Online Conversation | Suffering and the Formation of Hope with Curt Thompson

Hope and suffering seem to lay at opposite poles of human experience. We hope to avoid or escape suffering, both for ourselves and for those we love. But what if hope — rather than being mere optimism or a pleasant disposition – is a virtue that grows and develops in suffering?

Curt Thompson, Trinity Forum Senior Fellow and author of The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope, joined us for an Online Conversation, on Friday, September 29 to explore how suffering, especially when processed in the context of community, can lead to deep hope.

Thank you to our co-host, Zondervan Books, and our sponsor, the Center for Being Known, for their support of this event! 

Online Conversation | Curt Thompson | September 29, 2023

Cherie Harder: Thanks, Campbell. I’d like to add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Curt Thompson on suffering and the formation of hope. I’ll add my own thanks to Zondervan publishers, who is our co-host in today’s Online Conversation, as well as to our program sponsors, the Center for Being Known—and you can find out a little bit more about them in the chat box—as well as the generosity of an anonymous donor. We so appreciate the support which has made these programs possible. 


And we’re so delighted that nearly 2,000 of you have registered for today’s Online Conversation. Just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention, and want to give a special shout-out to the around 250 or so of you who have registered for the very first time today. A big welcome to you, as well as to the more than 200 registrants from at least 37 different countries that we know of, ranging from Brazil and Burundi to Uganda, the UAE, and the UK. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. We’re really delighted that you’re here.


If you are one of those many first-time guests or are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.


It’s been said—by Jesus, incidentally—that in this world you will have trouble. And it’s true that all of us will encounter pain and suffering throughout our lives. And for many, that suffering may seem crippling, overwhelming, even hopeless. But our guest today believes that it is actually through suffering that we can form durable hope. And drawing upon both neurobiology and theology, he argues that the very process of deepening and strengthening relationships in the midst of our suffering can transform both our relationships and our very experience of suffering itself and bring us to a place not merely of endurance, but of a deep, even glorious, hope and transformed character.


That’s a lot to cover in an hour’s time and deep questions to wrestle with. But there are few who have done so with the expertise, empathy, wisdom, or dry wit and humor as our guest today, Curt Thompson. Curt is a psychiatrist in private practice, the host of the Being Known podcast, which explores the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation. He is also, I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, as well as a sought-after speaker and consultant and the author of numerous excellent books including Anatomy of the Soul, The Soul of Shame, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community, and his latest and gorgeous new book, The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.


Before Curt joins us, I also just want to send a special congratulations to Curt. This is the first time that we have had a five-time guest of the Trinity Forum Online Conversations. And while there’s very little similarity between Trinity Forum’s Online Conversations and Saturday Night Live’s programs, there is one point of comparison, and that is we have a five-time guest. So while we don’t have a jacket to provide to Curt, Curt, you will be the first recipient of the Trinity Forum t-shirt and the inaugural member of the Five-Timer Club. So, Curt, welcome.


Curt Thompson: Wow. Thank you. Cherie, it’s always, gosh, such a deep pleasure to be part of this. I’m just so grateful for the perennial support that you have offered—that the Trinity Forum has, that you personally have—for the work that I, and others who do the work that I do, attempt to offer to the world. And so just really grateful to be here. Excited. I mean, it’s odd to say that we’re excited to talk about suffering, although mostly I now know that my suffering will be deeply mitigated by having that t-shirt. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to wear that. Thank you. Yes, indeed.


Cherie Harder: It is always a joy to get to talk with you, Curt, and I always learn a great deal as well. So we’ll just dive right in, from comedy to suffering. You’ve noted in your book that all of us will endure suffering. All of us have endured it. Many of us are enduring it. We’ll all endure it in the future. And even so, many of us really don’t know how to deal with it because we’re so dead-set on trying to avoid it, deny it, delay it, and the like. And I’ll confess on the outset, if I had a choice between really doing suffering well and getting to avoid it altogether, I may well choose the latter there. But you’ve also said that it’s really important to actually attend to our suffering, to name it, and by naming it, of course, we’re not just acknowledging it, but we’re making sense of it and attempting to see it for what it is. Why do you believe it is so important to name and attend to our suffering?


Curt Thompson: Well, I think the first thing is we like to say in our work that we name things to tame things. And this is right out of the second page of the Bible where Adam is given a task to name, to give purpose to, an order to, wild things—things that are not necessarily within his immediate control, but he’s going to name things and also give them purpose in doing so. And this is— you know, since the book’s release, people have asked, “Well, why did you write this?” And I think what has come to me is, I think, without knowing this beforehand, I think that I wrote this to honor the suffering that I have witnessed in the patients who have honored me by allowing me to bear witness to their lives and the life that they’re working through. You know, the Christian story is the only story that really honors suffering, that looks at suffering and says, not that it is good in and of its own right, but that because we believe in a God whose primary character is one of goodness, that even suffering is something that he is going to redeem. But we can’t redeem things that we want to hide from. We can only redeem things that we’re willing to look at square in the face.


