Tag Archives: suffering

Not All Suffering is Cruciform

Sandwiched here between the two Easter commemorations this week, we’ve been granted a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the sufferings of Jesus. This opportunity comes from an unlikely source: Rep. Steve King.

King spoke at a town hall this week and fielded a question about the fear that Christians were being persecuted in the United States. (You have my symathies.) King took the question a step further, looking away from the hardships of American Christians and tuning instead to his own personal tribulations:

When I have to step down to the floor of the House of Representatives, and look up at those 400-and-some accusers — you know we just passed through Easter and Christ’s passion — and I have better insight into what He went through for us, partly because of that experience.

King no doubt has suffered. He is reviled by Democrats and held at arm’s length by Republicans, has been stripped of his committee assignments, and was the implicit subject of a censorious resolution on the House floor. But not all suffering is cruciform.

Throughout the New Testament, Christians are warned that they may face sufferings. Jesus warned of it before he ever arrived at the cross and, in the aftermath, Christians suffered more than enough to make it a common refrain in the epistles. For our purposes, the most instructive passage comes from 1 Peter 3:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

For Christ also suffered[a] once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous…

We are encouraged in our suffering precisely because Christ has suffere, and we are exhorted to be fearless as long as our suffering is in the mold of Christ’s. What is cruciform suffering? There are two criteria (mentioned in this passage): suffering for doing good rather than doing evil and suffering on behalf of others. When we face trials under these conditions they are to our credit–to our ultimate credit even.

But Steve King isn’t suffering for doing what’s right. In the most generous reading of events, he is suffering for doing what’s impolitick. He made some less than condemnatory comments about white nationalism and white supremacy…on the record…to the New York Times. (And it’s not the first time he’s tipped his cards either.) Suffering for being racially insensitive, for being bad at your job, or for being an out-and-out racist is not the same as suffering for doing right.

As we think about the suffering of Jesus in this Easter season, it’s worth putting our day to day trials (even those things we think of as persecutions) into perspective.

 

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The New Pope on Easter

Most people are getting a little weary of hearing about Pope Francis. (I’m not; I’m getting weary of people complaining about how much they are talking about him.) Whose feet is he washing? What did he say about gay marriage? Is he talking to Kirill? How significant is his provenance? His order? His papal name? Etc. It is easy to forget in all this interpretive tumult that the pope is still the spiritual icon for one seventh of the world’s population, one who has a message that is not hidden beneath layers of ambiguous action and mysterious origin. He offers these wonderful thoughts for the Easter Vigil:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Here is the essence of Easter, distilled and repackaged to meet the world’s needs in this moment. The conquest over death is not merely a soteriological mechanism but a testimony to the efficacy of divine action. There is no recession that is more destructive than death, no sorrow which can match its permanence, no wound which can mirror its absoluteness. It is the content of our greatest tragedies and the aim and consequence of our most viscous sins. Yet God took it and transformed it, not into something marginally less terrible but into life itself. It is precisely because of this confidence display of power that we can turn to salvation, that we can expect our own deaths–the individual and the corporate deaths, the physical and the existential deaths–to be transformed ultimately into the eternal life promised for those who love him. In a world acutely aware of its own sufferings and dogged by its own perpetual inability to cure them through its chosen devices, the pope has echoed the psalmist who finds in the fidelity and potency of God the redemptive power of hope: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”

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Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!

When will the West act against persecution of Christians in the Middle East? That is the question posed in a recent Fox News article. The specific catalyst for the call to arms is the impending execution of Youcef Nadarkhani for his failure “to renounce his Christian beliefs and recognize the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger.” Through the course of the article, however, the writer rattles off a laundry list of Muslim offenses against Christianity: attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt and their subsequent mass exodus, the targeting of Lebanese Christians by Syrians, not to mention the targeting of Syrian Christians by Syrians, the abuse of Christians in Saudi Arabia, Christians living in peril in the Gaza strip, and the hordes of Christian refugees that have come out of Iraq. The author seems to be peculiarly focused on the Middle East, apparently unconcerned by Muslim persecution of Christians in southeast Asia (for example) or state persecution of them in China. Nevertheless, the problem is real and one that warrants appropriate Christian attention.

