Lesson 4: Suffering in a Theology of the Cross

The crucifixionThe other day my wife and I were on our daily walk on the college campus when a man without a mask approached us. He stuck out because wearing one is compulsory in that area. As he passed, he said quite emphatically, “God protects ME.” He apparently felt he was making a witness for Christ.

I found that kind of almost frantic bravado all the time in my studies of the Christian Right. In fact, that very night I heard a televangelist proclaim that her followers will never suffer, because Jesus builds a defensive wall around them.

A theology of the cross sees this as a denial of the Gospel message. We do not follow Christ to escape suffering. Our goal is ultimately to eliminate suffering in God’s world, but we know that often means we have to suffer for others in the present time to do that.

Paul talks of this as sharing Christ’s suffering. Jesus says much the same when he claims those who want to follow him must deny themselves and take up their own crosses.

That in no way means we see suffering as a good thing. Meaningless suffering, such as self-flagellation, in no way satisfies God’s purpose. Christians are willing to voluntarily suffer for others in order help them.

You see how important this is when you realize Christlike love is described as compassion which literally means being willing to share another person’s suffering. Just as God shares human suffering in Jesus’ crucifixion, so too his followers share the suffering of those around them. And as anyone who engages in Christian ministry knows, sharing yourself with the needy always is going to involve giving up something.

A theology of the cross is brutally honest about the reality of suffering in our world. Over and over, Jesus proclaims becoming one of his followers depends on recognizing this. His gospel is good news for the poor. People must know that they are ill if they are to accept his healing, that they are sinful if they seek his forgiveness.

It’s hard to understand what is going on in the mind of the man who passed my wife and me on our walk. You have to wonder if he thinks God causes those who gets COVID-19 to suffer because they lack faith. Certainly, many in our present world do think those who suffer are losers. They imagine they must have done something to deserve this or at least should have done something to prevent it. This kind of rationalization provides an easy excuse from helping those who suffer. You can pretend doing so only reinforces the problem. Maybe this is what was going on with man we passed. Maybe he was just using God to justify what he wanted to do.

A theology of the cross refuses to deny reality. It takes things beyond what I want them to be. If God must suffer to save his world, I have to recognize the innocent suffer. And I must understand if I want to follow Christ, I too must participate in overcoming the suffering all around me.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kerry says:

    Wow. I’ve linked this to the parish FB page, Fritz. Really excellent! Thanks!

  2. Paul Wildman says:

    In extension some, like me, will argue that suffering has several categories of causes and if one is to ‘overcome’ suffering as you say one has to understand these causes. These causes would be: Natural disaster, man-made disaster (famine), economic oppression (such as the man could have been experiencing and inc. for instance neoliberalism as we have discussed previously) and of course personal idiocy (up around 80% in my experience).

    So to meet your challenge at the end of (y)our lesson we have to understand how economic oppression works to cause suffering inc. homelessness, and act against it – do you agree?

  3. Fritz Foltz says:

    Totally agree

  4. Lupe Andrade says:

    Life begins and ends in pain and suffering. Any mother who has just give birth will attest to the inevitable suffering involved, which can be gladly endured, and we en our lives in pain, either our own or inflicted on others. A mother who is doped to the gills and gives birth without feeling anything, has cheated herself of a transcendent experience, the painkillers take away the joy of immediate connection with the baby. A person who dies totally doped up, has probably walked a long road of pain to get there, and if his/her death means nothing to anyone, and gives no pain or regret to others, it is a probably testimony to a life without much love or joy. Emptiness ending in emptiness.

    Who regrets suffering because of love? Losing a loved one should hurt. Who has loved too little, will give little pain in death, but the emptiness of such a life, is painful in itself. Finally, if out has outlived everyone else, there must be joy and a sense of peace and achievement, even if there is physical suffering involved.

    Modern life tries to block out pain, to the point of substituting it for Fentanyl and Vicodin and Oxycodone and similar drugs. This also blocks out life itself. He or she who feels no pain, feels no joy, no sense of transcendent achievement, no satisfaction in doing something painful so someone else can live with less pain.

    And physical pain is nothing compared to mental, soul-searing pain: love entails loss which entails suffering. Will we sacrifice loving for the comfort of not suffering? ¿What then, is our purpose? At age 81, I think I can look at the ending, whenever it comes, with some equanimity. I don’t know. I may cry, and thrash and curse. Who knows? All the same, looking back, I would not change suffering for a blank painless wall. All of it, included the good, the magnificent and the horrible have made me who I am. Do I want to erase all that?

    I know, I may have gotten a bit maudlin, but I just happened to come in contact with someone who is a prime example of giving up on joy and love in order not to suffer or lose. What a dolt. And I am well aware that as I write this, I am not suffering at all, being healthy, well and (mostly) serene. Who knows? Still, I do not want my last chapter to be a blank road without rough spots or trees and birds and blossoms. Thank you for your thoughts! Lupe

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