And when my patients have not just suffered for a certain period of time, but continue to suffer even as they do work that leads to growth, that leads to integration, that leads to wholeness, they discover that, gosh, I still have a family that behaves badly. I still have a medical malady that won’t go away. I still have a child who will not leave their substance abuse problem. While I am working to move toward Jesus, while I’m moving to be further in the dance of the Trinity, I continue to suffer because evil is not about to go quietly into the night. And so I think we want to name this because we want to live in the world that really is. I don’t want to live in a world that I’m pretending is different than the one that actually is. And every single one of us, all of our listeners, we may not sense our suffering as sharply right now as we perhaps have in the past or will in the future, but if we have a pulse, suffering will be our lot in some way, shape, or form. And the question for us is, when we do, how do we name it? But not just how do I, Curt, name my suffering and then respond to it, but how do we together do that for each other and therefore posture ourselves with our suffering in the same way that the Holy Trinity does when it comes to the suffering that Jesus experienced, such that we can join him in that as Saint Paul so beautifully wrote about—sharing in the sufferings of the Messiah? 


Cherie Harder: There’s a lot to unpack there, and I want to talk about the relationality of it as well. But you hinted at something else that I thought was interesting, which is the sensing of it. I think you mentioned at one point in your book that we really won’t perceive something as fully true until we sense it bodily. I think you said we sense it in order to make sense of it first. Why is that so important, and particularly when it comes to suffering? What happens when we don’t engage in that kind of embodied sensing and attentional kind of sensing as well?


Curt Thompson: Right. Well, I think there are two ways of responding to that, two parallel things we might say. One is that if we want to live as we were made to live, then we live as beings who are both embodied beings— this is the mud from Genesis 2: he formed the human out of the mud of the earth, and then he breathed the breath of life into man’s nostrils, intimately. And so first we are bodies. First we are mud, and then we are spirit. Then we are given this sense of awareness and sentience and all these things that make us uniquely human. But there is a particular sequence of how we are made. We don’t just find God throwing mud up into the air that he’s breathed into the air. He starts with mud. And in that sense, we encounter the world, all times, first through our bodies. And so, therefore, that’s how our suffering emerges. Even if it’s the suffering of something that’s taking place literally in my mind, that’s an ingrained activity. This is a thing that’s taking place with my brain. 


But a lot of my suffering, because it is too painful or I see my suffering as not nearly as significant as somebody else who’s my neighbor who’s suffering with something that is worse than mine, I then think that mine is not worthy of paying attention to. And the moment that I either ignore it or if I give it so much authority that it can’t be controlled, I can’t do anything with it, to the degree that I do not name it, I do not give myself the opportunity to then do something with it that actually can lead to, as we would say, durable hope, as it turns out. I’m not just called in the Scriptures to put up with suffering, to tolerate it, white-knuckle it. I’m actually called to allow it to draw me ever more deeply into a space of being loved. But I can’t do that if I’m not first willing to name it. And I only do that most effectively in the context of a community in which I’m being deeply known, a community that often is the very source of how these things are called forth. Somebody has to ask me about these things, and I’ll say, “Well, no, it’s not that big a deal, you know, because George across the street is in so much worse condition than I am”—to which we would say that would be the sure sign that evil is doing its work well in me because I’m now not naming it, but I’m going to burn energy to contain that suffering and that will be energy that I do not have available for God to create the beauty and goodness that he wants to create through me and in me.


Cherie Harder: You know, I am betting there’s probably a few Stoics who are watching who are having some internal reservations kind of being raised. Because you even say in your book, there’s been a lot of research showing that resilience in general has really declined quite sharply over the last 40 years. There’s lots of studies about the fact that we are experiencing unprecedented wealth in the abstract, relative peace and prosperity, and yet we are all increasingly anxious, depressed. We talk about feeling unsafe. Is there a role for snapping out of it or not talking endlessly about one’s pain or trauma? Does a refusal to kind of face suffering make us more fragile? Or what’s going on here? Why are we all so traumatized?


Curt Thompson: Well, I mean, to take another example from the body itself, you know, if you develop an abscess, you can just pretend that it’s just not that big of a deal. And you notice it on your arm and you’re just like, “It’s not that bad,” and so you’re just going to keep going. And at some point, somebody’s going to say, “Hey, what’s that thing on your arm?” And you’re like, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s merely a flesh wound. It’s nothing that’s going to create any problem for me.” I want to name things not for the purpose of groveling in it, not for the purpose of remaining in it. I want to name things in order for me to then be curious about what is the next action that we want together to take with this. Jesus coming is God naming the reality of the suffering of the world. It’s God saying, “I’m going to name things to tame things, and I’m going to tame it because nobody else here can. And I’m going to do so by actually entering fully into it, but not just to sit with it.” This is where evil was caught off guard. It thought, “Gosh, as long as I can just capture Jesus in his suffering with crucifixion, the end of the story— you know, I get to write the end of the story.” But evil doesn’t see Easter Sunday coming.


