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.
There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving. They say, ‘I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits, and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months and I am going to be a new man or new woman!’
That is not what a walk is. A walk is day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible and Psalms reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of a church. It is rhythmic, on and on and on. To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.
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.
Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine. Suffering – Buddhism says accept it, karma says pay it, fatalism says heroically endure it, secularism says avoid or fix it. From the Christian perspective, all of these cultures of suffering have an element of truth. Sufferers do indeed need to stop loving material goods too much. And yes, the Bible says that, in general, the suffering filling the world is the result of the human race turning from God. And we do indeed need to endure suffering and not let it overthrow us. Secularism is also right to warn us about being too accepting of conditions and factors that harm people and should be changed. Pre-secular cultures often permitted too much passivity in the face of changeable circumstances and injustices.
But, as we have seen, from the Christian view of things, all of these approaches are too simple and reductionist and therefore are half-truths. The example and redemptive work of Jesus Christ incorporates all these insights into a coherent whole and yet transcends them. Scheler ends his great essay by returning to his claim that Christianity is ultimately a reversal of all the other views.
For the man of antiquity… the external world was happy and joyous, but the world’s core was deeply sad and dark. Behind the cheerful surface of the world of so-called merry antiquity there loomed “chance” and “fate.” For the Christian, the external world is dark and full of suffering, but its core is nothing other than pure bliss and delight.
He is right about most of the ancient cultures, but what he says especially fits the secular worldview. Secularism, as Richard Dawkins says, sees ultimate reality as cold and indifferent and extinction as inevitable. The other cultures also have seen day-to-day life as being filled with pleasures, but behind it all is darkness or illusion. Christianity sees things differently. While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.