I was recently asked this question on the nature of suffering:
“What is the point of constantly suffering from the Christian standpoint?”
Here is my effort at a response:
To take a stab at your questions, the unfortunate part about life (from every perspective, not just human; the caterpillar, sea urchin, and hyena also experience suffering, though their level of comprehension may not be as acute as ours) is that suffering is built into the very fabric of what it means to be alive. Indeed, to come into this world requires suffering (both for the mother and the baby). The question is not how to avoid, run from, or numb the suffering; the point is, to borrow from Frederick Buechner, how to steward our suffering well.
We poor humans are creatures perfectly suited for suffering. Every part of us is susceptible to suffering: our skin isn’t very thick, which means that everything from the sun, wind, rain, fire, and cold can get us; mosquitoes, ticks, snakes, scorpions, and even splinters can inflict mortal wounds.
The earth itself is always out to get us: sandstorms, windstorms, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, drought, and lightning can do us in.
There are man-made disasters running amok, ranging from poverty, abuse, oppression, injustice, starvation, and exploitation, to car wrecks, wars, genocides, bombings, terrorism, divorce, and gangs.
Then there is the list of diseases that lie dormant, waiting to run their course: cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, leukemia, cystic fibrosis, MLS, AIDS, brain tumors, aneurysms, Ebola, and tuberculosis (just to name a few!).
Of course, there is also our fellow man trying to murder, seduce, rape, steal, plunder, lie, cheat, demean, and destroy us.
And this does not take into account the various ways we seek to destroy ourselves through gluttony, pride, lust, envy, greed, wrath, smoking, drugs, alcohol, and the like.
All that to say, life is a very precarious thing!
In all of this, there seems to be three typical responses to suffering:
–Running from it (as if we could hide from the sun, lightning, brain tumors, or lust)
–Numbing it (medicating it with everything from drugs to food, shopping, alcohol, golf, and tv)
–Giving in to it (taking one’s life, depression, anxiety, etc.)
Where Christianity offers at least an historical answer that differs from these three is that it seeks to say that somehow, in some way, this great thing we call suffering can actually be redemptive in that it (and, really, only it) can lead to something else, some new form of life altogether. In this way, we see that the suffering of leaving the womb for the baby becomes a different kind of life altogether. The suffering the acorn experiences becomes something different, as does the suffering of the caterpillar, the wheat seed, and the dying star (from which other forms of life germinate).
What Christianity–at least, the Christianity of the mystics, the prophets (Jesus chief among them), the philosophers, the saints, and the great theologians (not, however [and, unfortunately] the Christianity displayed by many prominent voices of Christianity today)–seems to point to is that all this suffering has a point, a telos (to borrow from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas), an end. It is somehow part of a larger story that ends in the redemption of all things (the making of all things new, to quote Revelation 21:5). Christianity seems to say that death does not get the last word. That there is a word after that. In fact, that the word after that is LIFE. Life wins. Well, really, in the end, I think it means that Love wins.
The point of Christianity, quite frankly, is not that we get to escape our suffering and live in the clouds somewhere after we die. The point of Christianity is that, through our suffering, we get the chance to become something new, something deeper, something more than that begins even here and now (I would call this something heavenly, but that may get too religious). I would go so far as to say that we can only become our true selves, our “oak tree” or “butterfly” selves, our true Son or Daughter selves, once we embrace and surrender our suffering to a God who made Himself intimately and acutely aware of suffering through the Via Dolorasa of a Roman cross.
Remember, according to Joseph Campbell, it is only in and through the abyss that the protagonist (facing her own shadow and possible demise) can emerge the hero of her own story. It is not until Odysseus has lost everything that he is allowed to return home. It is only after Jean Valjean spends 19 years in jail that he is allowed a chance to find redemption (first through the Bishop, then through Cosette). And recall as well, the point of a tragedy is that the protagonist fails to turn his/her suffering into something redemptive; think of poor Hamlet’s brooding for five long Acts, only to end up dead on the floor at the end.
So, what does this have to do with you and suffering? I guess what I’m trying to point towards is twofold: A. You will suffer. I can’t do anything to stop that (nor would I, if what I believe to be true is actually true), but B. It is what you do with, or how you steward (or, better yet, to whom you surrender) your suffering that matters. Caterpillars can drink themselves numb, shop themselves silly, or throw themselves off their tree branches trying to escape their suffering, but it is only when they embrace the crucible of the chrysalis that they can become what they were meant to become.
The question is not “What is the meaning of Life?” nor even “What is the meaning of my life?” but deeper still, “What is it that gives my life meaning?”
Suffering, redemptive suffering, seems, somehow, to be at the marrow of meaning, at the very center of transformation.
It is true in nature; so too may it be true for you.