And this notion of our naming suffering in order for us to have it transform us and be itself transformed, by virtue of our seeing Jesus seeing us in this—. And this is where the body of Jesus plays such a crucial role, this notion of how, in the coming together as the body of Jesus, we are demonstrating the Holy Trinity’s life together. And so I become resilient not by white-knuckling it, not by just snapping out of it. That’s not resilience. Resilience actually is what happens when a newborn comes through the birth canal. We may have said this here before—we can’t get newborns to take interviews so that we can find out, like, “So, George, what was it like coming through the tunnel?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, but, like, never again. I’m not ever doing this again.” But what happens when George comes through the birth canal? He is welcomed, hopefully. He’s welcomed into a space where, “Oh my gosh, you’re here.” After a bit of a hard journey, after once you were in a place that you were just fine being. And then the whole notion of developing secure attachment. We would say that part of what is important about developing a secure attachment includes my experiencing ruptures, my experiencing challenging things, hard things, things I don’t like, things that are hard for me—as a six-month-old, as an 18-month-old, as an 18-year-old—but doing so in the context of a community that can enable me to know that I am not by myself in this very hard thing. As we like to say, I’ve said here perhaps before, the brain can do a lot of hard things for a long time, as long as it doesn’t have to do it by itself.


And this process of having and enduring hard things in the presence of others who are saying, “This is really hard, let’s keep going”—this is the very thing that develops resilience. These are the hallmarks of what we need to be able to put into practice in order for resilience to develop. It doesn’t allow me to be overwhelmed by suffering, but it also means that I can look suffering in the eye because I’m not having to do it by myself. And I develop a certain awareness that I can do things because I’m doing so because I’m taking other people with me—even when I’m having to do it by myself. Because really what I’m doing is taking others with me in that process.


And this, of course, again, is a reflection of how the Trinity works in the world in the same way that I’m convinced was working with Jesus on Good Friday when Jesus can see the twelve legions of angels that he is going to choose not to call on, but who he knows are at the ready. And in this way, in not being alone, we can do a lot of hard work. And when the world looks at how we suffer together in this way, the world is flummoxed. How do we act—? But this is what Jesus says, “The world will know that you are my disciples by the way you love one another. And the way you love one another, one of the ways you will love one another most powerfully, is by how you are with one another in the middle of your suffering.


Cherie Harder: You know, this is probably the central point of your book and one that I thought was just so fascinating, the idea that we can develop hope, but we can’t do it by ourselves. It has to be in community. And you have devoted your professional life in many ways to helping people form or reform secure attachments. But how should those of us who perhaps aren’t in the midst of deep suffering, how should we be looking upon the process of forging or developing durable hope as a community venture? What should we be doing?


Curt Thompson: Well, I think, again, suffering is a matter of attention in some respects. Meaning, so we might say, look, I can look at my life and I can say right now I don’t feel like I have access to the kind of suffering that I know some of my friends are enduring and experiencing at the moment. I’m not in that same space. But if I am willing to keep looking, I will discover that there are parts of my story that I wish were really different, and part of why I’m not suffering as far as those parts are concerned is because I’m conveniently keeping them somewhere locked away where I don’t have to look at this. And so for those of us who are curious about this, my invitation would be to say, well, where are the parts of our stories where we have unfinished business relative to the wounds that we’ve experienced? You know, one of the reasons that we say that we don’t suffer is not just because we don’t suffer, but because we have so many accessories at our disposal that can distract me from myself. And as long as I’m distracted by things that are not me, I don’t have to develop that muscle of resilience. I don’t have to name these things in the presence of others. I don’t have to do the work of forgiveness. I don’t have to do the work of no longer holding grudges. I don’t have to do the work of being curious about why do I think about the world as we and them—Democrats, Republicans, African Americans and whites—and all the ways in which we do this. 


We have opportunities to actually allow ourselves to enter into spaces where I guess I think that we would discover certain suffering should we be willing to do so. And so one practical way would be to be curious about, well, what are the parts of my story where there is wounding, where there is sadness, where there is disappointment, where there is anger, where there is a lack of forgiveness on my part that I have not explored? And what would it be like for me to begin to be hospitable to these parts of my story in the presence of others, and then be curious about what am I now going to do about these things? And also, as you do so, start to pay attention to what it’s like for you to be in the room with the parts of you that you would really rather not be in the room with. But to do so in the presence of others.


