…One of the main teachings of the Bible is that almost no one grows into greatness or finds God without suffering, without pain coming into our lives like smelling salts to wake us up to all sorts of facts about life and our own hearts to which we were blind. For reasons past our finding out, even Christ did not bring salvation and grace to us apart from infinite suffering on the cross. As he loved us enough to face the suffering with patience and courage, so we must learn to trust in him enough to do the same. And as his weakness and suffering, thus faced, led to resurrection power, so can ours.
In the secular worldview, all happiness and meaning must be found in this lifetime and world. To live with any hope, then, secular people must believe that we can eliminate most sources of unhappiness for the majority of people. But that is impossible. The causes of suffering are infinitely complex and impossible to eliminate.
We have been arguing that every culture gives its members a story about what life is all about, and the story of late modern culture – that life is about individual freedom and happiness – has no place for suffering. But the Christian story, as we will see, is utterly different. Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story. Suffering is the result of our turn away from God, and therefore it was the way through which God himself in Jesus Christ came and rescued us for himself. And now it is how we suffer that comprises one of the main ways we become great and Christ-like, holy and happy, and a crucial way we show the world the love and glory of our Savior.
…When suffering comes along, it takes the conditions for happiness away, and so suffering destroys all your reason to keep living. But to ‘live for meaning’ means not that you try to get something out of life but rather that life expects something from us. In other words, you have meaning only when there is something in life more important than your own personal freedom and happiness, something for which you are glad to sacrifice your happiness.
In ancient times, Christianity was widely recognized as having superior resources for facing evil, suffering, and death. In modern times – though it is not as publicly discussed – it continues to have assets for sufferers arguably far more powerful than anything secular culture can offer. Those assets, however, reside in robust, distinctive Christian beliefs. The first relevant Christian belief is in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world – and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance. The second crucial tenet is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially – and that is far more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us. The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our
salvation – that is far more comforting than the karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties of life are not payment for our past sins, since Jesus has paid for them. As Luther taught, suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you. Secularity cannot give you that, and religions that provide salvation through virtue and good works cannot give it, either. The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys and consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of the resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death takes you into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of an ethereal, disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine. Jesus’ resurrection body was corporeal – it could be touched and embraced, and he ate food. And yet he passed through closed doors and could disappear. This is a material existence, but one beyond the bounds of our imagination. The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation – it is restoration. We get it all back – the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life – but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.
For Christians, suffering was not to be dealt with primarily through the control and suppression of negative emotions with the use of reason or willpower. Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship. Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions. And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God. Ferry says, ‘Augustine, having conducted a radical critique of love-as-attachment in general, does not banish it when its object is divine.’ What he means is that, while Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else. Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace. Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.
We must rest in the sufficiency of Christ’s sufferings for us before we can even begin to suffer like him. If we know he loves us unconditionally, despite our flaws, then we know he is present with us and working in our lives in times of pain and sorrow. And we can know that he is not merely close to us, but he is indwelling, and that since we are members of his body, he senses our sufferings as his own (cf. Acts 9: 4; Col 1: 24.)
If you believe in Jesus and you rest in Him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. Do you want to know who you are – your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?
Those are four crucial things to have – but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.
But God is with us in the fire. He knows what it’s like to live through the miseries of this world – He understands. He is near, available to be known and depended upon within the hardship. He walks with us, but the real question is – will we walk with Him? If we have created a false God-of-my-program, then when life falls apart we will simply assume He has abandoned us and we won’t seek Him.
One of the main metaphors the Bible gives us for facing affliction is walking – walking through something difficult, perilous and potentially fatal.
The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. Many ancients saw adversity as merely something to withstand and endure without flinching, or even feeling, until it goes away. Modern Western people see suffering as something like adverse weather, something you avoid or insulate yourself from until it passes by.
The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking – through darkness, swirling waters or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.