For more on this topic, please listen to our series of sermons on Comfort.
Dictionary.com defines suffering as follows, “[to] experience or be subjected to (something bad or unpleasant).” If Dictionary.com is right, then suffering is as universal as it is unquestionable. That infamous serpent of long ago slithers through the lives every conscious being, eating dust and spitting out suffering in return. The sigh of a heavy heart and the echoed footsteps of a teenager all alone. The tears of those who mourn for all that they have lost and the child who hides behind the couch because her parents are drunk and fighting. The man who loses his job and sees the hungry faces of his children in his nightmares. The woman who miscarries over and over again. Those homeless on the street who suffer untempered addictions. Those who feel homeless in their own homes. The sting of a splinter or the pangs of a jammed toe. From the towering shrieks of giving birth to the moderate headache behind the eyes. Suffering is so pervasive that it is perhaps better described by what it’s not than by what it is. But even then it’s hard, for even behind smiles and forced laughs one may find a lurking suffering, a depression, a box of untalkables locked away deep in the soul. The serpent deceived us more than we could ever know, “surely, you will not die,” he said. But we would die, and that is not the least of it. “Surely, you will not suffer,” is what he should have said too. Put perhaps suffering was a word not yet even known.[bra_blockquote align=”]From the towering shrieks of giving birth to the moderate headache behind the eyes. Suffering is so pervasive that it is perhaps better described by what it’s not than by what it is. [/bra_blockquote]
So when asked to reflect upon what suffering means to me, I am left with a sort of anxiety (a sort of suffering, no less). The sort that comes when one is tasked with a job too big to take on all at once. That is because life as I have always known it is infused with suffering, such that to extricate it even intellectually is virtually impossible. Suffering is the air I breathe (in an increasingly more literal sense). Though it’s undeniable too, that suffering makes all the greatest things in my life possible. Love would mean little if I had not suffered the unloving. Compassion would have no force if I knew not pain. Faith would have no dominion if I had not felt the bitter pangs of unbelief. Hope would never surface if I had nothing at all to hope for. Mercy would be impotent if I had not suffered guilt. Forgiveness would still be in the heart of a man that was never born who died upon the beams of a tree that was never cut down. Suffering is infused in every category of my thinking that to even fathom a world without it is something only God can do. Thus, when I hear critics decry Christianity and maintain that suffering is the ultimate proverbial thorn in its side, presenting as they maintain, a decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. I cannot help but quiver. For nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the nonexistence of suffering that would be the decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. Christianity has long been a predictive model of suffering, holding as it does, at its redemptive center a crucified God who suffered and died. All so we could be forgiven. Forgiven? Forgiven for what?[bra_blockquote align=’right’]Love would mean little if I had not suffered the unloving. Compassion would have no force if I knew not pain. Faith would have no dominion if I had not felt the bitter pangs of unbelief.[/bra_blockquote]
Forgiven for all the unwholesome ways we wielded the power of our own freedom. For all the atrocities we enacted and participated. Forgiven for the children we left exposed to die. Forgiven for the rape and slaughter. Forgiven for greed and selfishness. Forgiven for the genocides we petitioned for, participated in, or idly watched. Forgiven for the lies told and the people we hurt. Forgiven for all the suffering that we brought down upon the heads of all people with ruthless and persistent indifference. Suffering is the story of Christianity, from start to finish, culminating as the exiled John proclaims, in newness absent of all that we have ever known.[bra_blockquote align=”]Suffering is the story of Christianity, from start to finish…[/bra_blockquote]
We’re not the only ones to suffer, either. Creation is in bondage to suffering, as the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Romans. But a reality even more profound is that of God’s suffering. For it was God that created time and even before this ex nihilo creation God knew— knew that his image-bearers would wander from salvation. God knew that it would be he that would have to die upon a cross through his son, Jesus Christ. We have only known this reality through the slow passage of time while God has borne it for eternity. So perhaps the serpent did not lie after all, for he said, “you will become like God knowing good and evil.” Who knew, though, that suffering was part and parcel of being like God?