I think I find that when we talk about the large-scale fractures that we often talk about, in many respects, Cherie, they end up being simply rather enlarged extensions of our own inner lives. I can get online, social media, and we can talk about all the people who are not like us. And in so doing, what I am doing is not dealing with my own grief, not dealing with my own suffering. It is a way for me to distract myself from me. And the moment I decide that I’m going to pay attention to me, I will discover that if I were willing to actually have a conversation with someone who I otherwise see as other than me, I will find that they and I suffer in similar ways. And we come to find out that if I’m willing to be in the room with someone who suffers as I do, there is far more that we actually share in common than what makes us different.


And this becomes that very space where the notion of paying attention to and naming our suffering is not just for our own good. It’s not just so that I can no longer suffer. As we say in the book, look, I’d much rather read a book that can tell me how I won’t have to suffer anymore, but that’s not really an option for us as humans. But to the degree that I’m actually willing to do this work, it actually opens the door for connection with others at whose hand I have often assumed I am suffering. And this is why we read in Galatians that Paul says that Jesus didn’t just come to break down the wall between God and humankind, but to break down the walls between humans.


And so I think that when we start to pay attention to this, we also see opportunity for what the Holy Spirit wants to do in bridging these gaps that we find. But these things aren’t going to be things that we do by simply coming up with better ideas. They’re only going to happen when we in embodied community are willing to take the steps of being vulnerable with others about our own brokenness.


Cherie Harder: You know, as you’ve described a lot in the book, it’s intuitive to understand the incredible power of being in a community where you are seen and known and loved and that endures, and that develops resilience and internal strength. But even when one has great relationships and secure attachment, we’re all human and we disappoint each other, and we don’t read the room, or we leave the room and get tired and cranky, and we let—


Curt Thompson: Have you been in my kitchen recently? Stop it. 


Cherie Harder: Oh, we all do it, you know?


Curt Thompson: Yeah. Yeah.


Cherie Harder: We disappoint each other. And even when we are trying to be trustworthy, there are times we betray people’s trust or we misuse people’s trust. What happens then, when the person who is suffering is trying to develop durable hope through committed community and the people that they love and trust let them down?


Curt Thompson: Yeah. Well, I mean, this is, as we say to folks, you can work hard and stay in prison or you can work hard and go free. But hard work in life is not an option. And in the same way we would say you can work hard and be disappointed in community—which if you’re going to stick around with it long enough, it’s going to disappoint you because you’re dealing with people. Or you can work hard and remain isolated, which means you’re going to be committing yourself to an ever-deepening life of suffering, life of disconnection, life of disintegration.


And I would say that, you know, I’ve lived in the Washington area for 30 years or more, and we have a confessional— we have our own community through our church and through our covenant group. It’s been our small group that we’ve been together, basically four couples plus or minus some others, for over 30 years. And I think that everyone to a person would say that one of the most significant elements of what keeps us so deeply connected is the way we’ve had to repair ruptures. The way we’ve been angry with each other, the way we’ve disappointed, we’ve hurt each other. We’re not walking into the room looking for opportunities to do this, but you know these things do happen, as you say. And there would be the opportunity to say, you know, “I’m done with this.” The challenge is that to say that I’m done with this does not stop the reality that my soul is still going to be looking for it.


And so we could say the same— I mean, God could have said the same thing, right? They had that first conversation where the Elohim, the divine council, is gathered at the end of the first chapter of Genesis, and they’re all looking around and saying, “Is this a good idea or not?” And Jesus is wondering, like, I’m not so sure. Right. Because he looks ahead. And they decide they want to do it anyway. And he just keeps trying. He tries with Abraham. He tries with the Hebrews. He tries with Moses. He tries with Samuel and David. And with Jesus, he had someone who listens. He has someone who’s paying attention to the voice of the Father that says, “You are my beloved.” He’s paying attention to this, and he’s living as if it’s true. And the power that comes forth out of Jesus loving us and not doing violence to us requires him to keep trying with people that throw him under the bus.


And in our communities where— I mean we are in a season in which a great number of people are describing how they have experienced pain and woundedness in the church. To which we would say, absolutely, we’re naming the suffering, but we are naming the suffering not to throw the church under the bus. We’re not naming the suffering in order to say, therefore, you no longer have to be part of that. We’re naming the suffering in order to say what will we now do with this very object that we love? And we will have many listeners for whom we would say, yeah, there will be some relationships in which the person who has wounded you and the suffering that you experienced in that context is such that that person is in no way interested in pursuing wholeness. To which we would say, that’s a relationship that you don’t have to pursue. You’re not going to—. But in order for you to be whole, you’re going to have to pursue another relationship somewhere.


And I will say that Jesus is faithful to find us. And it is difficult to do. The gate is narrow. The road is narrow, the gate is not wide. We’re coming to pick up a cross, not a Tesla, to follow him. This is hard to do. And at the same time, our willingness to continue to pursue intimacy in vulnerable community, even when we have a remembered track record of that community in other places having been painful, it is the only way forward. And it’s not going to be a way forward where I only gather with people who think exactly like I think. This is really difficult to do. And we would say, I want to be looking for people who are willing to take the risk with me. And if it takes me one, two, three, seventeen tries, I would want to say to us, Jesus knows exactly what this is like. And he would be saying to us, “Now you know what it’s like for me to be me.” He’s not just saying, “I know what it’s like to be you.” He’s saying, “Now you know what it’s like for me to be me.” And this is how we come to find each other in order for hope to be formed, because it takes time, effort, energy, and practice being in the present moment with a different story than the one that I’ve carried around with me for so long.


