This is a post about suffering, but only one kind of suffering. I didn’t sleep very well earlier in the week and “suffered” a bit because of it, so I guess it's been on my mind.
Sometimes the degree to which people suffer seems the result of blind chance. People suffer around the world, not because they've made bad decisions, or because they deserve it, or because God wants them to suffer. They seem to suffer because of something like luck—where they were born, to whom they were born, when they were born, the environment that nurtured them, the body they acquired, the genetic history preceding them, someone else’s suffering that unfortunately intersected with their own, oppressive social structures, and so on.
Actually, I feel a bit unqualified to talk about suffering in light of how relatively little I've suffered. I’ve endured a number of challenging things, I suppose: health issues, lost loved ones, repeated broken hearts, frequent disappointments. But I get to self-actualize! So many of my basic needs are met that I actually get to focus my energies on self-improvement, vocational success, and a variety of other ambitions. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, nor whether or not I’m loved.
This makes me think I don’t really suffer all that much. I do legitimately suffer, I don’t deny it; but to lament as the Psalmist often did as a representative of the suffering, exiled community of Israel, or as a mother struggling to feed her children might? This seems slightly ungrateful or just misguided.
But that’s not really the kind of suffering on my mind. This kind of suffering is not self-willed; it comes into our lives without being invited. But what about willful suffering? Specifically, does love—love of family, friends, neighbors, and enemy—involve a willingness to put ourselves in situations where we are bound to suffer?
Perhaps this sounds like a kind of masochism. But perhaps God is the "Great Masochist." Traditional Christian theology says that God willfully submitted Godself to the finitude of a human, accompanied by many if not all of our limitations as humans. Assuming God had a pretty good idea of what it meant to be human simply based on God’s ability to know all that is, I’d assume God knew that suffering would accompany this miraculous act. I think Jesus' life and death are a testimony to how love can require one to put oneself at the mercy of others, out of respect and honor and compassion for them, with the potential to be hurt, to suffer.
I think of Paul’s attempt to capture the significance of Jesus in Philippians 2:3-8:
3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (NAS)
Paul affirms that self-imposed limitations of God that come with that reality expressed in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. I think there is a great model here for “incarnating” oneself into another’s “space” in a similar manner as God…to be with others in a way that opens us up to harm, but for the sake of love.
Three more snapshots, now from the gospel writers:
Matthew 26:50-53 Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. 53 "Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?
Matthew 26:67-68 They spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, 68 and said, "Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?"
Luke 23:33-34 And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.
Jesus reprimands Peter, unable to grasp the nature of Jesus’ approach and mission. Jesus is spit upon by mockers. Jesus recognizes the lack of awareness among the crowds and his killers, having the insight and great compassion to not hold their wrongdoing against them.
I suppose if you believe Jesus was simply a tragic hero, a person of great ideals and great character, this might look like a pathetic, hopeless end...unless you find redeeming value in his sheer, determined, unfaltering devotion to his mission. But if you believe in the resurrection and the future hope of humankind—if you believe God loves humankind and that this love was brilliantly displayed in the birth and life and death (and resurrection) of Jesus and that this love "wins"—then this scene becomes one of great power and great hope.
I suspect there might be situations in which love—love as an active choice, not as a feeling—demands a willingness to suffer. Maybe you can think of a friend, family member, co-worker, some acquaintance who makes it hard for you to be the best you at times. In theory, you are a very kind, warm, gentle, patient, compassionate human being; but then, in practice, all your theorized virtues seem non-existent as you become irritated and maybe act unpleasantly toward others.
Maybe you don’t like how being with those people can make you feel. Maybe they are disrespectful, rude, patronizing, self-centered, overly emphatic in their opinions, insensitive, ignorant, whatever. Rather than be in their presence, it might just seem easier to avoid them, ignore them. You can be a better “you” if your character was not being constantly tested by them.
Jesus’ example shines brightly to me. Would anyone disagree, regardless of how wonderful you think human beings are, that we are nonetheless lesser beings than God, certainly more prone to be wretched than God? Yet God, as the Apostle Paul articulates it, made himself nothing. God put Godself in a vulnerable place to be mocked, ignored, hurt, misunderstood, betrayed, and even killed. Yet it seems that even on the cross, even after Jesus' sincere prayer to have his “cup of suffering removed," he persisted with love toward those incapable of honoring him in the way he deserved.
I feel like Jesus didn’t love people from a safe distance, but put himself in situations, in relationships, where suffering was likely to occur. Jesus was not interested in self-preservation. I’m challenged by his example to not neglect the people around me, be they those I love or those whose names I do not know, but to love them with respect, honor, attentiveness, compassion, and sacrificial action. Even if that means opening myself to suffering, to feeling unpleasant for a few moments, to feeling unappreciated, to risk my good deeds going noticed...whatever.
This kind of suffering, for me at least, can’t be as bad as the sufferings of countless others throughout history, including those of our Lord.