I am convinced there is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to the experience of suffering. A better way to view suffering is as ‘meaningful’ or ‘meaningless’.
What makes suffering meaningful?
That we can rationalize it as having a greater purpose? That we can see it as somehow ordained by God? That we are able to ascertain and defend our status as victim? Or as one wrongfully oppressed? That we can justify assigning blame?
What if meaningful suffering is found, not in correctly identifying its purpose or cause, but solely in its outcome?
What if the outcome of our experience of suffering is largely up to the one that suffers?
Do I let my pain, be it physical, mental, or existential, be felt? Or do I try everything in my power to escape or extinguish it?
What if in seeking to extinguish any and all experience of our pain, we also extinguish our capacity for joy?
The opposite of suffering is an absence of feeling. To avoid it, to run from far it, is a natural human response. But it leads us away from the ground of our being– that which connects us to a God that suffers with humanity.
We as Christians cannot deny the fact that God allows human suffering. The Apostle Paul comes closest to giving us a purpose or reason for His doing so:
“But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keepme from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:6-10 (NRSV, boldface mine)
There is much about Paul’s understanding of the nature of his personal affliction that runs counter to a contemporary Christian view of suffering.
Instead of focusing on the theological underpinnings of this passage, I want to look at the outcome.
Paul prays for release from his experience of pain/hardship. God effectively says ‘no’. And then God tells Paul why He answers this way.
It is in Paul’s personal relationship with God that Paul finds meaning in his own experience of suffering.
It would be callous and cruel to explain away the experience of another’s suffering as being God’s will for them. But Christians do it all the time.
What does a meaningful response to suffering look like?
For those that suffer, it looks a lot like the Garden of Gethsemene.
For those that see others in their suffering, it looks like this:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Matthew 25:35-40 (NRSV, boldface mine)
Who is the family of Jesus? The suffering. The wronged. The oppressed. The least of these….
If we can look at our experience of suffering as having the potential to radically transform how we see the world– if we allow it to soften our hearts, instead of harden them– then we will see with new eyes the ones before us that hunger, thirst, are naked or imprisoned. Only then can our own suffering gain meaning. It gives us entrance into the fellowship of His suffering, uniting us with those God holds most dear.
If we enter into the suffering of others– their suffering becomes our own. And our hearts can be forever changed.