Suffering comes in many forms. It can come gradually through deteriorating health, or suddenly like a tragic accident or betrayal. However it enters, it takes many of us by surprise. We are good, stable people. We can defend ourselves, sustain ourselves, and protect ourselves. We make smart decisions. Suffering is to be avoided; we are watchful for signs of discomfort and difference. We tend to situate ourselves in neighborhoods, congregations, and schools with like-minded, similar people. After all, there is security in sameness. And what is security, if not avoidance of suffering.
When my husband and I became foster parents, we experienced the incredible love for another person’s child and the weight of the honor of caring for them. We also encountered the sting of unfair accusations and being voiceless for the first time. In one particularly terrible situation, I learned to fear instead of trust those in power, and I became poignantly aware of the vulnerability of my family. In other words, I encountered a situation many have endured their entire lives. While the challenges and losses we faced through voluntary involvement in the child welfare system were valid and life changing, their newness also signaled privilege. My inexperience with suffering was indicative of my separation from the majority of the world.
Job and Suffering
In the book of Job, the main character endures waves of suffering. He longs for an advocate as loss after loss pummels him, a man of faith and good repute. His friends exhorted him to fess up, for surely severe sin inspired such punitive measures from God. In their minds, suffering followed guilt and ease followed innocence. Job adamantly dismissed his so-called friends’ consequential, quid pro quo theology. Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his wrestle with suffering and forgiveness, shares that easy resolutions are such because they lack truth.1
My inexperience with suffering was indicative of my separation from the majority of the world.
Volf contributes sobering yet hopeful theology through his long, hard look at the cross and suffering. Not only does the atonement mean new life for Christ’s followers undergoing pain; the atonement means new hope for our relationship with the perpetrators. To Volf, suffering is a given, but Jesus makes all the difference in our translation of it.
Subscribe to The Table Weekly
Get regular updates with articles, podcasts, videos, and more—all in your inbox.
The poor consolation efforts of Job’s friends are infamous and yet their condemnation echoes in today’s evangelical world. In a recent study by the Washington Post, 63 percent of white, conservative evangelical Protestants said that suffering poverty was primarily due to a “lack of effort” while those who had no religious affiliation blamed larger circumstances for poverty 2 to 1.2 One factor is that Christians who hold a premillennial eschatology tend to expect growing levels of human suffering in the fallen world. While compassion and relief are part of their praxis, the emphasis is on conversion and eternity, as alleviating the world’s problems is a losing battle. In eagerness for the next life, much of the present one life is spent cloistered away from suffering. This transcendent theology, social psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland explains, is privileged and helps bulwark the evangelical disconnect the Post reports.3
When our hard work does not produce the results and security we anticipated, we are betrayed, yet awakened.
But what happens when the agency of the privilege runs out and suffering breaks in, demanding a relevant theology of suffering? Transcendent theology can lose traction under the weight of today’s crises and questions. Perhaps a break in our attachment to security and a baptism into the world of suffering is appropriate for a life of faith.
Drawing Near to Suffering
Those who formed friendship with God while in the middle of intense suffering offer wisdom to our inexperience. Jürgen Moltmann first read the Bible in a prisoner of war camp in Belgium.4 His faith did not begin in transcendence, but immanence: the here and now. He found in the text a community of suffering, led by the crucified Christ. Salvation was not found in the next life only; it was first offered through Jesus’ solidarity with this life, particularly if it is characterized by pain, abandonment, and death. Moltmann saw an early church that began under Roman oppression. Indeed, women and slaves, the most vulnerable populations, flocked to the new faith, even as it made them targets of persecution. From the gate, Christ’s suffering hosted a world of suffering people, not because of His salvation from suffering but his companionship and advocacy within it.
Suffering ushers us to a new familiarity with the cross. We back up from the resurrection story to reacquaint ourselves with a crying, bleeding Savior because it is that chapter that best relates now to our own. Perhaps, if we are new to suffering, we realize that we relied upon the relationship between doing the right thing and reaping rewards too heavily, boxing God in to a linear definition of justice. When our hard work does not produce the results and security we anticipated, we are betrayed, yet awakened. The pagan constructs that insulated our day from suffering are hollowed, and we, like Job, long for justice and companionship in our pain.
A Suffering Community
In his exploration of grief and suffering, through the sudden loss of his wife, youngest child, and mother in one accident, Jerry Sittser describes this transformation:
I realized soon after the accident that I had just been initiated into a fellowship of suffering that spans the world. My tragedy introduced me to a side of life that most people around the world know all too well.5
The disorientation we experience after suffering has a way of dissolving pretense. While our theology and confidence may be shaken, so too are the judgments we have on other groups of people and the defenses that help separate us from the margins. Before the accident, Sittser admitted that he “kept a safe distance and…did not want to expose [himself] to pain because it threatened to undermine [his] quest for happiness.”6 Given the scope of the Bible’s themes of loving one another and taking up each other’s burdens, we are quieted and exhorted by his humble confession.
Through the most vulnerable and devastating chapters of life, we are given a newfound humility and rapport towards populations who endure long-term suffering we have never faced.
Sittser found a lasting community of brokenness through his grief. Suffering offers the opportunity for connection and belonging while avoidance of suffering paralyzes many relationships. Through the most vulnerable and devastating chapters of life, we are given a newfound humility and rapport towards populations who endure long-term suffering we have never faced. We realize that while we sought security and order in this world, perhaps belonging or connection was the greatest possession all along. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it,” hints Jesus in Matthew 13:45-46.
From Me to We
In the story of Job, there is a progression from Job defending and lamenting his own innocent suffering to embodying identification with the collective injustices of the oppressed. His suffering led him into new theological territory, which distanced him from his prior friends but built solidarity with the Other, whom perhaps he had judged wrongly. This transition from “me” to “we” is consistent with the journey of suffering Sittser and so many of us have found: suffering bridges us to the Other. Our awareness of differences becomes less of a hurdle in light of our shared humanity and need for compassion.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, father of liberation theology credited with propelling the concept of God’s preferential treatment of the poor, speaks of Job’s story as finding God’s love in new, truer ways.7 Gutiérrez suggests that to lack identification with the suffering margins is to miss key aspects of God’s love. Job’s suffering produced in him a newfound intimacy with God and the other. This connection is affirmed throughout the New Testament considering parables such as the sheep and the goats, the rich man and Lazarus, and the Good Samaritan. Gutiérrez urges us to align with the margins in pursuit of our God; suffering moves us in this spirit.
Instead of finding security in distance from suffering, it now seems that proximity to it is sacred. At the climax of Jesus’s suffering, and indeed the Christian tradition, Christ speaks from the cross to his loved ones nearby, intimately connecting them in the midst of their terror and grief: “Woman, behold your son!” and to John, “Behold, your mother!”8 His mother and his beloved disciple were commissioned in a new way to care for one another and connect out of their shared suffering.
When in the throes of loss, I have always found myself more fervently needing community and that God was enlarging my view of the Other. Specifically when we were facing giants as foster parents and suffering complex loss, words cannot describe both the pain and the connection we experienced. Our ears were forever tuned to new keys as people shared similar stories of fear or loss. We were trusted with their suffering, as we examined and grieved our own.
When suffering pulls us out of our privileged enclaves and the constructs we carried dull to a white noise, we join the scene at the cross with Mary and John with new eyes. We appreciate the anguish and pain of a suffering Savior differently and forge intimacy with fellow sufferers. We are both seen and seeing. We gain humanity and humility, together.