Cherie Harder: You know, you mentioned isolation earlier, and isolation, of course, attends suffering. It’s also its own form of suffering. But it seems like when we suffer, so often, our natural instinct is to try to self-isolate. And you even talked about, you know, people who have been in a confessional community that you’ve been a part of and who were loved, who were supported, and it felt like too much, too much love, too much exposure. It felt threatening. And why is it that when we are suffering, we try to run away, to self-isolate, to run away from the very people or relationships that can heal us?


Curt Thompson: One of the things that we say in the work that we do with patients is that human beings do not make changes until and/or unless they have suffered enough. And this doesn’t mean that human beings don’t make changes until they’ve suffered. There are plenty of people who suffer, who have not yet suffered enough. And I’m not talking here about people who are suffering in ways for which they have no agency, someone who has cancer, someone who has a debilitating medical disease, someone who is in a situation in which they’re being mistreated by other people over which they have no power. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the fact that most of our suffering actually is because of what we do to ourselves in the stories that we tell ourselves. And we never know where that threshold is, the pain threshold whereby which I’m willing to do something different.


But, you know, two people come to mind. There was a very, very thin border between the actions of Peter and the actions of Judas on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. They’re not actually all that different. They both betray him. Peter in some respects, even far more publicly. Judas didn’t say, “I would never betray you.” Peter is the one who says, “I would never do this,” and then goes off and does it. But what we see is that they have two very different responses. Not that their agony was necessarily different, but for Peter there was something about him, the details of which we do not know, which enabled him to come back to stay. For Judas, it was too much. I don’t have any question that if Judas had decided to stick around, we would have witnessed a mind-blowing story of forgiveness. But he didn’t stick around. There was something about his own inner constitution. And I would say that at any given time, there is a part of me that feels very much like Peter. That, okay, I feel really bad, but I’m going to come back. And like, I’ve hurt Cherie’s feelings, but I’m going to come back and I’m going to make this— like, I’m going to see if will she have me on for a sixth time? Right.


Cherie Harder: Roll out the red carpet, Curt!


Curt Thompson: Right. Right. Or there is also a part of me that behaves much more like Judas. I can’t tolerate. I can’t tolerate even imagining working through that in that relationship. I can’t imagine that she would forgive me. I can’t imagine that she would want me back. I can’t imagine being with me. I can’t tolerate me. And we don’t have a playbook that can tell us, well, who are we more like? I can say that there are parts of me that are like both of these gentlemen. And the real question is, am I aware of it? Am I aware at what point is the part of me that’s like Judas in play? And at what point is the part of me that’s like Peter more likely to be in play? And am I willing to do the work of having enough people in my life where I will say, look, if I look to you like I’m leaving—? 


When Peter left, he went away in anguish, right? He wept bitterly. He went out and wept. Shame is just all over this cat. But something has him still lurking. He still sticks around. There’s something about that that keeps him in play. And there are parts of us that keep us in play. But I am not going to do that unless I have enough—. Perhaps Peter had— perhaps there were disciples in that group that knew that Peter would respond if they went to find him. And perhaps Judas had the same, but Judas just couldn’t do it. But who are the people who are going to come to find us when we find ourselves feeling like we’ve done that which cannot be forgiven? And in this way we will discover that it will take work to name that there is a part of me that wants to leave forever. But also am I willing to take a breath and turn around and take one step back with the understanding that there are people who are going to come to find me?


Cherie Harder: There are so many different questions that have been coming in. And we’ll take some questions from our viewers. A question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “How do you help people distinguish what pain is theirs to face with God’s help and what suffering is self-imposed and/or added by the adversary? I also wonder about how you distinguish between inevitable pain and avoidable suffering, what different language you use, what strategies you suggest people practice, etc.”


Curt Thompson: Well, let me just say I appreciate the questioner and the question, because I, too, like to know that I know that I know everything that can possibly be known. And the reason that I like to know the differences between all these different questions, these different things that they’ve posed—I’m asking I’m asking the same question—is because I worry that I’m going to miss what I’m supposed to be doing. I worry that I’m going to misidentify, well, does this belong to this person or does this belong to somebody else? Is this suffering that they’re self-imposing on their selves? Or is this—? And then I’m going to have my own suffering that I’m going to experience because I want to be helpful and I’m finding it really difficult to feel like I’m not powerful enough, that I’m powerless to be helpful in this regard.


