JAMES R. EDWARDSJames R. Edwards is professor of religion at Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota. He is coauthor, with George Knight, of The Layman’s Overview of the Bible (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1987).
When Adam, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, grasps the horror and suffering caused by his disobedience, he cries, “O sight / Of terror, foul and ugly to behold / Horrid to think, how horrible to feel” (XI, 462–65). The echo of Adam’s cry has been joined by a chorus of pain and anguish ever since.
Like Adam, we think and speak of suffering not because we want to, but because, like paying taxes and dying, we have to. My being an ordained minister and a professor does not mean that I am automatically more qualified to speak on the subject than the next person. I doubt that anyone is qualified to speak about suffering, if by “qualified” we mean that someone has mastered the art. Suffering is too mysterious and terrible to be reduced to a glib and patent formula. We hope never to see a title, Ten Steps to Successful Misery.
But we must, nevertheless, try to bring clarity to our experiences of suffering. We have all met Scrooge-like individuals who, like one of my relatives, manage to find delight in recounting how bad things are—and predicting that they will get worse. This dismal perspective on suffering has, in fact, more to do with the ancient Stoic’s view of the universe than Christianity.
The Stoic believed that at root, life is a concentration camp, that the only possible response to it is somehow to adapt to its dreary regimen. But the Christian world view is different. Life, says the Christian, is a marvelous gift of God. We know better than others what that means because we believe life, as originally intended, was meant to be lived not in a concentration camp, but in a garden. Of course, Christians know there is now great wrong in the world, but they also believe that God is going to restore life to its original specifications of beauty, love, and goodness. Even now we have seen a preview of what it will be like in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
No, there can be among Christians no eulogies or glorifications of suffering for its own sake. We affirm life, not death; we affirm joy, not sorrow; we affirm love, not pain and tragedy. But because we believe so strongly in life, we do not fear death; indeed, we recognize that death is a necessary prelude to true life. Because we emphasize joy, we do not shrink from suffering; we understand that some sorrows may in fact wean us from false hopes. And because we find love at the center of life, we know that pain and tragedy ultimately drive us to the source of divine love.
I believe that the goal of creation and redemption—of everything that God does in our lives and allows to happen in our world—is to draw us into conformity to Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul made the point like this: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10, NIV). In conforming to Jesus’ life, conformity to his sufferings is unavoidable. This does not mean that we are to go looking for suffering. But neither should we deny suffering when it comes, or think we have done something wrong to deserve it.
From Toothaches To Torture
Christians encounter suffering in three forms. First, we encounter suffering in misfortunes, the trials and adversities that come our way simply because we are human.
Misfortune is the most basic form of suffering because it is involuntary and unavoidable. It is simply part of the terrible mystery of being human, and indeed, part of all life, for animals and vegetation also suffer, though to lesser degrees. Misfortune comes in every shape—from toothaches to torture, from crop failure and cancer to loss of jobs, loss of loved ones, loss of life itself. In varying degrees, all of us know misfortune because it comes free of charge in the package of life.
We do not understand completely why the world is so tragically flawed. Much suffering, of course, is due to the misuse of human freedom and to sin; but there is much evil that, so far as we can tell, is not caused by humanity, nor can human beings do anything to remove it. The Bible does not completely answer the question about the origin of evil. It leaves us, rather, with a dilemma: a God who is almighty, holy love even in the midst of human suffering and sin. That God will ultimately overcome evil is the incontestable truth of Scripture: “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4, NIV).
But that God also provisionally allows evil is the undeniable testimony of experience. We can only say that struggle and resistance, suffering and death, are somehow a necessary preparation to enable the world to recognize and inherit the glorious promise of God’s future.
Moreover, God uses even evil to accomplish his righteous purpose. To quote Milton again, “[E]vil /Thou usest, and from thence creat’st more good” (VII, 615–16).
Some people assume that sufferers of misfortune—survivors of wars, POW camps, cancer, or other tragedies—automatically become better persons because of their trials. This is a myth. I, for one, have survived cancer, and neither the ordeal of cancer nor the course of postoperative treatments has made me a better or worse person. One of my cancer physicians came closer to the truth when he said that in his experience, people respond to getting cancer—or any other tragedy—about like they respond to the everyday problems of plugged drains, dead batteries, and broken arms. I believe he is right.
There is nothing magical about misfortune. Misfortunes drive some people to become bitter, resentful, and hardened. The same misfortunes cause others to become kinder and more understanding. Whether misfortunes work good or bad in us depends on our response. We can pull into our shells and slam the doors of our embattled egos against the outside world (at the cost of loneliness, fear, and despair). Or, we can see in pain and misfortune our need for something beyond ourselves, for others, and especially God. Then misfortune will have redemptive value.
Suffering’S Second Face
The second and third kinds of suffering are different from the first in that they belong primarily to moral and religious people, and especially to Christians. In one sense they are harder, because they are voluntary.
The second form of suffering has to do with the process of sanctification. When Jesus Christ calls a person to follow, that person must make a choice. Some things must be sacrificed to gain the fellowship and freedom of Christ. Those usually involve painful choices, and our journey with Christ demands that we make them again and again.
The most obvious example of this form of suffering is martyrdom, laying down one’s life for one’s Lord. But any form of abstinence or sacrifice that a believer makes for Christ belongs in varying degrees to the category of martyrdom.