Yet, if the question is when will the West “exert their muscle to help them,” I hope the answer is never. Why should they? After all, the governments of the US and Europe are not Christian governments. The very fact that they would be enticed to display their coercive powers to end persecution is a testament to that. There is a fairly clear image in the Scriptures and throughout Christian history about how Christians respond to persecution. Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many more all provide stories of heroism in the face of state or religious tyranny that have a distinctly Christian flavor. They all draw their inspiration, curiously enough, from a prototypical martyr: Christ. His declaration from the cross was not “when will someone have the courage to stand up on my behalf” but “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His vision of the Christian community was never “they will fight for my life” but, in direct contradiction to this, “they do not fight, because my kingdom is not of this world.” And the proposition that “Christian nations” might withdraw humanitarian aid from countries who persecute Christians seems strangely at odds with the command “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

There was a time when we realized that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Centuries of sloth and spiritual atrophy have caused us to begin to labor under the delusion that all people should and do have the right to the free exercise of religion. It’s a nice vision of the world, but it is nonetheless a fantasy. It is time to regain something of the courage of Tertullian, so that we can once again declare that “you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are” (though my preference has always been for Justin Martyr’s phrasing, “You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us”). We should take up the morbid jeer of Polycarp, “Death to the atheists” (with all it’s ironic, near suicidal resignation). Most of all though, we need to remember that Paul taught us that if our enemy is hungry we should feed him, if he is thirsty we should give him something to drink. Finally, we must always cling to what Peter told his suffering flock: the appropriate response to persecution is neither muscle flexing nor victimization but triumph. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

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“Suffering” as Becoming

Douglas John Hall, in God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, introduces the idea that God has created with some suffering (though by no means all suffering) built in to the system. He defines this intended suffering broadly with the phrase “suffering as becoming.” He suggests that God did not create creatures complete but with the capacity for growth and the ability to change, and with growth and change inevitably comes suffering in some sense. He gives this broad category four specific manifestations which he believes are witnessed in the various creation accounts of the Old Testament: loneliness, the experience of limits, temptation, and anxiety.

I confess that I was quite taken with this proposition at first. At first glance, I could see all those features in the creation story and was more than willing to relegate some suffering to the necessity of the created order (probably out of some naive hope that it would lessen the total burden of the problem of suffering). With a little prodding (particularly from one NihilNominis, to whom I am grateful), however, I came to realize that Hall’s proposal did not stand up to scrutiny.

Certainly his position would be defensible if he were to retreat into the bastion of semantic particularity. If he defined suffering in such a way that it stripped it of any reference to pain as such, if he made it in some sense synonymous with imperfection, his case would be not only provable but self-evident. He could argue quite convincingly that humanity is something less than God and something less than the fullness of its own potential, and he could label the pursuit of those two features of creation “suffering,” thus proving that suffering is intrinsic to creation. This would seem to be the route suggested when he writes “we may say that suffering belongs to the order of creation insofar as struggle is necessary to the human glory that is God’s intention for us.”

He oversteps when he suggests that life was never intended to be “painfree.” By attaching not only the negative connotation of “suffering” to the “struggle” of becoming but the more definite experience of pain to that struggle, Hall reveals the great flaw in his argument. I propose that Hall has merely reframed the process of becoming which is intrinsic to creation and which is, according to its intention, positive in negative language in order to support his claim that “life without any kind of suffering would be no life at all; it would be a form of death.

When God creates Adam in Genesis 2, it is readily apparent to the Creator that something is amiss. The man is alone, and immediately we have in creation loneliness. (Hall positively refuses to refer to Adam as “man,” preferring to neuter him by calling him the “earth creature,” raising the question of how this poor gender neutral beast will ever populate the earth with Eve…but that quibble is for another time.) I will set aside the fact that creation is not yet completed in this scene (leaving one to wonder what could be deduced about what is and isn’t intrinsic to creation if we stopped on day three and examined the state of things) and address myself to the larger question of whether or not the experience of a need for relationship constitutes suffering. That is, in fact, what Hall is identifying here, that need for relationship which causes it to be “not good” for man to be alone and is the necessary precursor for his joy in finding companionship in Eve.

But is the need for companionship really pain? Certainly it can be productive of pain. Anyone not living a truly privileged life has experienced the pain of isolation, even when companionship of various kinds is available. In these situations, however, it is the isolation that is productive of pain not merely the desire for relationship. In the same sense that the desire for food only becomes painful when food is unnaturally withheld, the natural desire for relationship which is built into the human creature only produces pain when we are left in contranatural isolation from God and from humanity. As God created the world, that need exists but it is constantly fulfilled both with the community of people and, more profoundly, communion with God. Those communions are by no means perfect, and particularly with regard to God the growth in communion is eternal and never complete. Nevertheless, the fact that communion exists makes that need for relationship a joyful reality, a drive toward greater bliss. By calling the need for communion loneliness and ascribing pain to it, Hall presupposes the corruption of sin.

