Shaping Our View of Suffering

An interview with Dr. Kenneth Boa on how suffering shapes us to be resilient

Posted May 17, 2020

Ken Boa, used with permission
Source: Ken Boa, used with permission

Everyone experiences suffering differently, but we all determine how we are shaped by it. Our perspective on suffering can help shape us into more resilient people.

Dr. Kenneth Boa is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor working largely with business and professional people in the Atlanta area, throughout the country, and around the world. His publications include Conformed to His ImageFace to FaceFaith Has its ReasonsAugustine to FreudHandbook to LeadershipA Taste of the Classics, and his latest book, Shaped by Suffering. Dr. Boa is President of Reflections Ministries and holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England.

JA: Why did you set out to write your book?

KB: This book was born out of a teaching series on the book of 1 Peter, sometimes called the “Job of the New Testament” because of its reference to suffering in every chapter. Following two other books about cultivating an eternal perspective, I wanted to show how such a perspective is essential to sustain us during the inevitable trials and pains we encounter in our lives. It’s not so much a book about how to cope in suffering but a book on how to view and respond to suffering.

Those of us who have grown up in relative comfort and ease compared to past generations can be taken off-guard by adversities, especially if they linger or don’t have a clear solution. Seeing that hardships both prepare us for eternity and forge admirable character traits in us here on earth can help give us the motivation and hope to persevere. 

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

KB: Suffering is inevitable in this life, and it is also brief compared to eternity; in our sufferings, we have two options: we can grow bitter or better. You’ll notice that the heroes we most admire in our lives never developed their character—traits such as courage, integrity, selflessness, endurance, and the like—as a result of lives of ease, but rather through adversity. My belief is that God wants to transmute the lead of suffering into the gold of glory so that we are better as a result of our trials, and more ready to pass into the next life.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

KB: We all need hope to keep going in life. Yet, severe or chronic suffering can occlude our sense of hope and joy. Hope-inducing insights include: remembering that our sojourn on earth isn’t forever (Revelation 21:4–5); remembering we’re not alone—suffering comes to everyone, albeit in various forms and amounts, some of us in more outward, visible ways, others more inward and invisible ways; and realizing that hardship is necessary to forge the kind of character that is most admirable.

One distinction we make in the quality of hope: We can hope for relief from suffering while not hoping in it (i.e., leaning the full weight of our expectations on it); the latter can lead to grave disappointment if relief or healing doesn’t come.

Another lesson is that the nature of our suffering isn’t as important as our response to it. Recognizing this can help us focus less on the why or the what of pain but on the how it can be used for good in our lives. We are never solely victims but also agents, able to take an active stance toward our suffering in terms of how we view and react to it.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

KB: Suffering can lead to the temptation to turn inward, wallowing in our misery and asking, “Why me?” (or “Why this particular trial?”), creating a victim mentality and self-centeredness. However, if we allow our pain to turn our attention to God and to how we can reach out to others, suffering can become a redemptive tool both in our lives and in the lives of others.

Indeed, it’s often those who have suffered who are best suited to helping others who are suffering, as our capacity of empathy and compassion is greater; in addition, we can help those going through similar hardships since we better understand the unique set of challenges that difficulty presents.

Shaped by Suffering emphasizes the need for ordinary people to minister to others in this way—rather than always leaving this kind of help to the “professionals” (whether a paid priest/pastor or a counselor or doctor). In Christianity, we call this the “priesthood of all believers,” because we believe we’re all called to serve in priestly roles—representing people to God (praying for them) and representing God to people (encouraging, loving, and serving them as his hands and feet on earth).

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

I have various books underway, but one of the main ones I’ve just begun is tentatively titled Transitioning Well: Navigating Through the Stages of Life So That the Best is Yet to Come. This book is based on my observation that, today, people have unprecedented options and opportunities: on average, we live longer, possess greater resources, and have cultivated a more diverse array of skills than ever before. Yet, too many people commit the blunder of frittering and squandering much of their hard-earned skills, wisdom, wealth, and time in the last quarter of life on trivial pursuits. As long as we have life and opportunity, it is not too late to alter our course so that our most fruitful years are yet to come—however many or few they may be. “Transitioning well” doesn’t just refer to our transition from middle life into the retirement years; it’s about incorporating a process into your life early on, so that you do not wait until you’re retired to ask—and live according to your answers to—the obvious questions (“Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Where am I headed?”, “What kind of legacy do I want to leave?”).

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

KB: Shaped by Suffering is not only for those in the middle of a difficult time but for those on the outside to know how to reach in to those who are suffering, perhaps deeply—to know how to encourage and uplift in ways that do not seem trivial or trite.