Reflections on Suffering, Pt. 3

This is the continuation of a four part series: Reflections on Suffering, Pt. 2, & Pt. 1. The whole series is available here.

Crucifixion Our participation in the sufferings of Christ is not passive nor is it stoic. As Thomas Merton imparts,

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith—not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. To accept suffering stoically, to receive the burden of fatal, unavoidable, and incomprehensible necessity and to bear it strongly, is no consecration.

Some men believe in the power and the value of suffering. But their belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.

It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails in the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?

To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.[1]

            My suffering transforms me into a more Christ-like person. C. S. Lewis reflects that God’s grand enterprise is, ”To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’ To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, ‘Now get on with it. Become a god.”[2] This in a way is God’s ultimate victory over sin and death. Turning Satan’s very tool of destruction into an opportunity for good. Suffering is never good on its own. We should never desire suffering for its own sake. To do this would be to accept suffering as something intended by God. Rather it becomes good “by accident,” and in the hands of God our suffering is taken up as an offering to him for our transformation. None of this however removes or prohibits our ability to groan, or even to rail against suffering, to grieve and lament. Suffering was never part of the way things were supposed to be. According to Phil C. Zylla, our theology of suffering “will be more tears than words, as the words are symbols of a deeper experience that cannot be fully named.”[3]

I’m not attempting to really answer the question of how can a good God allow suffering but rather I am trying to present a path or an avenue that may be helpful as we wrestle with our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Sometimes our suffering truly seems unbearable, and on our own it truly might be. Encountering the suffering of someone close to us can be even more difficult than wrestling with our own grief. C. S. Lewis speaks of this agony reflecting on his desire to take upon himself the sufferings of his late wife.

And then one babbles—‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we should discover how seriously we had meant it. But is it ever allowed?

It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’[4]

While we may be unable to take upon ourselves the suffering of another we are able to bear our own suffering as an act of compassion. Christ’s death showed the depth of God’s compassion towards us suffering and dying in order to rise thereby destroying the power of death. Christ’s suffering was the greatest act of compassion, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[5] We become co-participants in the sufferings of Christ by taking up our own crosses through which we are joined with countless others through their taking up of their own crosses. “[…] inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.”[6] We are united as faithful at the Cross of Christ. Our co-suffering with Him brings about our co-suffering with each other and ultimately our co-redemption in Christ. Without Christ, and I might dare to even say without each other, our suffering truly is meaningless.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York, NY: A Harvest/ABJ Book, 1955), 77-78.
[2] C. S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed” The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002), 461.
[3] Phil C. Zylla, The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 178.
[4] Lewis, “A Grief Observed,” 454.
[5] Philippians 2:8, ESV.
[6] Cairns, 110.
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