What is the Meaning of Suffering?

In my early twenties, I’ve had some former friends I once worked for tell me that if you plead the blood of Jesus, God will protect you from any potential problems or hardships you may have and will bless you immensely with prosperity. Upon hearing this, I recited this form of prayer almost every day for about a month, until one day I accidentally rear-ended my pickup truck into another vehicle on my way home from work.

Prior to the accident, I had decided to quit working for these friends due to a combination of personality differences and what turned into an emotionally abusive working environment. Because I had walked away so abruptly, they withheld my paycheque as a way of punishing me for leaving them. Admittedly, I had been living somewhat carelessly around that time, and I was flat-broke after my truck was written off. But after explaining to them what had happened with my accident, I was met with merciless condemnation. Rather than asking whether I was doing okay, their response was that I needed to reconcile with God and I had deserved what had happened to me.

I had severed ties with these people after a prolonged process of back-an-fourth bickering, but I can’t help feeling tremendously sorry for people who have such an outlook on life. It made me wonder, how can anyone who call themselves Christians willfully lack so much empathy in response to someone else’s misfortune? Forgiveness has never been my strongest quality, and dealing with such treatment from people I once thought I could trust as godly friends has almost made me consider atheism. But one thing I did learn from this experience, among many others, was that a person’s personal theology determines their way of thinking – which usually translates outwardly in how they live their lives and treat others.

Although pleading the blood of Jesus is a charismatic method of prayer that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible, I see nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. However, what doesn’t sit well with me is when prayer becomes an inherently selfish tool intended to manipulate God as though He were some kind of genie who grants us wishes. This type of theology, in my own perspective, seems to lead people to become so inwardly focused that they become numb to the feelings and needs of others, place more value on acquiring material wealth and act as though everyone else’s existence revolves around serving them. This, among other reasons, is why I’ve grown to find postmodern, Americanized Christianity (in particular, Prosperity Theology), so repulsive.

It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, ‘God wants us to be happy,’ but is that actually true? What if what makes us happy turns out to be harmful to ourselves and others? What comes as a shock to many who pray for such things like money, good health, companionship or general happiness is when life goes sideways and they receive the opposite of what they asked for. Situations like these can cause people to become discouraged and easily question their beliefs. C.S. Lewis once quoted in God in the Dock,

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

With all the corruption, abuse, murder, rape, violence, disease and death that happens throughout the world, it can be extremely difficult for people to imagine how a God of love can allow for such things to happen. Some Evangelical friends of mine who used to be involved in international ministries used to tell me how seeing all the injustice and suffering in underdeveloped countries made them question their belief in the existence of God. Mother Teresa, who lived and served among the poor in India throughout her life, was especially no stranger to experiencing such darkness.

Many Christians, especially in North America, seem to believe that merely believing or accepting Christ in our hearts instantly renders people to be happy all the time, when in reality it can have a tendency to produce the opposite effect. I’d like to think most people who initially experience God’s grace for the first time ought to be told that their lives will actually become even more difficult than ever before. If they aren’t, then they are being deceived.

While I believe making the initial step to give one’s life to Christ is a step in the right direction, what many people tend to forget is that a cleansing of the soul does not work like instantly wiping streaks off a window, but more like the gradual scraping of grime and debris that was calcified over years of buildup. Striving for holiness is a process that spans a lifetime, just as there’s a difference between justification and sanctification.

It’s easy for people to say, “I’m a Christian, I’m not the same person anymore! I’ve changed!” Mere words or thoughts can spark a spiritually-altering process from within, but they are not the sole cause of what actually renders a person to change – heck, even Lucifer himself ‘believed’ in God. A person who is addicted to drugs, alcohol or pornography can easily say they are quitting cold-turkey, but if their words don’t follow through with actions to make steps towards recovery, they are more likely to default to their old habits or remain stagnant in their condition. Every physical process towards change involves some form of suffering that requires consent. This doesn’t mean that people who struggle with addiction are evil or have ‘never been saved from the beginning‘ as some fundamentalists would often say. As Saint Josemaria Escriva once quoted,

“A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”

In many ways, suffering can be beneficial. When people go to the gym to work out, they are putting their bodies through exercises that improves their cardio, muscle strength, running speed, endurance, etc. It is a form of suffering that produces good health. Some people enjoy physical activity, but lots of people like myself would rather sit on the couch and do anything but that. For the amount of times I’ve gone running, sometimes working myself up to run 5 kilometers without stopping is torturous within itself. But, like anything else we focus our energy towards, the more we do it the better we get. One could say that, with the help of God’s grace, it is possible to become good at suffering.

Breaking out of bad habits is a process that requires a lot of sacrifice. I wasn’t a huge smoker when I was in my early 20’s, but I’ve smoked often enough to know what it’s like to feel almost completely dependent on it – similar to my insatiable lust for coffee. As I write this, I recall having a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in another being the most glorious combination. To me the tastes accommodated each other so perfectly! But in the days before my wife and I started dating, she blatantly told me she would never date a guy who smoked. I was willing to work for her affection, so smoking was one of those special comforts I clung to that I knew I had to give up. I still have the craving to have a cigarette even nowadays, especially when I pass by people who smoke or when I’m under a lot of stress. But I’ve learned as I fumbled my way through the process of abstinence to control my craving.

