Monday, September 10, 2012

Suffering as the ultimate evil...

In an incisive piece called Our Neurotic Fear of Suffering, Wesley J. Smith describes how we have gone from suffering and pain being an ordinary part of life to a life in which the absence of suffering or pain is seen as the highest good.  There was a poignant line in his piece:  Suffering was the hard price one paid for being alive.

I will leave it to Wesley J. Smith and his piece to sort out the medical and cultural aspects of this all.  Instead, I want to focus on how this aversion to suffering has shaped our approach to work, the way we see marriage, our view of family, our choice for (or against) having children, and, finally, how our expectations of the faith/God have changed.

Generations of people have toiled at jobs they detested, in workplaces filled with danger, and enduring pain through their labors.  Now, however, we expect that everyone has some sort of right to a job they like, they enjoy, that is safe, and without the potential of pain or suffering.  Unfortunately, there are necessary jobs and responsibilities required in our society and culture in which these cannot be avoided.  My father is a plumber and he is required to deal with less than pleasant things all the time and the money is not incentive enough to make up for these duties.  Yet he has done this pretty much without complaint for more than 60 years.  My wife is a registered nurse; she has and continues to deal with unpleasant things in an environment fraught with the potential of danger and, though the money helps, it does not cover all the stress, pain, and trouble of her vocation.  As a Pastor I have given up days off, gotten out of bed in the middle of the night, and gone days without sleep all to be with the people in my care.  It surely does not measure up to the suffering of my dad or my wife but it has not been pleasant, nonetheless.

Marriage has been romanticized into an ideal that is both unattainable and unrealistic.  People have come to believe that marriage should primarily be a source of happiness and pleasure and that when marriage fails to deliver, it is reason enough to end it all.  Not all that long ago marriages were largely arranged or sorted out without infatuation or a life of happiness and fulfillment entering into the discussion.  That did not mean that these marriages were without love, affection, happiness or pleasure.  It merely means that husbands and wives did not see making each other happy as their primary purpose.  They were there to share the burdens and toils of this mortal life, to care for one another, to bring up children, and to work pretty much until their health prevented or they died.

One of the primary reasons couples have fewer children is that they realize the financial and personal cost of having these children and they want to spend the money, time, and energy more on themselves than expending them on children.  Children have always been a burden but it was a burden thought worth bearing.  Children have always brought with them some measure of suffering and pain but parents believed these were worth bearing for the sake of a higher good.  Now we find our culture questioning the value of children, whether the cost and suffering of having those children is worth it, and making choices to limit the number of children or even deciding not to having children largely to avoid the price in dollars and pain.  We plan our families around our career goals, our financial choices, and our feelings.  Sometimes we even think of children the way we think of infections or disease -- to be avoided at all costs.

How we deal with aging is also involved in our aversion to suffering and pain.  We don't like to be reminded of the mental and physical frailty that sometimes comes with old age so we avoid the elderly.  Countless great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents go without family visit and support because the families don't want to deal with the down side of aging.  Where caring for elderly family members was once understood as simply part of the nature of family, we often look for places to ditch those who can no longer care for themselves so that we do not have to bear some of the burden of their suffering.  We have come to a modern conclusion that quality of life is the most important criteria for dealing with the aged and we have presumed that death is preferable to any element of life compromised or diminished by age.

So when we look to faith and to God, we primarily look for someone and something to alleviate our suffering and relieve our pain.  It is unthinkable to many Christians that our consolation is that God suffers or bleeds for us and with us.  They can only conceive of comfort in terms of the absence of pain and suffering.  So the church becomes the place where we go to fix marriages in pain, to repair job situations that are unsatisfactory, to improve financial situations that cannot afford the cost of our pleasure and happiness, and to define values more consistent with our expectations than Scripture.  The scandal of the cross is that suffering has become the means of our redemption -- not the means of taking away every potential pain of this mortal life that we have come to expect.  So the word of the cross has disappeared from some of the preaching and the cross has been quietly replace with other symbols more amenable to our aversion to suffering and our problem with pain.  It is not the problem of pain that we face but the pain that is our biggest problem -- greater than sin and bigger than death.  Ditch the crucifix and its image of the suffering Savior and find us a religious symbol that inspires our happiness and confirms our belief that pain is the enemy God needs to deal with -- not sin, not the devil, not evil, and not death.

Just a few thoughts occasioned by one line in a great little article...


Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: Although I don’t disagree with a word you have written, may I offer these additional thoughts:

I think that Scripture will bear out that there are fundamentally two kinds of suffering. Unless we understand this, we will, on the one hand load ourselves up with undeserved guilt, and, on the other, run the risk of misunderstanding our Lord’s will for His children.

The first kind is the suffering caused by the brokenness and imperfection of all creation. Pain from injury, illness, broken relationship, hunger, thirst, and a raft of others belong in this class. Within reasonable limits, there is nothing wrong with trying to avoid these or to assuage them. Even our Lord, the suffering Servant, said, “I thirst” on the cross. Further, there is no merit in seeking these out. In most cases, doing so is a sign of psychological imbalance, as we see in “cutters”, people with eating disorders, and masochists of various kinds. There were even some “enthusiasts” in the early days of the Church, who volunteered for martyrdom, because they thought this would earn them merit before God.

The other kind is more problematic: it is the voluntary suffering for others, or denying oneself something so that someone else may suffer less. This is what our Lord did for us. Although His death on the cross was the epitome of His suffering, it began at His incarnation, when He made Himself subject to all of the suffering human beings undergo. I think we will all agree that this kind of suffering is more difficult than the first kind, in part, because it is so easy to avoid. The priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan are examples. It is so easy to say, “most of the money we contribute will be stolen,” or, “if they only straightened out their government, they would have all the food they need,” or, “he’ll just spend it on drink”, or, “I don’t do well visiting people in a hospital,” or, “I cannot live in this family any longer,” or any number of others, some of which we can actually rationalize into virtues.

Even the regenerated children of God have difficulty subjecting themselves to this kind of suffering. But part of the life in Christ involves growing in sanctification, through prayer, attendance at services, use of the Lord’s Supper, meditation, and finally, just by doing it. Because our future has been assured, our life in the Kingdom does not need to be for ourselves, it is for the “least of His brethren.” In that way we too will be able to share in the joy of our Lord, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame …” (Hebrews 12:2).

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

George, you are surely correct in distinguishing various causes of suffering (without even mentioning the suffering that comes from our own sins and errors). What I was trying to point out is that is has become the expectation of many, if not most of Americans, that life should not include any suffering at all. This is certainly an expectation far from the reality of life even 50-75 years ago, much less centuries ago.

While it is true that we can and perhaps should avoid the involuntary suffering you speak of, we do this to a matter of degree and not as a means of avoiding it completely.

Finally, we have certainly not dealt with the Biblical idea of suffering that participates in Christ's suffering as Paul talks about. This suffering is just as painful but has redemptive purpose and effect in us.