Ending the Catholic Love Affair with Suffering

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Let me start off by acknowledging that there is a legitimate theology of suffering.  There is a place for taking up one's cross in the Christian life.  There are times when, like a good soldier, we need to accept our share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel.  The Bible couldn't be clearer about this. And yet, as one preacher put it, "In the church there is an admiration for pain and suffering that goes far beyond what the Bible ever intended."

Whether or not this is a uniquely Catholic problem, this is indeed a Catholic problem.  There is a cultural fixation on the value of suffering that results in obscuring other Christian values, and one value in particular - the value of victory.

This is the central thesis I will be working from in this series of posts: we cannot understand the role of suffering in the Christian life unless we first know the role of victory.

THE GOSPELS ARE NOT A TRAGEDY

Some of my favorite movies have the quality of a tragedy.  Braveheart and Gladiator are a couple of examples.  William Wallace and Maximus show how the human spirit can rise up and overcome even when the tragedy of evil and a broken world befalls you.  And these can actually be helpful in catching a glimpse of insight into the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

But the life of Jesus was something wholly different.  The life of Jesus was a life of victory, through and through.  Jesus went from town to town, curing the sick, raising the dead, uplifting the downtrodden, repairing brokenness wherever he went.  The life of Jesus was a tour de force, a martial campaign against the powers of darkness.

This is what made the suffering that Jesus accepted all the more meaningful, or that gives it its particular meaning.  When Jesus finally went to the cross, it wasn't the last in a series of defeats. He had triumphed over every obstacle that came his way, whether sickness, or death, or the angry mob, or the scheming questions of the Pharisees. That's what makes the cross so remarkable, not that he suffered well, but that he suffered at all, for the choice was clearly in his hands.

Doesn't it make a difference to view Jesus in this way?  Without this broader perspective, Jesus is merely a victim.  And if we embrace suffering without knowing the victory of the Lord Jesus in our lives, we risk embracing a victim mentality.

DEVASTATING EFFECTS OF THIS LOVE AFFAIR

Love affairs destroy homes.  The Catholic love affair with suffering is no different.  Among the devastating effects:

People appropriate a victim mentality - People live with the expectation that suffering will come their way, which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

People view their suffering as validation - When that suffering comes, they begin to view it as validation, as proof of their righteousness and favor with God.

People feel guilty when God blesses them - When blessings come from God, it spawns guilt rather than gratitude.  As long as someone else has it worse off than me, I feel guilty that I am not suffering more.

People misunderstand the character of God - People view suffering as God's will for them; it is sent by God to correct them, to discipline them.  God is viewed primarily as a disciplinarian, concerned mostly with correcting behavior through punishment.

People remain in bondage to the kingdom of darkness - Since God is viewed as the one who sends suffering, attempts to overcome it are seen as acting contrary to God's will.  People accept sufferings that they might easily overcome by drawing on the resources of heaven.

People remain unmoved by the suffering of others - Not only do I become numb to my own suffering, but to that of others.  I become passive or half-hearted in attempting to alleviate the suffering of others, because perhaps that is just God's will for them.

PART TWO

My next post on this subject will be taking a look at the hidden drama of this world, the clash between the kingdom of darkness and the Kingdom of Heaven, and how that sheds light on the subject of suffering from a Christian perspective.