Weekly Edgework #13 - Sept 28, 2004

Ballooning the Soul

The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace and love. - Gerald Sittzer

The thought of a soul that balloons through suffering and then remains permanently enlarged intrigues me. It catches my attention and generates new visions of hope and healing. James chapter one alludes to the same concept – that steadfastness and other good things can come from a time of testing. When it comes to balloons, I have in the past thought mostly about how they work in real life. Yes, they expand when inflated, but they re-take their original shape once they are deflated. Following the balloon metaphor in this mode, we would say that suffering stretches the soul – almost to the breaking point perhaps – but once the suffering is over one can go back to “normal” life again. All is over when the suffering is over. The balloon has been deflated and we are back to equilibrium.

But Sittser insists that a stretched soul keeps its enlarged shape – an interesting and unexpected twist to the ballooning metaphor. That means that even after the suffering subsides and the immediate pain is no longer so sharp, this enlarged space can be filled with other things to a greater degree than before. And we can choose the things we will fill it with. We can choose bitterness, anger and revenge for example. Or we can choose things like joy, strength, peace and love.

If this is the case, why do we spend so much of our time limiting our exposure to pain and suffering, as though they are unwelcome irritants of little value? I guess I have had a tendency to think of the James passage as applying to Christians in far off places who actually get beat up for their faith and who then have a chance to grow through that experience. But for “normal” Christians where I live, our souls are enlarged through a variety of activities and disciplines such as prayer, Bible Study, church attendance, charity, fasting, confession and service to the poor.

I concede that such spiritual disciplines are good and they will help us to become more established in our faith. At the same time I wonder why there are not greater signs of growth and maturity among many well-meaning Christians who do all these things and more. They are exceedingly busy doing all the right things they have been taught to do. Yet there is so often a shallowness about them. They skirt the deep things of the heart. They resist being vulnerable. And when push comes to shove they admit they fall far short of their own goals of spiritual growth.

Maybe suffering is a better teacher than all the best disciplines combined, or at least just as important.. Perhaps all the disciplines are like granite blocks and suffering is like the mortar that keeps them together to make a beautiful fireplace. Without the mortar the fireplace would be quite unstable and even unsafe to use. When Christian disciplines are cemented in place through suffering greater beauty, strength and usefulness emerge. So we are not in a contest here to see which must leave – Christian disciplines or suffering. I think rather that we are called to a commitment to embrace both as part of the normal Christian pilgrimage.

To talk like this, however, is to be counter-cultural at a profound level. Most efforts and expenditures in our society are designed to prevent us from suffering. Everyone seems bent on building for him or herself a little castle around which to build moats and draw bridges to keep the good life in and suffering out. Financial success, freedom from illness, insurance against all accidents, a healthy diet with foods from around the world – all are seen as our individual rights. And we will fight to keep them. Should anyone dare to snatch any of these rights away we are afraid we would need to suffer, and that would be too bad. Suffering happens to others, but it should not, and must not happen to me.

So goes the unwritten code by which most of us live. But the concept we are considering sets this on its head. If you really want to grow, that is; find deeper meaning in life, experience greater connectedness with God and others, gain true fulfillment and find the inner resources to move past your own self-centeredness, it is imperative that you become open to suffering. Suffering enlarges the soul so it can embrace more than before.

Now this way of thinking puts those who have never been exposed to suffering into a dilemma. Can these fortunate few not just follow the spiritual disciplines and so find their souls stretched and their lives expanded? Perhaps. God may have elected a few of his followers to be spared any kind of suffering. But what you see is not always what you get. Many of those who seem to have escaped suffering are hiding the truth, partly because they don’t want it to be true. They think they will be devalued by others should the truth come out. They fear their reputations will be sullied if it is discovered that they like their unfortunate neighbors are also prone to suffering. I believe that if we are honest we will all have to admit to the experience of suffering in the process of being human.

And in the process of our suffering our souls will be permanently enlarged. The only question that remains is what we will use to fill that enlarged space.