Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Pain and Suffering

It's one of the long-standing questions of Christianity: what are we supposed to do with pain and suffering? How do we keep believing in God, let alone honor and glorify Him, when we are hurting?

I'm reading a book about this very thing right now, and it's touching on some ideas that I didn't know I really had thoughts about, but here we are. 

The first thing that struck me as I was reading was the notion that pain is not optional for us, but suffering is. That is, the author proposes that pain happens just because life happens, because things are broken and humans are broken and terrible things do occur. But suffering is about how we respond to that pain, and if we are suffering, it's because we're choosing to suffer - implying that we are wallowing in the pain that life has given us and have not yet "risen above" it to make it a glorifying thing or whatever. 

When I first read those words, I thought that was a very interesting point to make. On the surface, I agreed with it. There's something about choosing our attitude in response to pain that is simply spot-on. And I absolutely agree that you don't have to suffer unless you choose to suffer, no matter what kind of pain you're dealing with. 

But I don't think that means that suffering is pitiful. I don't think it means that if we're suffering, it's because we're wallowing in our own pain. I don't think that suffering is necessarily a character flaw, that it is the hallmark of a person whose attitude we don't want to be around, let alone copy. 

I say that after reflecting on none other than Christ Himself. 

We have to be honest and say that Christ suffered on the Cross. There was pain, yes - He could do nothing about the pain. But He suffered there. And He chose to suffer there. 

Christ chose to enter so fully into the pain of His experience that He came to the point of suffering. He chose to embrace all that the pain was, understanding how it represented the pain of separation from the Father, the pain of sin, the agony of redemption and restoration. He chose to feel all of it. 

We would not say that Christ was wallowing in the pain. Not by any stretch of the word. That's not what was happening there. We would not say that there was a single ounce of pity anywhere near that Cross, nor nothing for us to pity in its shadow. There was something beautiful, glorious, wonderful happening there. 

And we would further say that Christ had to suffer on the Cross. Can you imagine a crucifixion in which He didn't embrace that pain? In which He didn't feel it to the depths of its fullness? To which He did not wholly and completely submit Himself? It would change the story of Calvary in a profound way if Christ hurt, but did not suffer. 

Imagine if Christ, hanging on the Cross, said something like we might applaud in our culture today, something like, "Yes, my body hurts, but I rise above the pain. It's just a temporary inconvenience." It would be a stark and obvious contrast to the body wasting away in front of the very eyes of those watching. They could hear in His weakening voice that His words were hollow. It would be laughable. Yet, even as I write this fictitious scenario, there's a part of me that thinks, "What's wrong with that?" So thorough is our culture's bravado when it comes to pain. 

But suffering is real. Yes, it is a choice, but it can be a holy choice. It is a choice that can be a declaration of our willingness to enter fully into our human experience, to embrace all that is thrust upon us to its fullest. And it can glorify God. 

Wallowing never will. That's not a good choice. But suffering isn't necessarily wallowing. There is a way to suffer well, and that's the road we must choose. That's how we ought to do it.   

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