So let me just say that I really appreciate the question because it reveals the parts of us, ourselves, that even though we would say this is not maybe deep suffering, but there is a certain degree to which I suffer when I feel like I don’t have all the answers for the person who is before me who is suffering. Just like Job’s friends. And they didn’t have the answers. And they would have done well if they’d just kept their mouth shut and would have said, “This is really hard. We don’t understand how much it belongs to you, how much belongs to evil.” Because we know that they weren’t all aware of what was going on between God and the Devil in heaven. But we know that they had a sense of distress such that they couldn’t not talk to him.


But there are some things that we can do. We can say, “What is the story that you’re telling yourself about your experience? What’s the story, what’s the relationship that you’re having with your suffering right now? What do you think? Do you think it’s your fault? Do you think it’s God’s fault? Do you think, like—?  You tell me. Tell me more about—. Let’s name the nature of what it is that your experience is.” And in so doing, we begin to explore the very—. We’re not just talking about suffering in asking this question. We are entering into the suffering. The very act of being curious with people about what their experience is like is invitational to them to allow you to share in their suffering. The very act of curiously connecting with people mitigates the nature of the pain that we experience.


We like to say that suffering is our response to pain over time. It’s the shorthand for it. And that suffering depends a great deal on the way I as a human both tell time—because if I know that I might have this pain for the next six weeks or six years or until I’m dead, that shapes my experience of the pain that I have. In addition, the story that I tell—”Nobody cares about my pain; I’m not going to be okay with my pain”—that story also is shaping my experience of my suffering. And in this way, we are those who are responsible for this, and the presence of others who are curious with me, without condemnation, is one of the primary ways that it mitigates my experience of suffering. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it changes it and enables it to be transforming for me, while also, for those of us who are asking the question, we discover that being engaged with people makes it possible for me not to feel the pressure that I have to know where all the lines are between one thing and the other. And over time and experience of sitting with our own suffering and that of others, we come to have a better sense of where those lines are. But I can assure us that Jesus is not worried about our knowing that we know that we know at all times. He’s far more interested, I think, in our simply being with people in their suffering without having to solve it.


Cherie Harder: So another question comes from Victoria Martineau, who asks, “How do we apply Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24: ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh. I’m filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church.’ What does this mean for us?”


Curt Thompson: Well, that and a PhD in theology might be able to get us an answer. Well, it’s a great question. And I would say that text is not unlike the text that we explore in The Deepest Place. And one of the primary things that we talk about in the opening section of the book is: I can read a text as a 21st-century North American, and I read it as if Paul is writing to me, Curt, not writing to me, a member of a group in Colossae or in Rome. And I often read and hear this text as an abstraction. By abstraction, I mean like it is a cognitive process that I take in and I imagine. All true. But what does it actually mean as far as my embodied experience is concerned? When he talks about rejoicing, when he then talks about “not only this, we glory in our sufferings, for suffering leads to perseverance and character and hope,” that glory is preceded by this question of faith, which is about trust, which is actually about attachment. I can’t begin to talk about rejoicing in these sufferings without having a real embodied encounter with what it means to be deeply, comprehensively loved. And if I have an awareness of being loved as it has been given to me by the people who were in my life, who are the body of Jesus, this then, is not primarily or first theology. Theology comes as a result of what I have experienced in my body. And if I am in the middle of pain, and you are in the room with me and you refuse to leave, I come to experience what it’s like to be grateful for, to literally have joy with someone who stays with me in the middle of my pain. And I start to pay attention as much, if not more, to that than I do with my pain.


If this is Paul’s real experience—because he’s not being distracted by the supercomputer that’s in his pocket that we carry around—if this is the case, then I have the experience of rejoicing literally in my chest long before I write about it in my letter to the church at Colossae. If I am not in a community in which I am practicing these things on a regular daily basis, this is just merely theology. Which then leaves me wondering, like, how do I appropriate this? We appropriate it by living our real lives as they really are, not ignoring or pretending that we aren’t suffering. But if we are willing to not accessorize ourselves but live where we really are, we will come to find that I am so much more desperately in need of the connection and the mercy that others offer me—not just God, but real people in time and space—and that gives my body, my mind, my soul, all of me, a much more viscerally felt sense of what Paul’s getting at in that text. And, therefore, it’s not just some theological idea that I have to shoehorn into my lived experience, but my theology grows out of what my lived experience actually is.


Cherie Harder: That’s great. I want to combine two distinct but somewhat related questions that you actually sort of touched on just now, both from anonymous attendees, the first of which asks, “Can we suffer with hope outside of a community? I’m speaking of those whose suffering causes them to fold into themselves and isolate. And how, if at all, does one manage to find hope that way?” And separately, “How can we move forward in a community when it’s that very community that caused a part of our suffering?”


