I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept suffering recently. It’s a subject that I don’t believe has been discussed or portrayed well throughout the religious and philosophical perspective that I and many were brought up in. It has also, unfortunately, been used harmfully and destructively in the lives of others.
Interestingly, this subject is one of the earliest I remember learning about as a kid. The first verse I ever had to memorize was in James chapter 1. It talks about enduring struggles and trials and growing through them. It was a message my grandmother was teaching me and one I really took to heart, especially considering the self sacrificial lifestyle my grandparents devoted themselves to. The lesson was realistic, and supported through experienced advice and love, and really helped me during some difficult times in life. I know similar teachings and relationships have helped millions of people deal with some of the darkest times in their lives. A message from experience given with love and support about enduring suffering.
The issue I’m attempting to address here is not persevering through the unavoidable or unexpected struggles and tragedies we face in life. Numerous philosophies, religions, and inspirational people have offered comforting words and good advice in how to deal with this, and overcoming hardship is an intrinsic part of humanity. I also don’t want to diminish the maturity and character that develops in people as they rise through their struggles and then engage the world as a stronger and more well rounded individual.
The issue I’m dealing with is the imbalance and abuse that can arise from pushing this concept too far. While I would love to take time and unpack the relationship of suffering to human life in the other religious perspectives, particularly Buddhism, I feel like I can only confidently write about this imbalance in modern Christian culture.
Suffering in the Bible
Even a cursory reading of the Bible, especially the New Testament, shows the idea of suffering central theme of Christian life. While I don’t have time to go over all verses in their entirety, here are a few that demonstrate the key components to how suffering is presented.
Jesus prepares his followers for suffering from oppression and persecution:
“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:20f)
However, in the midst of persecution people should respond by demonstrating love and hope:
“’You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43, 44)
There’s a push to understand the strength and character that comes from enduring suffering:
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts…” (Romans 5:3-5)
Finally, that when people experience suffering they should come together to support one another:
“If one part (of the community) suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
I could go on, but the idea of enduring through suffering while standing for a message of love, grace, and peace is consistently communicated.
It is, however, extremely important to note one significant aspect of this. This was written from the perspective of an oppressed and persecuted community. Therefore, these verses demonstrate a people that is not the majority, that is not in power, and that is having their rights stripped due to their beliefs.
The cultural context cannot be separated from these statements, as it is what gives much of the significance to the meaning of them. To have an oppressed community advocate for love, hope, and peace in the midst of persecution is laudable. We’ve seen it also shown through the lives and works of those like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and many more. Suffering in this context is endured in hopes of communicating a message of a better world, and seeing that better world come around through strong statements of action.
But what happens when that context is no longer present.
Suffering as a Virtue?
For the Western World, this context of Christianity as a suffering and persecuted community, from which these statements arise, did not last long. Once the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as his official religion the tides shifted rapidly into the Christian community’s favor.
So now they had a dilemma, “What to do with all this teaching on suffering?” The context no longer applied, but they had just finished compiling the New Testament and determined it to be infallible. So they shifted the idea of suffering from the cultural and societal perspective of a persecuted community, to a internal one based on personal morality and piety.
This idea of suffering has at times been taken very literally with some of the Medieval practices of “Redemptive Suffering” or pushing for people to fast for weeks on end. But more commonly in American culture it developed more abstractly, such as denying certain aspects of society like drinking, dancing, certain types of music, or games like poker, Magic, or Dungeons and Dragons. But with this shift in perspective arising from the change in cultural context, the progressive message of showing love and maintaining hope in the face of hatred and persecution often became regressive.
Slave owners relied on this idea of suffering as a virtue to maintain their belief that slavery was ethical and moral. Even the actual physical abuse that slaves suffered at the hands of their owners for things they did not do was brushed aside by the religious leaders of the day.
For example, Bishop William Meade of Virginia said to the idea of a slave being punished without proper reason, “…is it not possible you may have done some other bad thing which was never discovered and that Almighty God, who saw you doing it, would not let you escape without punishment one time or another? And ought you not in such a case to give glory to Him, and be thankful that He would rather punish you in this life for your wickedness than destroy your souls for it in the next life? But suppose that even this was not the case—a case hardly to be imagined—and that you have by no means, known or unknown, deserved the correction you suffered; there is this great comfort in it, that if you bear it patiently, and leave your cause in the hands of God, He will reward you for it in heaven, and the punishment you suffer unjustly here shall turn to your exceeding great glory hereafter.”
