We must learn to suffer well
Views 13 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 4 - 10 - 2019 | By: Nathan Tudor
An insidious lie is spreading among Christians. It primarily seems to be a Western phenomenon, but it is also prevalent in Global South and Eastern congregations. It takes the form of “word of faith” and “prosperity gospel” teachings, but it is also lurking in the naive belief that we are always supposed to be happy.
Christians have started to think that we are not supposed to suffer.
It’s an absurd idea, given that we believe our God became incarnate and suffered incomparable agony on the cross. We even refer to those events as Christ’s “passion,” from the Latin term for “suffering.” And it was Jesus himself who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NRSV). After telling his disciples to abide in him, Jesus says the result of this abiding is to be hated by the world as he was hated (John 15:18).
Christians, more than anyone, should be acutely aware that we have signed up for suffering. Not only that, but it would seem from Christ’s words above that we are to expect more suffering than we would otherwise experience. For centuries, the Christian tradition had this concept at the forefront of its consciousness, venerating the martyrs and desiring to imitate their example.
Yet when I look at the contemporary church, particularly in America, I see widespread failure to acknowledge this. I’m glad to see that Westmont has held chapels of lament semester, but the fact that such chapels seem to be an anomaly in the Christian landscape points to a problem. Churches in America seem to pitch Christianity like an infomercial product. Just come to the altar, get dunked in water, and God will make your problems go away. This is usually packaged with language of God’s “blessings,” misconstrued as referring to material gain and health. Certainly, prosperity and good health are gifts, but they are not a reason for baptism.
I suspect that, in part, this no-suffering delusion is an attempt to make Christianity seem more palatable to outsiders. We are nervous that people won’t want to sign up if they think they’re getting on board the pain train. Sermons have become motivational comedy routines. God is treated like a pleasure-dispensing genie. For all these efforts though, studies by the Pew Research Center show that Christianity in America has been on the decline for decades.
On the contrary, people are quite aware of the reality of suffering. Take for example the recent resurgence in Stoic philosophy, exemplified by Ryan Holliday’s bestselling book “The Obstacle Is the Way,” which advocates the principles of ancient Stoic philosophy--a philosophy intimately concerned with how to deal with suffering. Stoicism teaches that grappling with suffering is what leads to freedom from it. Suffering is not something to run away from, but something to take head-on, like a wave breaking over you. There’s a strong affinity here with the Buddhist Noble Truths. Life is suffering, and the way to deal with it is by becoming virtuous and detaching from corrupted desire.
Both Stoicism and Buddhism seem to gaining traction in America, and I think it’s because people intrinsically know that they are going to suffer. As Christians, we ought to take note. Maybe we would have fewer stories of people quitting the faith once tragedy strikes if we were honest about the reality of tragedy. The inevitability of tragedy is part of our doctrine! We teach that humans fell and creation is groaning. The world is rife with sin and corruption, and every living thing suffers the consequences.
It’s time we stop acting like the answer is fake smiles and false promises. Let us learn to take up the cross and recognize that it is better to bear suffering on our shoulders than flee from it and sit in self-delusion.