Curt Thompson: Well, I would say one thing to consider is that when we talk about hope, we’re usually talking about this thing that is particular to circumstances in which we really need it and want it: “I really hope that my team wins.” I usually talk about that because I’m worried that my team probably won’t. Otherwise I don’t talk about hoping. But interestingly enough, when we walk across the floor, we don’t consciously think, “Oh my gosh, I hope that the floor holds when I walk across the floor.” I’m not thinking that consciously, but my body is actually moving and living as if it is having to hope that the floor holds. This is what we learned from the time we come into the world. That hope is being formed by having experiences that teach us to trust that I can anticipate some form of goodness in my life. So much of that goodness is so common that I don’t think of it in terms of being hopeful about it. I hope that I get to have a meal tonight for dinner. But I don’t think of it in those terms because it is so common that I would—unless I were to find myself in a situation in which we couldn’t have access to food. And then hope becomes something that I talk about in those terms.


What we’re really saying is that hope is a thing that we’re doing all [the time]—we’re living hopefully all the time. There are so many things that we are actually living hopefully for and we actually experience them. The floor holds. I get to have my meal. What your question is getting at is those elements of our lives that are so rare—for us to be loved in our woundedness, for us to have hope felt in the place of, in the presence of this sense of the part of my story that feels so painful. And when we say, “Well, can a person have hope apart from others?” And we would say, like, actually, no. My capacity for generating hope happens from the very time I come into the world because other people are enabling me to generate hope. That is why we would say, I don’t form hope for myself. We form hope for me. We form hope for you. Because this is how the brain works. We are co-creating an anticipated future of goodness and beauty, which is one of hope.


It’s then obvious that when we have communities that are the source of our pain, the question comes like we do with anything else. When we have experiences of wounding in communities that we long to be connected in, we do our best to repair those ruptures. We do our best to name the pain that we have. We do our best to say, “When you said this, when you did that, I felt this. And are we then able to move to repair that?” And if you find that it’s not just with your church community, but with your family or with where you work, if we find that this is a community, this is a system, that is unwilling to hear this, we are getting the sense that that’s not a person, that’s not the community where I’m going to find that to take place. It strikes me—I mean, who knows, we may get to the new heaven and earth and discover differently—that none of the Gospels report after the resurrection Jesus going to Pilot, to Caiaphas, to Ananias, and saying, “Now what do you think of me?” Right. We would like to think that he would go and say something like this. But he’s aware that these are not people who are interested in connection of this kind. These are not people who are interested in his kingdom.


And so this takes time. This is difficult, and it takes practice, beginning with small groups, small communities, of people who are willing to work with us in order for us then to make these decisions about what to do with these other communities that are so difficult for us to navigate at times.


Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we have a couple of questions, and I’ll combine two, both people concerned about the gradations, I guess, of suffering. An anonymous attendee asks, “What if someone interprets disappointment as trauma? Is that distinction important or should we just see them as variations on the theme of suffering?” And Alexander Maurer asks, “What would you say is a healthy balance between resiliency and admitting suffering so that we grow and heal but avoid taking advantage of others during the healing or even playing the victim card?”


Curt Thompson: Again, the nature of our questions are such that I’d like to know where the line is between disappointment and suffering. I’d like to know the line where these things are, which of course is revealing what is it that I’m wanting? What is it that I’m worried about that I’m not going to have the skill set for when I’m encountering folks like this, when I’m encountering, frankly, the parts of me that don’t—? Like, is my disappointment worthy for me to call suffering? Well, I don’t know. If you’re someone who’s married and you’ve been trying to have children, and it’s not happening for years, you’re disappointed, but is it okay for you to name that as suffering? I would say that question is less important than describing what is the nature of your experience. Tell me what the nature of your experience is. You’ve had four miscarriages. You’ve been trying to have children for the last seven years. I’m not really so concerned about what we call it, how we define it. I’m much more concerned about being present with you. I’m much more concerned about what happens then if you are willing to allow me to be present, if you’re willing to allow your community to be present with you. Not so that we simply are with you to continually, forever, only say that you’re suffering and that’s where it stops. No, suffering does not— the story of the gospel does not end with Good Friday. It begins again with resurrection. And so I want to be with you in that space, no matter whether it’s a paper cut or whether it’s a series of miscarriages. I want to be present with you in order for you to feel my compassion, in order for us then together to be curious about where is Jesus now taking us? What are we going to do now? Now what are we going to do?


We say, you know, when your 15-month-old falls and scrapes her knee, we don’t know if she’s going to need to sit on your lap for 15 seconds or 15 minutes. We don’t know. We as parents would like to know. I’d like to know, is this serious suffering or is this just her complaining? What is this? And why? Because I want to make the right call as the parent. I’m worried about me. It’s not just about the kid. It’s about me. We don’t know always. But what we do know is that over time, we learn that it could be somewhere between those two things. What’s most important is that that child have the experience of our being present with them, and then at some point we’re going to say, “Let’s go clean your knee up. Let’s see how you can move with this.”