Unjust suffering from this personal moral and ethical approach is a good thing according to the bishop. Just like the early followers of Jesus, this suffering is meaningful and will be rewarded. Lost is any sense of the irony that the once small community of oppressed and persecuted Christians have now become the large and imposing oppressors. What is even more egregious is that they are now making what was once a commendable adoption of a message of love in the face of suffering into a religious commandment stemming from those causing suffering to be obeyed by the victims of it. It is a complete and utter reversal of the central and original meaning.
This mentality continued on throughout American history and found itself foundational to Christian resistance against progressive movements like Women’s Suffrage, Civil rights, Divorce Reform, the LGBT movement and so forth. The voice of love for a better world from amidst suffering was corrupted and distorted, and then used to silence progressives and maintain the status quo.
Strict Morality and Justifying Suffering
Before going on, I want to give a disclaimer. While I am talking in generalities and somewhat abstract, I’m going to talk about subjects that may be connected to people’s personal trauma. Some references may be difficult for people to read, and I just want to say that I’m sorry for what many of you have been through and the horribly distorted religiosity that may have been communicated to you.
I wish I could say that this misappropriation of a message of love in suffering has faded over time, but it hasn’t. The moment individual morality and personal righteousness became the focus of these teachings, the more subtly it crept into our society.
People in abusive relationships are often simply and forcibly told to endure them. Under their strict sense of morality, divorce is a sin and it is much better to endure suffering from abuse than it would be to actively sin by being separated. This was one of the main issues in the series of essays edited by Joanne Carlson Brown, “Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique”. In it Carlson writes “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus.” In essence, the message of suffering was hi-jacked from its context, turned into a virtue, and used to diminish the needs of others, specifically the needs of the victims of abusive relationships.
This same logic and approach is then applied to numerous other issues. People in the LGBT community are simply told that based on the morality of a large section of the Christian community that they simply need to remain single and embrace their lack of a loving relationship as a form of redemptive suffering. By suffering they really show the holiness required by a follower of Christ, and if, due once again to their rigid sense of morality and approach to scripture, they have desires they just need to discipline themselves. Once again they force unnecessary suffering to become a virtue.
Mothers of unwanted pregnancies or victims of rape are told that suffering is once again a virtue, and in spite if the suffering you’ve gone through and will continue to go through, you need to embrace it. It is not offered as an option, but imposed on them by those without the responsibility associated with it. Many of these victims then struggle to carve out a life all because they were told this is the right and good thing to do. I just want to say that I am unbelievably amazed by those who do make the choice to endure through and make a greater statement of love in spite of what has happened to them, but once again that is a profound choice on their part and not forced on them.
I could go on with issue after issue, but the pattern remains the same. Over and over, people are told that suffering is a virtue and needs to be embraced, but in the end it facilitates abuse, loneliness, and often results in unnecessary suffering long term.
We know that no one goes through life untouched by tragedy, it’s part of the human experience. Everyone has their own suffering they have to endure, and those that do can come out of it stronger. That, once again, is not what I’m talking about here. Overcoming adversity is not the problem, holding up avoidable suffering as a virtue is.
I have a feeling that I’m going to get some push back on what I wrote here, and that’s alright. I invite discussion because this issue is important and needs discussion if it is to be completely re-evaluated in our society.
The current method of moralizing unnecessary suffering is, in my mind, utterly despicable and I don’t think we can maintain its acceptability in our culture. Suffering for a cause is admirable thing, religiously manipulating people into enduring abuse and trauma is not.
The way we as a community deal with this needs to change. We need to support one another, love one another, continue to offer hope to each other, and when we see suffering we need to work to help one another through it. We don’t do this by being dismissive or religiously abusive. We do this by coming alongside each other and working to lift each other out of the pain and into something better. We do this by making sure our societal systems are in place to help those who need it, and we never use morality as an excuse to bully others to remain in unacceptable and compromised positions.
We as people are better than that.