I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written. This paper was given during the pandemic at an international seminar organised by Canadian global think tank ‘Alternative Perspectives on Global Challenges’. Academics from different faiths were invited to present their faith’s perspective on suffering.
Christianity has always taken suffering seriously. In the Jewish scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, the history of Israel is one of struggle and pain, from the tribulations of the patriarchs, through to slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon. The wisdom tradition of the Old Testament voices questions of justice in this context, as it ponders our daily struggles in relation to an omnipotent God. The desolation of a good person, for example, is the principal theme of the book of Job – if God is all-powerful, then why doesn’t he end the suffering of this faithful person? The psalmist, on the other hand, describes the silence of God in times of human challenge and difficulty.
In the New Testament, Jesus shows himself to be sensitive to the groans of a hurting world, as he offers healing and solidarity to the outcast and the oppressed. The anguish of Gethsemane and the blood and pain of Calvary then place suffering at the centre of the Christian faith. Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ shockingly brings home to us the gruesome agonies of the Good Friday story. Another film, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, suggests, quite plausibly, that Jesus, who, we are told in the letter to the Hebrews (4:15), was tempted like us in every way, would have faced one final temptation – the temptation to resist the tortured death on the cross. So, one of Jesus’s great victories was in accepting the agony of the crucifixion and in overcoming the temptation to become a Messiah without suffering.
This, consequently, has always given Christians courage to take up their own crosses, as Jesus himself put it (Matthew 16:24), and accept their own suffering. Not that suffering should be celebrated or perversely enjoyed. Nor is suffering some test from God. It’s clear from the New Testament and from many centuries of Christian theological writing that, for Christians, God does not use suffering to punish, mock, belittle, or impart some sort of message to his people. The Christian faith does, though, teach that God meets people in their afflictions, bringing profound meaning, light, and hope at the most unlikely times.
St Paul, not a stranger to suffering, described his own personal torment as his ‘thorn in the flesh’, and he suggested to the church in Corinth that those who are strongest are those who find meaning in the apparent meaninglessness of affliction. He wrote these words: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [my suffering] away from me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. For when you are weak, then you are strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). For the Christian, then, it is through discovering the presence of God’s love in suffering that renewed strength, hope, and meaning is discovered.
And so, from a Christian perspective, God is not an executioner or a tyrant. But neither is he a mere spectator, looking on as his children succumb to despair and disaster. Rather, as the Old Testament shows, God shares the pains of His beloved sons and daughters, as he suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. As Isaiah 63:9 tells us: ‘in all their distress, He too was distressed’.
In the New Testament, though, God not only shares our misery, but also dwells within our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. In the words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann, ”the crucified God” takes on the role of the “suffering, poor, defenceless Christ”. Some early Christian groups claimed Jesus had escaped the crucifixion, but these ideas were quickly denounced as heretical. It’s paramount for Christians that Jesus himself experienced the rejection, torture, and pain of crucifixion and death. Through this fact, God is shown to be no stranger to suffering, and he continues to stand with those who take up their own crosses and encounter their own crucifixions. This, then, underlies the paradox that many Christians recount – that when they are stripped bare, when they touch the bottom of the abyss, when they experience death while living, it is then they encounter God in a vivid way and grow closer to him.
The former Dean of Westminster Abbey, Michael Mayne, while dying of throat cancer, wrote that God was, in a very real way, dwelling in the midst of his painful battle. He wrote: “The darkness will not overwhelm us and do us harm. Yes, I find God in the evil of my cancer. Not that he sent it, but that he is found in it and through it”. Mayne even refers to his terrible journey to the grave as God’s “dark glory”.
The great paradox for Christians is that the very real presence of God in suffering stands as a comforting reassurance. Yet, the practical reality is that, even to people of faith, God can seem distant, sometimes even absent, during our times of affliction. Christ’s impassioned cry from the cross, taken from Psalm 22, encapsulates the pain and frustration that can be felt: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”
Despite this, Christian tradition has always pointed to ways where we can actively search out and recognise God’s voice in our suffering. From John Cassian and the desert fathers, through Meister Eckhardt, Julian of Norwich, and St John of the Cross, through to Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams, the teaching is the same: that God does not want people to suffer, but, when they do, he can meet people in their affliction. As philosopher Simone Weil suggested, the Christian faith offers “no supernatural remedy for suffering”, but it does strive for “a supernatural use for it”. Like the risen Jesus, Christians believe they will always bear the scars of their suffering, the nail-marks of their own crucifixions, but they believe they can still emerge from their darkness transformed and redeemed. Followers of Jesus do not take up crosses of meaninglessness, but, rather, they learn to affirm life by equating their own suffering with the cross and its promise of resurrection.
The sixteenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne wrote that his periods of sharpest suffering were the times when his spiritual life developed most. A great picture, after all, has shades, shadows, and dark corners, alongside the bright colours and light. By recognising this fact, while pain holds the potential to dehumanise and destroy, Christians have to hold on to the truth that it can also be transformed and redeemed. It is, therefore, the way we approach our dark times that brings light to our lives. As the Jewish holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, employing Christian imagery: “The way in which a person accepts their fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which they take up their cross, gives them ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to their life”.