We human beings have struggled with the mystery of suffering for as long as we’ve existed. Why does suffering happen? Does it have a purpose? Can there be meaning in suffering?
Different religions have different answers to the question. Paganism sees suffering as a consequence of offending any of a panoply of bickering gods; you avoid suffering, if possible, by trying to please a powerful god in the hopes of obtaining protection. Atheism sees suffering as something that, like the rest of existence, can have no meaning: it advises you to avoid suffering as long as possible, while distracting yourself from the ultimate meaninglessness of things through carrying out some project; when you can no longer avoid suffering, there’s always suicide. Hinduism explains suffering by claiming that people who suffer do so because they behaved badly in a past life, and by behaving better, they can suffer less in a future reincarnation. Buddhism sees suffering as something horrible that comes out of human desire: it can be overcome through detaching ourselves from that desire. Judaism and Islam sees suffering as either a test from God of a person’s faith, or a punishment for doing wrong.
Christianity has an answer to suffering that is different from these. One key reason for the difference is that the source of the Christian answer to suffering is not the words of a wise person, but the actions of God himself. God became a human being, Jesus, not just to teach us, but to show us the truth. The meaning of suffering is one of the things he shows.
In becoming a human being, Jesus exposed himself to the full range of human suffering, and he brought upon himself even greater suffering by speaking the truth (knowing the consequences) to those who were willing to kill to silence that truth. Sure enough, they killed him. Did he rise up in Godly wrath to smite his enemies with divine vengeance from heaven? No, not at all. He submitted humbly to false accusations, to torture, and to an unjust death. He let people humiliate him, then torture him to death.
Think about this for a moment. If you’re not shocked by this, perhaps you’re not paying enough attention. God, the all-powerful Creator of the Universe, became a lowly human being. Then he let some badly-behaved people wrongfully convict him, torture him, and execute him. But instead of punishing them for their horrible crime, he lovingly forgave them even while they were torturing him, and allowed himself to be killed. A couple of days later, he rose from the dead, but instead of exercising vengeance, he visited his friends to commission them to teach the world about God’s love and forgiveness, and to call everyone to repentance and reconciliation. In short, he just kept loving, no matter how much people made him suffer.
This indeed is a wildly different answer from other religions to the question of suffering. It says that love, not suffering, is the important thing. Yes, suffering happens, and it happens particularly when people do wrong, but if the suffering does not overcome the love, the suffering is transformed: instead of being a monstrous thing, suffering becomes a remarkable thing. Why? Because it bears witness to the love that it couldn’t overcome. When love remains despite great suffering, the suffering shows how real, how true the love is. Love that persists despite suffering is the real thing, it’s love that is the same stuff as God’s own nature: true love, divine love, love that cannot be suppressed. This is the meaning of suffering: it can show the truth of love.
©Agapios Theophilus, 2017