Secular Western societies increasingly marginalize Christianity and relegate faith and obedience to a cultural catacomb. Hence, Christians increasingly find themselves in conflict with cultural currents and social expectations. In countless ways faith decisions and actions are “minimartyr” acts that cause suffering.
When a Christian understands that his body is the temple of the Holy Ghost and decides to quit smoking or drinking or drugs or illicit sex, there is a person who knows suffering. When a man decides to be faithful to his wife instead of running off with a woman he thinks he loves more, thereby demonstrating his faithfulness to Christ; when a woman tries to stop gossiping because Christ as the Word of God is faithful and true; when a teenager abstains from fornication because of Christ’s command, despite a torrent of counterpressures from school and music and advertisements; when an elderly person on a limited income gives money to a needy cause; when a person suffering from depression or laziness forces himself out of bed by recounting God’s faithfulness and mercies; when a person who has never seen anything but the bright and beautiful forces herself to deliver Meals on Wheels to the homes of the poor and unkempt, there—and wherever a Christian limits his freedom because of love for Christ and others—is an individual involved in an act of suffering.
Let no one think this is not suffering because it is not physically gruesome. Just after the passage quoted at the beginning of this article, Milton adds that there are “many shapes of Death.” Anyone who tries to say no to self and yes to Christ knows how true this is. The apostle Paul spoke of sanctification in the most final and absolute sense, of putting “to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5).
There are people—people not very unlike ourselves, I am afraid—who would sooner be stripped of their property or sent to the rack than forgive someone who had wronged them, or believe the better of an enemy, or forsake their dearest ambitions, or give up their embittered pride.
Thomas à Kempis well said that it is easier to suffer things that we ought to suffer than things that come unjustly. A rereading of the crucifixion accounts—Mark 15, for example—reveals that the gospel writers laid far more stress on the mockery that Jesus endured than on the nails in his hands. John Calvin, writing of King David, said something similar: “The holy king was hurt more seriously by the envy and dishonesty of treacherous men at home than he was by the Philistines and other enemies who harassed him from the outside.” Physical and mental pain are bad enough; but pain that comes from the suppression of our natural impulses and “rights,” or from moral issues and spiritual realities, is far worse.
The Pain We Share With Others
Not all suffering, then, is misfortune that comes our way unavoidably. Nor is it always the suffering involved in fulfilling God’s will in sanctification. The third, and ultimate, form of suffering is vicarious suffering, suffering for and on behalf of others by identifying with their pain and by sharing in their deprivation. Suffering misfortune can make us more human. Suffering for the sake of sanctification can make us more holy. But suffering vicariously for others makes us more Christlike.
The apostle Paul spoke of bearing “the marks of Jesus” on his body (Gal. 6:17); of being put to death for Christ’s sake and carrying around in the body “the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10); of rejoicing in “my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh [completing] what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The idea of vicarious suffering goes back to the scapegoat in Israel. Aaron, the priest of Yahweh, selected a goat without blemish and laid his hands upon it, thereby transferring the sins of the people to it, and sent it into the wilderness to perish (Lev. 16). This ancient practice plumbs an awesome mystery: An innocent victim effects the remission of a guilt not its own. In all the Old Testament, vicarious suffering is attributed to only one person—the suffering servant of Isaiah. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.… [H]e was pierced for our transgresssions, crushed for our iniquities … and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5, NIV). Note the interchange between our infirmities and his innocence, his payment and our peace, our sin and his suffering. It was, of course, on the cross of Jesus that vicarious suffering achieved its consummate and holy purpose, where One died for all so that all might live in him (2 Cor. 5:15).
When Paul suffered imprisonment, defamation, and eventually death because of his love for the Gentiles; when Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death because of his love for a pitiful, condemned prisoner in Auschwitz; when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged because of his love for his country and the church; when Martin Luther King, Jr., was called a “nigger,” assaulted with water cannons, and assassinated by a white racist; when a Christian is accused of being a Communist in El Salvador because she tries to help earthquake victims or refugees and is taken out into the jungle and shot in the head; when someone risks unpopularity and ridicule to protest abortion; when a mother tries in the name of Christ to stop the arms race by speaking out against nuclear weaponry and her children are kicked and ridiculed on the school playground—there is vicarious suffering.
Whenever an individual ventures into a no-man’s land of fear or prejudice or violence for the sake of Christ and others, taking others’ pain and banishment upon himself, there is one who, in the words of World Vision founder Bob Pierce, allows his heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God.
Developing Our “Muscles”
In The Divine Comedy, Dante ponders the meaning of suffering. He asks why those who have fallen from the heights of heaven must suffer so intensely in the bowels of hell. His guide, Virgil, answers, “the more a thing is perfect the more it feels of pleasure and pain” (Inferno, VI, 104F). This is equally true of the Christian life: the more one identifies with Christ, the more one knows both joy and pain.
Whether there are three forms of suffering, as I suggest, and whether one form is more severe than another, is perhaps not ultimately important. What is important is that God uses suffering to make of us what we otherwise could not become. In 2 Corinthians 4:16–17, Paul said, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Thus, it seems, suffering is necessary to produce within us spiritual strength and humility, obedience, patience, and faith—the very muscle that one day will outfit us to bear the weight of glory that God has in store for us.
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