God to provide that care for another. In my case, it was my son. While he and I were looking everywhere for the divine support we needed, we forgot to look at each other. How we were surviving. How we have survived. How? How did that happen?

I believe now that it happened because I had been duly empowered to attend to the myriad emergencies--to hold him when he cried; to endure his pain and despair; to feed him; to make him laugh; to watch him fall apart; to put him back together again; and again; and again. Somehow I had been mysteriously empowered to do nearly impossible things. Things I thought I would never be able to do. Things I certainly never wanted to do. And in receiving these things and responding to them, he returned the favor.

The concept of God using us this directly in times of extreme suffering is a foreign one because we are nervous about the idea of being consumed by God. Of becoming God. Who are we?! This is often a case of false humility--false because when the self is no longer present or active, neither is pride. When the self is gone and pride is absent, there is only God. "The One." "The Source." While it is easy to understand the concept of "doing God's work," in extreme cases, I believe it goes further than we dare to look. Deeper. It is no longer a "doing" but a "becoming." You have to know what to look for. Look for this:

If right now you are in an extreme situation, searching everywhere for God, and God is nowhere to be found, look at yourself. Not just "within" but "at". Look at your actions. The expanding magnitude of your love. Your ability to be present in the face of great pain. To look it in the eye and stay put. Look at your ability to endure and persist and continue to put everything aside but this--your ability to love. Or if you are the sick one--your ability to respond to that love. To receive it.

Here you will find God.

It may be that in your suffering, your familiar faith has been disabled because it wasn't massive enough to accommodate the approaching transformation--the spiritual alchemy of an ever-present, ever-loving God who, for a time, in order to take care of you, became you.