And at some point with folks— there are folks who are not willing to be receptive to mercy. Judas wasn’t. And there are folks that may say, “Look, I’m only interested in suffering and I’m going to do this by myself.” But like the lifeguard who finds you out in the ocean or in the pool and who wants to take you someplace, they’re not going to take you someplace if you’re not willing to go. And so these are all things then that when I am trying to discern what am I supposed to do in response to this person [who] is suffering, I also need discernment from my own community. What will we do together? How will we together discern this? Again, so that I’m not left alone to do this in the same way that my own minor suffering—because I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do—is not left by myself. And as such, we give the opportunity for the Spirit to move.


Cherie Harder: So we’ll take a final question from Betsy Codette. And Betsy asked, “I have wondered how to face the suffering of a painful death, and I take away that building community is a lifelong process and it includes facing suffering together no matter what is in our future. Could it be that suffering with others is a beautiful way to prepare for our own suffering?”


Curt Thompson: Well, Betsy, I would say I don’t know that I could say it any better. I don’t think it’s just preparing us; I think it is the way we are called to suffer. I think that when we are willing to reveal our suffering to others and are willing to be with others in their suffering, the Spirit enters this process and transforms not just us, but transforms the nature of even how we comprehend and apprehend the suffering itself. And we are drawn into a space where we sense Jesus’ presence being with us more and more and more because we’ve been willing to name it in the context of community, in the context of others who are able to say, “This is really hard, and we’re not leaving the room. And we’re going to stick around for as long as it takes.” And in so doing, we are trusting that the Spirit is going to use this continual work of being present with these hard things, that hope is [being] formed. Hope is not a thing that just falls into our laps or doesn’t fall into our laps. It is a thing for which we have the capacity and agency to form collectively. As I encode and embed these moments in which I am seen, in which I am comforted, even in the face of my pain, I’m paying increasingly more attention to the face of the one who is with me than I am even to my pain. It doesn’t rid me of it, but it reminds me that God is using this occasion to invite me into allowing him to love me ever more deeply. And in so doing, as we say, this bears witness to the world that there’s something about the gospel the world has no way to explain. And when it comes to our suffering, God tends to use it like he uses few other things, not just to enable us to know how deeply we are known, but to let the rest of the world know that as well.


Cherie Harder: Thank you so much. And in just a moment, I will be giving you the last word. Before that, a few things to share with all of you who are watching. First, just as we wrap up, there’ll be a chance to take a survey. And we always appreciate reading and receiving your feedback. So thank you in advance to all of you who avail yourself of that survey. As a small token of our appreciation for doing so, anyone who does fill out the survey, we will give them a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of their choice. And there are several that we would recommend that kind of go hand-in-hand with some of what we’ve talked about today. So we would particularly recommend Augustine’s “Confessions” with an introduction by Jamie Smith; a couple of poetry readings, including “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “Bulletins from Immortality” by Emily Dickinson, as well as “On Friendship” by Cicero, “On Happiness” by Aquinas, and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.


In addition, tomorrow we will be sending around an email to all of you who registered with a link to today’s Online Conversation that we would love to have you share with your friends, as well as a whole list of additional resources for you to be able to go further, including different Trinity Forum Readings, as well as a notice of an upcoming conference that’s hosted by the Center for Being Known with a registration link. So be on the lookout for tomorrow’s email and we’d love for you to share this conversation with others.


In addition, we want to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who together advance Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and promoting the best of Christian thought for the common good. There’s a whole variety of benefits that attend to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive and thank you for all of you who joined the Trinity Forum Society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Curt’s excellent book, The Deepest Place, so we hope that we will be able to welcome you to the Trinity Forum Society soon.


A couple of updates on upcoming events: Our next Online Conversation will be held October 27th with New York Times columnist David Brooks around the release of his new book, The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, which continues a theme of some of what we’ve been talking about today. In addition, those of you who are in in DC on November 15th, we’ll actually be getting to host Curt Thompson for a book reception and would love to see you there. There will be more information on that coming soon.


Finally, as promised, Curt, the last word is yours.


Curt Thompson: Well, I guess first of all, again, Cherie, I’m just so grateful to have been invited. And it’s always an honor to be able to be in the room with so many people who are working so hard to follow the King, and you not the least. So I’m just thank you for that.


I would say, at a time when we look around and what we read and what we hear is a word of hopelessness, I want to say I have never been more hopeful. And I’m not hopeful because I’m optimistic. I’m not hopeful because I think everything will go well. I’m hopeful because of what I’ve watched people do in forming this durable hope in the context of deep suffering because of what we’ve seen Jesus do in confessional communities and in relationships in which people are willing to identify their suffering and allow Jesus to come in to retell that story. And at a time when we seem to be running out of options, I would say that there are plenty of options that we actually haven’t utilized yet. And for that reason, I am eager to hear and to be present for what the Spirit will be doing in our communities and in our lives in the coming weeks and months. Thanks be to God.


Cherie Harder: Curt, thank you so much. And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.