Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction (malheur) and simple suffering. Affliction is “a laceration of the soul” that endures, not a transitory moment of pain. There is a deep hopelessness for the afflicted. Their humanity has been forced into “thingness,” and there is no going back — at least not apart from a grace that pierces through this bondage or necessity (force). Weil explains this fundamental insight that permeates her theology:
In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. …Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. [Waiting for God, p. 67]
Weil’s remarkable skill is how she discerns the “imaginary” adjustments of our minds to deflect our attention away from affliction and the affliction of others. And in our own day, I would point toward an abundance of preachers and their followers as especially enthusiastic about making these “adjustments.” This is deeply ingrained in our churches. On this point, I offer you this perfect anecdote from Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:
My roommate for two years at a Christian college was a German named Reiner. Returning to Germany after graduation, Reiner taught at a camp for the disabled where, relying on college notes, he gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life. “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!” he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged. He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.
The campers found listening to Reiner equally disconcerting. Some of them went to Gerta, director of the camp, and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. “Well then, tell him!” said Gerta.
One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun, and we’re in a dark room with no windows,” she said. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming and victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.”
My friend Reiner was crushed. To him, the message seemed so clear. He was quoting directly from Paul’s epistles, was he not? His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: There’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.
Instead, after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: “I don’t know what to say,” he told them the next morning. “I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.” He stayed silent and hung his head.
The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room full of disabled people. “Now we understand you,” she said. “Now we are ready to listen.”