It is easy to view suffering in such a negative light. Nobody likes to suffer. It’s within our nature to avoid suffering in any way possible. But the funny thing is that sometimes we relate with others more when we understand each other’s struggles.

It’s easy for me to talk about embracing suffering in general when I personally haven’t had to endure any major health issues in my lifetime as of yet. Sometimes the most difficult thing to witness is when we see loved ones suffer unwillingly. Sometimes we can share in their burdens, but sometimes we can’t. People who have all their senses intact cannot relate to those who have been impaired or disabled. People who have not experienced chronic anxiety or depression often do not understand people who regularly experience it. People who are secure in themselves can often have difficulty understanding those who struggle with their identity or self-worth. Men cannot relate to women regarding issues of childbearing, labor, menstrual cycles, sexism or rape culture. People who are terminally ill cannot ‘take a break’ from their bodies that are breaking down. People who haven’t experienced loss often don’t know how to empathize with people who have lost their loved ones.

It’s not to say people who lack experience are completely heartless, but experiencing suffering matters in how much we empathize with each other. In cases when we feel oblivious, I think a willingness to listen to what people are going through makes a huge difference. In some cases we may not be able to bear peoples crosses, but we can certainly help them by understanding them and asking what would help alleviate their suffering.

I have often heard that Jesus died once for all for our sins so we don’t have to experience the suffering of separation from God. It’s understandable how many view the Catholic crucifix with such contempt because of it’s violent imagery of an impaled Savior – after all, He did rise from the dead. But as a former Evangelical, I’ve found that it’s easy to become habitually ignorant of the suffering that Jesus had endured to accomplish what He did for us, and to feel as though such an event should never have to be revisited.

People often commemorate tragic events such as the Holocaust of World War II or the 9-11 terrorist attacks in order to remember the injustice that was done, so as not to allow it to repeat ever again. While many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we still forget the fact that God had died. It’s easy to develop a sense of entitlement to the free gift of salvation if we do not reflect on the fact that it was paid in blood. And the more we reflect on His willingness to suffer for us, the closer we draw into a relationship with Him and the more willing we are to suffer for Him and for others in return.

It’s easy to say, ‘I’m sorry for what I’ve done.’ But if a person is truly sorry, they ought to make every effort to avoid making the same mistake again. This is where I see the value in the Catholic understanding of penance. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a form of works-salvation that replaces what Jesus had already died for. Penance has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, but more to do with repairing the damage caused by sin. It is an action (or a set of actions) that reflects a repentant attitude that embraces a willingness to suffer the earthly consequences of sin as opposed to the eternal.

But it’s also important to realize that, without a faithful reliance on God’s grace, penance is utterly meaningless.

“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.” – CCC 1430

In light of the topic of penance, I feel it needs to be said that a willingness to embrace suffering does not mean we ought to seek it out willingly. One of the more controversial penitential practices of certain Catholic subcultures is body mortification. Whether it’s self-inflicted lashings or literally reenacting the crucifixion, I personally have an issue with it even though I am not well-informed enough to understand why some cultures would feel these acts to be necessary. People will do what they will to their own bodies just as they would decorate their bodies with piercings or tattoos – which is a form of mortification in itself. However, I believe there is something to be said for respecting our bodies as the sacred temples they are. Regardless of any biblical evidences of penitential body mortification, if it infringes on our ability to serve others or contribute to society in practical ways, then I would strongly discourage such a practice that would do more harm than good.

Regarding the situation with my former friends, I probably deserved to be treated that way for leaving them high and dry. This certainly doesn’t mean what they did to me was righteous on their part, but perhaps suffering financial loss was an earthly consequence I had coming? I don’t have an answer to that. But about a year later I volunteered at a homeless shelter as part of my practical ministry while I was in Bible school. I remember listening and talking to some of the regulars in the dining hall who had been working minimum-wage jobs, endured harsh treatment from their employers and had been living out of their vehicles in order to get by. Had my situation with my former employers been any worse, I could have found myself in a similar situation. But because of my experiences, I was able to empathize with them.

We have a choice in life to either suffer with Christ or suffer without Him. Sometimes suffering comes at the expense of our happiness. But on the other hand, suffering can open our eyes, create empathy, help us appreciate what is good in our lives and produce joy. It can draw us closer to each other, and it can also draw us closer to Christ if we are open to Him….

…and being eternally joyful is better than being eternally complacent.

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” – Philippians 3:8 RSV

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2 thoughts on “What is the Meaning of Suffering?

  1. Thanks Rene. This was timely and I shared it with a couple of siblings. I believe societally we undervalue suffering much to our detriment. Indeed we are not islands and need not only one another (by His great design) but of course we need Him. I find “suffering” easier because it causes me to rely on Him. I also know that He will not cause or allow anything from which He cannot bring redemption. And I trust in that.

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