Good Grief
By Anthony Casperson

Excitement fills me when some intricate detail of topics I like gets revealed to me. Even more so when that detail sends me connecting other thoughts in my head with a statement of “Hmm.” (This personal fact might sound strange to some, but it’s true.)

A recent example of this revolves around Tolkien’s stories about Middle Earth. I had known that in the mythology of these stories, the sole deity (Eru Iluvatar) created beings called Valar to perform the song of creation as the world and its inhabitants came to be.

(For those unfamiliar with this cosmology, think of the Valar as a mix of higher angels and a polytheistic pantheon. This is a way for Tolkien to have a single Creator deity while also having beings of somewhat lesser power involved in the world. And a way to get a Satan-like figure, in the Valar Morgoth, to disrupt the song of creation and introduce the evil things of the world.)

While that information had been on my radar for some time, my knowledge of the Valar themselves was lacking. But recently I heard someone mention one of these beings, named Nienna. As I heard them talking about this member of the eight most powerful Valar, I listened intently. Though it was her connection to grief and wisdom that sent me thinking.

A brief bit of further research into Nienna revealed that her role is associated with grief and mourning the afflictions caused by evil in the world. Those who sit under her tutelage learn wisdom and endurance in suffering. And while she rarely visits the city of Valimar, the primary city of the Valar and Maiar, one can often find her in the Halls of Awaiting as she comforts and counsels the souls of humans and elves who had died.

So, a being that: faces the darker aspects of the fallen creation; teaches wisdom through suffering; and spends much of her time in the realm of those who suffered death. No wonder I gravitated her direction.

The person who introduced me to Nienna mentioned that, unlike most of the other Valar who could be connected to specific mythological figures of our own history, she had no direct parallel. It was as if Tolkien had required a way to work through his own experiences in World War I and thus created a figure who filled that role completely by himself. Or at least that’s what this person I heard seemed to think.

However, as someone who has experienced suffering and discovered its strange connection to wisdom, I believe that it might just have been Tolkien’s faith that helped him shape this thought personified in Nienna.

(As a side note: my personal level of suffering is not on the same scale as one who has gone to war and held close brothers-in-arms as they died. However, extent of suffering doesn’t diminish the validity of one’s experience with the darker aspects of life. And the depths of wisdom can be appreciated by all who seek it, regardless of the extent one suffers.)

I’ve written much about the connection of suffering and wisdom. There’s a reason why I made the third chapter in Hydroponic Spirituality: Thriving in The Depths be about wisdom. Before I ever spoke about hope or joy or faith, I felt it necessary to showcase a posture of growth in wisdom while we suffer.

And this perspective came from a biblical understanding. One of many examples can be found in James 1:2-5. The half-brother of Jesus starts his writing to those under his care by talking about finding joy amidst suffering. Discovering the purpose of God in our lives even during the difficulties of pain and persecution.

The reason why we should do this is because this testing of our faith leads to learning endurance. A steadfastness which, in turn, leads to a maturity that lacks nothing.

James, then, moves to verse 5 where he says that if any lacks wisdom, they should ask for it. He’s connecting wisdom to learning endurance through suffering. When we experience the difficulties in life, and allow God to work his will through our growth, we come to mature in wisdom.

And if we find ourselves in a place where we lack the wisdom brought about through suffering, we should ask God for it.

Suffering isn’t something to avoid at all costs. Rather, we should seek God’s guidance through these difficulties so that we can grow in our relationship with him.

The connection between wisdom and enduring suffering wasn’t made up by some person trying to cope with the difficulties of life. It is truth that God has gifted to us, if we’re willing to take it.