Common to the lot of all humanity is the experience of limits. Hall writes, “we are not big enough, or strong enough or wise enough, old enough or young enough, agile enough, versatile enough.” We cannot merely will ourselves to sprout wings and fly. While this last fantastical analogy is rarely productive of suffering in anyone but small children, the general concept nevertheless holds. No small amount of suffering comes from the “frustration” (to borrow from Hall) of not being able to transcend our limits. Yet again the real source of this frustration manifests itself on closer examination. It is not merely the existence of those limits or our knowledge of them that is productive of pain, but our will to transcend them. The inability to sprout wings and fly doesn’t bother adults precisely because most of them have shred their childish wish that they might be able to truly soar as the birds do. Other irrational lusts for transcendence replace these childish notions, however, in the form of women who cling desperately to their youth or men thirst for power which is always just one step beyond them. It is the lust for transcendence that is productive of suffering (defined traditionally) not merely the existence of limits. The question then remains, and I should hope that its answer is obvious, is the lust to transcend the limits of our abilities part of what God has ordained for creation?

Not merely the presence of a forbidden tree (the existence of which would be enough to drive so many modern persons to transgression) but also of a tempter who we must confess is one of God’s creations in some sense represent the reality of temptation in Eden. Certainly here Hall is at his strongest. It is hard for anyone who has experienced temptation to suggest that it is anything but a cruel form of suffering. The more we try to resist the pull to do what we know we ought not to do, the more excruciating the experience becomes. It would almost seem pleasurable to given in (and certainly that is the reason we always do) if not for that gnawing fact that suffering, in the truest sense, always follows transgression.

Still, I believe that upon closer examination we will see that it is not the mere presence of temptation which produces suffering but our own arrogance in the form of rebellion against God which makes it so. At its most basic level, the temptation in the garden is merely the presentation of contrary choice. Humans have the ability to decide between right and wrong. Certainly the capacity to decide is not itself suffering. What causes the suffering associated with temptation is not the ability to choose but the two wills which war within us. There is the will of God which steers us ultimately toward glory and our own shortsighted will which struggles to understand the difference between immediate gratification and ultimate glorification. It is our refusal to subordinate our will to the will of God which is productive of suffering, not merely the capacity to choose or even the presence of a tempter who would entice us to choose. Hall references Jesus’ temptation as a parallel to that in the garden, but I think that the Temptation provides just the picture of painless temptation that validates my point. In submitting his own will to that of the Father, Jesus not only doesn’t suffer at the hands of the tempter, he causes the tempter to suffer in humiliating defeat three times over.

Having understood temptation, Hall’s final category, anxiety, is much simpler. In fact, I wonder if it should even be considered at all, as I struggle to see its presence related explicitly in the Genesis story. Nevertheless, Hall speaks of the anxiety of dependency as a form of integrative suffering inherent in the world. Certainly humanity is dependent on God not only for basic things like existence and the sustaining of that existence but also for more abstract gifts like direction and access to truth. The feeling of dependency and the absence of direct contact with the Object on which we are dependent certainly produces not only anxiety but pain.

There are two ways, however, that viewing this anxiety of dependency like this is flawed. First, it anachronistically reads the present lack of connection with God into the Eden narrative. There is a sense in which humanity will always be ontologically apart from God, but the original couple still experienced their dependency on God in more direct, more concrete terms than we do. The radical separation presently experienced is undoubtedly less the intention of the Creator and more the perversion of the creature. Second, the pain produced by the anxiety of dependency is rooted not merely in being dependent but in lacking faith in that on which we depend. If we truly trusted fully in the Provider and Sustainer of life, then there would be no anxiety in our dependency. Suggesting that the suffering associated with our ultimate insufficiency is built into creation is tantamount to saying that mistrust of God was ordained by God. That can hardly be the case.

In the end, it appears that Hall, rather than establishing the presence of suffering in the blueprint of creation, has reframed positive aspects of reality in negative terms which in their very expression presupposes the presence of sin. Isolation, mistrust, rebellion, and arrogance are all productive of suffering, truly painful suffering. These are the qualities that Hall actually identifies. The positive notions he has redefined – the desire for communion, the experience of dependence, the knowledge of limits, and the capacity for choice – are not only not productive of suffering but in fact represent some of the greatest joy-producing gifts which God has bestowed on creation. Certainly when corrupted by improper choice and compounded by the isolation which results from sin, all of the above transform into contranatural sources of pain, but to suggest that God has embedded the contranatural in the natural is a contradiction in terms. Ultimately, I am forced to reject Hall’s suggestion that any form of suffering was intended in creation.

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