Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Suffering and the Christian

Has today's modern Christian forgot (or perhaps never learned in the first place) about how to suffer? Every day we are plagued with reports about suffering and yet we do everything we can to insulate ourselves from the very real possibility of suffering ourselves. And then when we do suffer, we cannot lift ourselves from it, but instead entrap ourselves in a never ending cycle of "woe is me!" and self-pity that only exacerbates it and allows the suffering to persist.

As Christians, we should expect to suffer. Christ Himself said that to follow Him was to take up the cross. He also called those who suffer for His sake blessed in the Sermon on the Mount. St. Paul, perhaps the architect of what it means to suffer in the Christian tradition, says in his epistle to the Romans (8:17) that to be heirs of Christ is to be a co-heir in His sufferings. Fortunately, St. Paul doesn't end there but continues, saying that the result of such sufferings is ultimately that we be co-glorified with Him. Suffering leads to salvation and, as such, requires us to have joy in it. But, modern man and particularly, the modern Christian say, "I'll take the joy, but hold the suffering." But when the inevitable suffering comes, the modern Christian has no idea what to do or how to cope.

The assault on suffering comes from both within the Christian community and without. Liberals and statists, in their good intentions to make the world into one that is free of pain, are the first set of culprits. Today's liberals and statists, following precepts like this one uttered by President Kennedy--"man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty"--are only treating the symptoms. For today's liberal, there is no sin, which is the cause of suffering, but there is only an anomaly which can be wiped out by reason and scientific inquiry and social legislation. I've yet to see any social legislation that has eradicated the poverty of the intellect, i.e. stupidity. Like most of the agenda of liberals, the cure is not the concern, only the managing of outbreaks of symptoms. It is like giving aspirin to relieve the pressure in the head caused by a tumor. They will not strike at the tumor, but only the pain.

A second assault on suffering comes from within the Christian churches, who, like today's secular liberals and statists, insist that sin is not the problem, going out of their way to deny it. This group is represented by mainline Protestants who have swapped the Gospel for the leftist agenda while insisting that Christ would approve. Sin never enters the equation. And if there is no sin, there is no need for repentance, a complete change of self. So, for those who subscribe to this "christian" belief system, suffering is also an anomaly, but the solution is to treat the symptoms in the same manner as the statist.

A third assault on suffering comes again from within the Christian churches who teach that suffering is given to you because you don't have enough faith in Jesus Christ. Once you do have faith in Christ, your suffering will end and you will have joy in the form of riches. This is the message of the Prosperity Gospel, peddled by Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. For them, suffering and joy are not complementary but outright opposed and hostile to one another. One moment, you suffer; the next, you rejoice. Never is it both at the same time. But riches are not true happiness and joy. In effect, people who buy into this belief, do not attend to the soul.

(Side note: The acquisition of riches was never a promise to make men happier and to end suffering. True classical liberalism, represented by laissez-faire economist, Adam Smith, would never go that far. Material wealth is good in that it allows some physical miseries like disease and hunger to be dispensed with, but the debilitating psychological and spiritual miseries remain with which to do battle).

To want to do away completely with suffering is egoism at its finest. Misery cannot be abolished by reason or social legislation. Nor can it be blotted out by simply ignoring the root cause of sin. Nor can it be removed by simply acquiring riches since other miseries will still remain. Suffering must remain part of modern man's raison d'etre or sine qua non.

"What earthly joy remains untouched by grief? What glory stands forever on the earth?" writes the church father, St. John Damascene. It is not coincidental that these words are sung at Orthodox funerals. Our sufferings have to go hand in hand with our existence. But, there is the hope of salvation through sufferings in the person of Jesus Christ. It does not necessarily require actually being physically tortured as Christ was, though many martyrs have gone that route. But, for Christians, if our goal in life is to join ourselves to Christ, then we must start imitating Him. Wanting to cast aside sufferings or only treat the symptoms or deny the root cause is nothing more than conceit and arrogance. If we do that, then why celebrate at all the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh?

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