Lesson 4: Suffering

SufferingI got diverted last week. The thesis in the back of my head has been that either-or discussions in a technological society call for new perspectives. Technology makes for so many new possibilities that our concept of reality changes. We no longer see things black and white but rather in all shades of grey. I had hoped an examination of this might help open up discussion of some bitterly disputed ethical questions.

Then I listened to David Brooks’ “The Crisis in Moral Formation.” In the midst of examining how modern society treats what could be considered either-or values, he mentions how he recently came to realize that suffering helps us understand who we really are. I got the impression this came as a surprise he was trying to understand for himself as well as his listeners.

I was somewhat stopped in my tracks. Brooks seemed to confirm what I sensed for some time, that we are having trouble understanding this central teaching of the faith. I felt I had to take some time clarifying a basic assumption underlying my whole study.

In many ways, religion is a response to human suffering. I think if you asked Buddhists what they mean when they use the word human they would reply “to be human is to suffer.” And I imagine if you did not agree, they would think you were denying reality. They definitely believe their religion provides enlightenment as a way to rise above suffering.

Christianity takes a different approach. It is a way that depends upon God’s commitment to heal his creation. Jesus claims this goes so far that God knows the fall of even one sparrow, and he demonstrates this in his healing ministry. Christians participate in this way by cooperating with God in overcoming suffering. This involves imitating God as revealed in Jesus by not only knowing but also sharing the sufferings of others and even suffering for them. Christian love is understood to be compassion that, by definition, means the willingness to suffer with and for another.

There has been resistance from the beginning. In Mark 8, Peter adamantly rejects Jesus’ depiction of the Christ’s need to suffer. Christians still tend to ignore Jesus’ warning that those who want to follow him will suffer as well. Very few sermons are preached in our time on this obviously central passage. And when they are, many people balk thinking sacrificial love is always unhealthy. That, of course, is also the assumption of the prosperity gospel and “power of positive thinking” preachers who are quite popular nowadays.

I assume that understanding Christian love as compassion is essential for overcoming the deep divisions in our society. This does not mean following Jesus is a call for meaningless suffering. Advocating compassion does not glorify suffering, does not champion suffering for suffering’s sake, in no way approves of self-flagellation, and never advises people to stay in an abusive relationship. It does recognize the need to suffer voluntarily in terms of accepting the possibility of persecution and the responsibility for working with God to overcome human suffering.

Some of the problems we have been examining result from a shallow understanding of suffering. One reason that personal relationships, equality, trust, community, and co-operation are not nurtured is because they all involve some degree of compassion, some suffering on behalf of others. When the individual pursuit of happiness takes precedence over community well-being, bearing another’s burdens makes no sense. Anyone who suffers is expected to take a pill, enter therapy, work harder, adjust, or leave the troubling situation. Overcoming our problems will entail being more realistic about the prevalence and depth of suffering in our society.

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