“In the world you have trouble But, take courage I have conquered the world.” Jesus (John 16:33)
“Pain plunges like a sword through creation. Suffering is everywhere, unavoidable and never idle.” (Underhill)
We truly live in a pain-phobic culture. How can we embrace the true reality of suffering in ways that are spiritually and psychologically healthy?
Harry Schamburg says: “we can’t prevent the problems of sexual addiction in the church if we don’t change our message from ‘how to feel better now’ to the unpopular biblical theme that ‘the sufferings we now experience are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ Paul (Romans 8:18)
I believe that there is a great deal of poor thinking about suffering and the role of pain in life.
“Suffering never saved anybody. Not your suffering. Not mine. Not even Jesus’s suffering saves in and of itself. Rather, it is the way suffering is faced that makes the difference between whether pain, sorrow, difficulty, deprivation, and/or challenge become part of our souls stretching or shrinking!” (R Morris)
Being a counselor, I have listened to many stories of suffering where; one family is sideswiped by the unexpected birth of a child with a catastrophic handicap, drawing them closer together in mutual support. Their hearts are stretched: “It’s changed our expectations about what’s important in life,” the father says. Another couple greets an infant with a lesser handicap with a resistant bitterness: “It’s like our lives were suppose to end up in southern California and we got hijacked to the Arctic Circle!” The couple separates, their marriage relationship too strained to continue.
It’s not our place to judge, we do not know the mystery of their hearts. But we cannot help observing the different outcomes. Those who survive and grow more resilient in times of suffering somehow find inner resources of acceptance, endurance and patience to deal with their trials. Simple acceptance of their limitations leads to quiet thankfulness where they see life as a series of challenges to be faced. Suffering was something to be dealt with, lived through, learned from, and redeemed.
On the other hand, victims see life as a tale of repeated, undeserved woe where chronic complaint is justified.
One stance shrinks our soul while the other surly expands it. Christians often speak loosely about “redemptive suffering.” I am becoming convinced that there is no such thing in the Christian message. This is not a mere debate over words. I do not believe that suffering itself contains some hidden divine spark. There is nothing in the Gospels to support that Jesus ever deliberately sought suffering, indeed, he seems to do everything possible to relieve it. Christ shows us the way to suffer redemptively.
Making this distinction between Christ’s redemptive way of meeting suffering and suffering itself is a crucial one for psychological health and spiritual formation toward wholeness.
“There is an ancient, dark, masochistic undercurrent in some spirituality that sees some sort of spiritual power in pain itself.” (R Morris)
Beliefs throughout history have tied this belief to getting the attention of the gods’. (See I Kings 18:28). Whatever such ideology encourages in behavior, “sharing in Christ’s sufferings” is not about self-inflicted pain. We share in Christ’s sufferings when we participate in his way of meeting suffering and it’s sources, as we pursue, with him, the incarnation of the dream of the Kingdom.
How did Christ do this? And why is this part of the Christian journey so confusing? In Hebrews 12:2, it says that Jesus “endured the cross”… How? “For the joy set before him”…. Because he was rooted in goodness deeper than the suffering, so even in the midst of suffering he was deeply anchored in the goodness of God. I believe this was Jesus’ secret of facing life in this wild, wonderful, and terribly difficult world… and ours to follow! Grounded in such goodness we can face any adversity, drawing on the Grace of a world larger than the suffering.
By His Grace, HUD