My Brother Who Suffers

Background photo from Tyler Callahan. Series header designed in Canva.

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of a four-part series on suffering. Click here for part one. Click here for part two. Come back next next Wednesday for part four.


Open up our eyes

To see the wounds that bind all of humankind

May our shutter hearts

Greet the dawn of life with charity and love.

Brother, The Brilliance

I write this next entry in our series with a bit of trepidation. Yet, as Mike Donehey writes, “It’s gonna take myself to cultivate the kind of life that others haven’t seen yet.” If you were to ask me if I want suffering, I would tell you no with honesty. I would tell it to you emphatically. I would tell you no because it is true: I do not long for suffering for anyone. And yet I have found myself living a life incongruent with that ideal as I look back at the sum of it. I do not long for suffering and yet I accept and advocate for suffering when it is deserved and when it is minimal compared to something else. I have witnessed this throughout the pandemic and testified to it in the first week of this series and in conversations with friends and mentors over the past few months.

I am struggling to grieve for the obstinate that have died from COVID-19. I was reminded again of the depths of the injustice of mourning when a friend texted me that her critically ill uncle couldn’t get a needed ICU bed because unvaccinated COVID patients had filled the ward. How deep is that pain and how righteous is that anger. And yet, I was convicted by theologian Mason Mennenga’s retweet of a Fox News headline detailing Jimmy Kimmel’s call for the unvaccinated to give up their ICU beds in which Mennenga wrote “The thing about being a universalist is I want liberation for even the worst people in the world.”

I do not identify as a universalist, but the call he mentions moves as though I do. By far the hardest thing about being a Christian is that we are bound to the offensiveness of grace; it is deeply inescapable on both ends. We can neither outrun the limits of grace nor can we pull the cover of grace out from our fiercest enemies. Perhaps you find yourself at another point on the political spectrum that makes my confession about the unvaccinated sting. Perhaps it reinforces everything you’ve thought about the cruelty of people who look or think like me. I can’t blame you and I’m sorry for the harm I’ve caused and the harm I will inevitably continue to. A less controversial example involves something I’ve written about on this blog before. I was friends with someone in childhood who eventually went on to commit a school shooting that affected many of my adult friends. He is in prison now where he suffers and where he will continue to suffer for over a thousand years as dictated by his sentence. My inclination is that this suffering feels justified to you, just as many argued in the replies to Mennenga’s liberation tweet. Consequential suffering like prison just doesn’t sting the heart like the random suffering of an earthquake. I think if most of us are honest with ourselves, in our quiet, faceless parts, we might find we’re perfectly acceptable with some suffering. Perhaps earned suffering isn’t really suffering.


When I look into the face of my enemy

I see my brother, I see my brother.

When I look into the face of my enemy

I see my sister, I see my father, I see my mother.

Brother, The Brilliance

I think often of Christ’s words on the cross in Luke 23:34 and the response Noah Gundersen spits back in his song Jesus, Jesus: “And I know you said, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’ but sometimes I think they do and I think about you.” When we are given grace, it feels like the loosening of bondage. When others are given grace, it feels like a slap in the face. It feels like a boot on your chest. This is what I mean by the offensiveness of grace. Grace is painful.

Here, on the cross, intentional, unrighteous violence against the God incarnate is still met with forgiveness. Even as they nailed his hands and beat him and watched, laughing in mockery, Jesus claims their ignorance. When it’s abundantly clear they know what they’re doing, the Christ asks his creator to forgive them.

What of consequence do I know? What do I mean when I say they had it coming, that they deserved the suffering they are reaping? Why does my mouth form those words in spite of all the grace I have received?

These questions lead to that same, all too familiar pit. In Ecclesiastes 4, the author is writing about oppression when he goes on to say: “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (4:2-3) In my suffering, I feel the truth of these verses. In our cultural and contemporary moment, in this seemingly endless sludge of tragedy, I feel these verses. I cry out a little like Job that I wish I had never been born.

Yet, they also resonate when I think about the suffering it often feels I’m forced to endorse. The nature of our society in its current systems mandates suffering. Endorsing consequence requires endorsing suffering. Our binary political systems mandates suffering. Our allegiances mandate suffering . Is it possible to imagine a society in which prisoners are given liberation? Is it possible to imagine a healthcare system that sustains itself on wellness? Is it possible for us to be a people who can stop asking how much suffering is acceptable and start believing in the absolution of all suffering? Is systemic change overwhelming? Perhaps those who are never born are truly blessed because they never receive or endorse suffering. They escape the false dichotomy of pain. Yet, we are alive. How should we live in this suffering life we have found ourselves in?

The author goes on to write “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (4:9-12). This text parallels the Epic of Gilgamesh, a prevalent story at the time. Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu about the value of friendship and the author of Ecclesiastes extolls us of the same, both using the example of a three-strand rope and the power of two over one. How revolutionary might it be for us to suffer together, to decide that the cause of the suffering does not matter, that the target is unimportant. How revolutionary might it be for us to make suffering, instead of each other, our enemy.

This, then, is perhaps our focus. We cannot change the world, break systems, redefine justice in our courts, on wall street, and everywhere else that injustice flows like a river. And yet we are not powerless. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “‘The times are bad! The times are troublesome!’ This is what humans say. But we are our times. Let us live well and our times will be good. Such as we are, such are our times.” You cannot break systems but you can break yourself: who do you need to free from justice so that they may have mercy? My answer is long but here is where I am starting: on my knees praying for the healing of someone I know in a hospital bed, unvaccinated, suffering a consequence. No, that’s a lie. Here is where I’m starting: on my knees praying for the healing of someone I know in a hospital bed, unvaccinated, suffering.

May our pride be broken into mourning. May we have the courage to walk alongside every living thing in their moment of pain, no matter how deserved it was. May we be the gift of grace we have received.

(Breathe in)

Blur my heart

(Breathe out)

That I may not tell friend from foe

(Breathe in)

Faced with suffering

(Breathe out)

Break my pride into mourning.


Verses quoted in this post come from he NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible published by Zondervan whose notes were helpful in writing this post. Notes in the NRSV The Harper Collins Study Bible published by Harper One were also used. Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ Augustine of Hippo quote from the Book of Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, page 466.

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page). Like him on Facebook or follow him on Goodreads.

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