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The Manner of Our Suffering

April 14, 2013

One of the (many) uncomfortable things about following a God Whose pinnacle of revelation involved being tortured to death and then rising from the dead is that it might set some sort of example for us.  Most of us would love to get in on the rising from the dead but we’d rather not die first1.  It would be worrisome if Christ’s suffering was an example for us and it’s more worrisome that it’s very hard to argue that it isn’t.  Some of this suffering is straight forward enough because it is suffering for others – suffer through the socially-awkward acquaintance who needs a friend, suffer through missing lunch because someone needed your time, and so on.  Other suffering is not.  It appears to do no one any good.  Does God will this kind of suffering on us?

This is a tricky question of course because it involves asking questions about the manner in which God wills things.  Is it fundamentally different for an all-powerful God to not stop something as it is to actually get it started?  There is some sense in which we could say that God wills everything that is (although this might be a philosophically-incautious place to be) but there are also clearly things that God actually likes for us and things that He doesn’t.  So does God give us suffering because He thinks we need it or will benefit from it?

This blog exists because I had cancer.  This both changed my life in fairly radical ways and prompted me to want to share some of my theological musings with others.  In many ways cancer made me a much better person.  So did God send me cancer to knock off the rough edges?  I tend to think not.  I tend to think that the sort of God Who would torture you to teach you a lesson is a moral monster and incompatible with the revelation of Jesus Christ.  I’m a bit hazy on this because it’s possible that from a divine perspective sending cancer to knock some of the rough edges off of me is, when the outcomes are compared, not much different from letting me lose a game to let me learn that I’m not very good at it.  However, cancer is pretty unpleasant and that unpleasantness spills out on to all sorts of other people and so I’m relatively sure that the moral calculation says that a good God wouldn’t send cancer to someone to grow them up.

Instead, I tend to believe that once suffering reached me God had plans for how I could turn this evil into good.  God may not have been the source of my suffering but that didn’t mean that God (unlike plenty of modern Americans) threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know what to do with this except make it end fast.”  Instead, God used that time to shape me into a better person.  So far this isn’t very revolutionary – God does not send suffering to us but He can and does work within the suffering that comes to us.  Where this becomes interesting was when I thought to connect these thoughts with a particular reading of Christus Victor that I’ve run across most commonly amongst Christian pacifists.

This reading of Christus Victor is fairly straightforward: there is evil in the world.  The nature of evil is to be passed along.  Christ in His sufferings absorbed a great deal of evil but did not pass it along.  Instead, He brought it with Him to the grave and left it there.  The heart of Christian nonviolence is in a similar place: when evil is done to you do not pass it along or give it back but instead absorb it and let it end with you.  Direct support for this view in Scripture is somewhat sparse (although Ephesians 2:16 talks about Christ putting to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles in the cross) but the framework is certainly there.  Much of 1 Peter is concerned with how one responds to suffering and the example of Christ, Who did not retaliate against His assailants, is held up as a model for all sorts of people in all sorts of difficult situations.  There is a definite sense that if one wishes to suffer correctly (and 1 Peter has some very strong ideas about suffering correctly) one must suffer even though one does not deserve it and one must not respond to suffering in a way that would have caused one to deserve the suffering if one had started off by acting that way.

This brings us to an odd verse in Colossians, 1:24, in which Paul says that he will “fill up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s sufferings”.  On the face of it this is a strange, impossible verse.  Paul thinks, quite clearly, that Christ has accomplished everything for us.  His suffering, His death, and His resurrection have won the victory.  What is lacking from Christ’s sufferings?  I wonder if this idea that suffering must be, in some sense, put to death might explain thus.  Certainly Paul suffered a great deal for the Church (which is exactly what he says he suffers for in that verse).  Certainly Paul in some sense absorbed suffering for or shielded the Church from some of that suffering by bearing it himself.  In this sense Paul’s statement would make perfect sense.  As long as evil is done there is suffering to be dealt with.

This also answers some questions about how we should suffer when we do suffer.  We should suffer with the intent to make our sufferings end with us.  We should not pass our suffering along to others as we are frequently prone to do – I have a bad day and so I’ll make you have a bad day too.  (This is, of course, not the same as refusing to let others show Christ to us by helping us.  It is merely refusing to do evil to others.)  In our suffering we can emulate Christ in a small way – we can let that suffering die with us by turning Christ’s perpetually-loving face to the world instead of a harsh one distorted by our torment.  Obviously this is hard and we will often fail but the guidelines do seem to be there.  While I do not believe that God makes us suffer for our good I do believe that He has plans for how we should face suffering.

[1] The popularity of many weird ideas about the “End Times” may be based around the fact that they basically let you do this.

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