A thought trend I have been hearing lately from many sources, both religious and secular, has been to point to suffering as being the ultimate evil. Secular morality, it seems to me, is built on the idea that suffering is evil and pleasure (even simple comfort) is the greatest good for humanity. From this comes the idea that euthanasia, abortion, and intense military action is completely justified – because all of these seek to end or avoid suffering.
It seems odd to me, though, that a country claiming to be built on Christ’s example would be walking down a path of avoiding suffering. Jesus himself was no stranger to suffering: seeking refuge in Egypt from an unstable ruler, facing intense hunger during fasting, facing the whip for the accusation of being apolitical dissident, and finally facing the traitor’s death at the hands of an oppressive government. Paul, also no stranger to suffering and who made his point clear while listing off his suffering like a list of prestigious degrees, continually called churches to task in order to stand firm and prepare for the worst. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “[…] We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope.” (Romans 5.3-4 Kingdom New Testament)
The Jewish people, God’s chosen, themselves have suffered immensely over the years, steeling themselves to live under the weight of oppressive regime after cruel tyrant. They, who wandered in the wilderness, faced their own trials and testing in the desert, who poured out their hearts through the prophets and psalmists, were no strangers to suffering. These are the people who treasured Job in the list of sacred texts, a book that answers few questions, but instills hope.
So why pain? Well, first, consider that a person who feels no pain or who is incapable of feeling emotion does not gain the title of “human perfected” but instead is often diagnosed with some kind of disorder. Why is that? If avoiding pain is the greatest good, why would people incapable of pain not have reached the pinnacle of humanity?
Perhaps it is that, deep down, we understand the necessity of pain and suffering. Pain often brings wisdom. Suffering often leads to understanding and sympathy. Comforting someone becomes much different when we have lived through the same traumatic experiences as another. We often learn the correct and incorrect ways of living and acting through the pain caused by our own choices. Do we think of others on the other side of the globe when things are going well? Or do we only focus on those places of poverty and destruction when the suffering of those people finally reaches the light of a camera on our televisions or laptops?
Not to say this is the way things should be. God hurts when we hurt, but how often do we as humans need pain to learn and grow? My own scars, both physical and mental, are a list (always growing) of lessons learned and mistakes made. Are they all my own mistakes? No. But have I grown because I have accepted what happened and decided to make a change or become a more caring, understanding individual? Yes.
I think maturity involves coming to grips with human suffering. Many great minds, much more adept than mine, have delved into that dark pool to search out the bottom. I have not had such great suffering as they, but their insight into humanity’s heart and mind have come to shape the way we live and think. James, Jesus’ brother who ended up becoming one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem, wrote: “My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience.” (James 1.2-3 KNT)
This may be why the early church, after the great persecutions ended, sought out monasticism and voluntary fasting. Perhaps there was a sense that suffering, while an unpleasant part of life, helped to remind us of the important things. Loss often leads us to cling tighter to those important people in our lives. Destruction strips away our trust in physical resources. Suffering reminds us that our own bodies will fail.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioned that a proper Jewish story begins with suffering or sorrow, and ends with hope. That is also the story for Christian people, for all people – our sorrow can be turned into joy, our crying to laughter, and our pain to celebration. We have a God that is working, even now when we may not be able to perceive it, to set things to rights. We are sitting in the “now and not yet” waiting for the full realization of the victory already achieved through Jesus, as NT Wright would say.
Hope is what we have to hold on to. Hope keeps us strong in the midst of suffering. As we learn and grow, slowly and painfully, we have hope that God, who is ever faithful, is working in every situation to bring about the final victory.
How do discussions about suffering go at your house? How are you using every opportunity to instill hope in your children? What ways have you found to help children find understanding in hope even in difficult situations?