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The Uniquely Christian Response to the Problem of Suffering

July 3, 2017


In a strange way, my former life as an atheist naturally led me to Christianity. During my faith journey, I began to notice Christianity’s uncanny ability to take my arguments against theism, turn them upside down, swallow them whole, and then incorporate them into the fabric of Christian theology. In a previous post, I described this in the context of divine hiddenness. But perhaps the best example is suffering.

I stand with those theologians who contend that the problem of pain is the only good argument against the Judeo-Christian concept of God. True, the objection can be easily turned around because, unless there’s a God, pain isn’t a problem at all – it’s just a meaningless experience along with the rest of the meaningless universe – and we have no reason to get upset about it one way or the other. While that perfectly valid riposte may be useful to the put the issue in context, it does little to advance our comprehension of this great mystery.

Non-Christian religions have something to offer here, but inevitably come up short. Buddhism, for example, teaches that a form of spiritual nihilism can free us from suffering. This, however, turns out to be a cure that kills, condemning all passions whether good or bad.  Other religions, like Islam, make more progress and often interpret suffering as a test of faith. And there is much truth to that, but stopping there gives us an incomplete picture. These views of suffering still treat it as something to be avoided, denied, or (at best) tolerated in confusion as the inscrutable will of God. Christianity is unique in that it faces suffering head on, speaks directly to it, and binds it into the process of salvation. Thus, while Christians face the same psychological and emotional difficulties in the face of suffering as everyone else, we should remember Blaise Pascal’s words that “suffering is the natural state for a Christian.” Indeed, it is an inescapable part of the joy of our redemption.

This paradoxical assertion can only be understood in the context of the cross. Through his crucifixion, Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself for the redemption of all. And precisely through that suffering he achieved victory over sin and death. While we cannot replicate Jesus’s sacrifice, we are called to bear our own cross in the process of sanctification. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” In Christian spirituality, suffering is walking with Christ and, therefore, redemptive and transformative.

Christian mystics invariably tell us that suffering is necessary for union with God, and saints of virtually every stripe give witness to this. Without exception, they emphasize the centrality of the cross and demonstrate that, even here below, the deepest experience of God somehow comes through suffering and failure. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reminds us that this is the only path to the Resurrection: “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” That is the Gospel, and it is precisely why Christians (uniquely) can rejoice in their sufferings. To miss this is to miss Christianity, which is why the modern-day “prosperity gospel” is such a dangerous distortion of the real thing.

We should remember this every time we see someone wearing a cross or a crucifix. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing everyone from grandma to Kanye West wear a cross as a piece of jewelry that it doesn’t seem bizarre. But how bizarre it is! Why would those early Christians choose the Roman Empire’s instrument of torture and oppression as the symbol of their religion? Why would they parade it around and proclaim it as “good news”? Because the cross had lost its power. Because the Roman Empire could crucify Christians all day and it wouldn’t matter – it only confirmed their worthiness to participate in Christ’s sacrificial love for all of us. Because wearing a cross is a taunt that says: “that’s the worst thing you’ve got and Christ sanctified even that.”

It reminds me of Jesus’s words in Matthew’s Gospel, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Like death, we may discover on the day of glory that the worst thing about pain is the fear and false power it has over us, and it’s a lesson we begin to learn here on earth. Thus, instead of trying to avoid or deny pain in unsuccessful desperation, the Christian binds it to the Passion of Jesus when it inevitably comes. That’s how the cruel power of an instrument of torture is annihilated and transformed into a symbol of hope.

St. John Paul II says it far better than I ever could:

“Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of his suffering.”

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“The answer which comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!”. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.”

Admittedly, this isn’t even a primer on the mystery of suffering. Nor is it intended to be a succinct response to the atheist’s challenge to reconcile a loving God with the reality of suffering. I’ll refer readers to the C.S. Lewis classic, The Problem of Pain, for both.  What I do want to convey, however, is that no religion can assimilate suffering better than Christianity because suffering is part of the fabric of Christianity. This is not a shameful glorification of pain, but a recognition that our savior died on a cross out of love for us – a love we are called to through its fullest expression: participation.