Does it seem like religious people seek out suffering?
When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to suffer. I wanted suffering like some people want money. I wanted to acquire it, have it come to me, create it, hoard it to excess.
This may sound confusing to people who didn’t grow up in the particular Christian tradition I did, where suffering is and has been glamorized and romanticized. , I have to admit, though, there is definitely evidence of others expressing this want throughout the Bible. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are largely devoted to the importance of sacrifices and repentance. The purpose of those books is to provide instructions for exoneration, which mends people’s relationship with God. In the Gospels, Jesus ominously tells his disciples that if they truly want to follow him, they must take up their cross and deny themselves. These ascetic teachings were amplified in the teachings by the apostle Paul and the early Christian community, who renounced their bodies’ needs in service of their divine mission. Jesus’ death itself was eventually understood as the ultimate sacrifice that redeems humanity.
When I was 17 and considering how to spend my summer, I would think of the least enjoyable and most strenuous charitable activity, believing that would give me a better performance review in heaven. Get a job at an ice cream shop or as a lifeguard? No. Take a creative writing class at the local college? Absolutely not. Live amongst the poorest of the poor and eat canned food for six weeks? Bingo.
At the same time, however, a contrasting idea is woven throughout the entire Bible as well. The psalmist clarifies to the people that God doesn’t require sacrifices but rather, a devoted heart. Similarly, the author of Joel advises us to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Jesus himself announces, “Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest,” and “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath.”
The gospel, literally meaning “good news,” is all about joy. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that he brings good tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy. How soothing it is to hear those words. Joy, joy, joy—that word is all over the Bible. It’s the purpose of why we’re all here. Moreover, it’s not something we need to strive for or earn. It’s pure gift, given to all of us no matter what we’ve done or not done.
This is why I have a complicated relationship with suffering.
As I’ve gotten older though and (ahem) wiser, I’ve been able to make sense of these opposing ideas through study, prayer, and incessant questioning. I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the divinity, our relationship to it, and the purpose of our lives (so it comes as no surprise that I eventually became a minister).
The nature of suffering
Here’s where I’ve landed at this point. I say “at this point” because I’ve learned that knowledge is limitless, and those who want to learn and grow will never stop. And this realization may be particularly helpful as we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of Lent, a season of Christian life known for its promotion of intentional suffering.
I believe that there are two primary kinds of suffering. The first is the suffering that is just part and parcel of living in this world as sentient and finite creatures: we contract diseases, get into car accidents, make wrong choices because of emotional wounds or limited knowledge, and so much else that leads to undesired pain and sadness. The second is the suffering we might seek out and boast about because we think it’s pleasing to God.
But going back to what the psalmist wrote, God doesn’t demand our sacrifices like a needy and impetuous dictator. God gave us our lives as a gratuitous expression of God’s creativity and we, being made in the image of God, are bestowed with the same creativity to craft lives of our own design. We do not need to seek out this second kind of suffering because God neither wants nor requires that of us.
The first kind of suffering, however, contains the seeds for our blossoming and, ultimately, joy. Lest we think that this kind of suffering is easier to swallow than the rigorous self-righteous kind we often seek out, I’m sorry to say--that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Love cannot exist without this first kind of suffering. It is both the ultimate test of love and the alchemical property that transforms even the most dismal of situations. Walking alongside a friend who’s experiencing a life-threatening illness, forgiving the person you once trusted most, staying in control when you want to retaliate, practicing patience with family members—these are all examples of the suffering Jesus invites us into and what he means by the words “take up your cross.”
How do we take up our cross?
It is clear to all of us living with our own problems, struggles and trials that these are not situations that we need to seek out or create—they are already all around us. We often resist responding to these challenges, however, because they lack the sparkle of glamorous, self-chosen suffering. As Christian activist Shane Claiborne wrote, “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”
The “dishes”, meaning our faithful responses to the everyday suffering around us, however, are what enable us to experience the fullness of joy that Jesus speaks of when he says, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Unlike happiness, joy isn’t the shallow consequence of ideal life conditions. Happiness is a fleeting emotion. It usually presents itself when a hoped-for outcome has taken place. Joy is a deeper sense of peace that one doesn’t achieve but rather connects with when one recognizes that their life is a pure, gratuitous gift from God and everyone around them is also an expression of God’s love and creativity. And if joy is the destination we are all seeking, then our faithful suffering is the vehicle that takes us there.
Back to 17-year-old Lydia who decided to do a summer internship in a poverty-stricken community rather than take a creative writing class. Here’s what 38-year-old me would tell her if I could: “Take the dang writing class because that’s what you really want to do! Your longing to create is not only a gift from God, it’s an expression of God’s very own identity. And,” I’d add, "remember that time you told your friend Susan that she’s less enlightened because she’s not a Christian? Not seeing yourself as better than others is really the kind of suffering God asks of you.” And then I’d say, “Say ‘yes’ to Jimmy when he asks you to go to prom. In some ways, it’s more fun to go with people you don’t have crushes on.”
The Rev. Lydia Sohn is an United Methodist ordained elder within the California Pacific Conference. She left her full-time church appointment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to blog, write a book, and be a stay-at-home mom for her two young kids. Follow along at www.revlydia.com.