From the March/April, 2011 issue of Touchstone

Acquainted with Grief by Daniel Boerman

Acquainted with Grief

Daniel Boerman on the Christian’s Final Word About Suffering

Suffering is universal. Some of us suffer from frequent illness or chronic pain. Others deal with the trauma of job failure, divorce, or mental illness. As we grow older, there come the inevitable sorrows of losing parents and spouses. My mother died of a heart attack at the age of 58 and my sister of cancer at 59. As I write this article, I am experiencing chronic pain that has been present for over two years. No one can escape the reality of suffering.

Since suffering is so common to our human experience, it is no surprise that great thinkers from different philosophical and religious perspectives have often talked about it and how best to explain and respond to it. Although our Christian understanding of suffering is unique, it does share some common themes with the thinking of other traditions. A comparison of other ideas with Christian thinking about suffering may help us better understand how to cope with the suffering we live with day-to-day. To this end, we’ll briefly consider a Stoic, and then a Buddhist writer.

The Stoic

Seneca lived in the first century a.d. A native of Spain, he became a wealthy lawyer in Rome, rising to positions of power under three successive Roman emperors. But we remember Seneca for his writings explaining and defending his Stoic philosophy of life. In one of these essays, “On Providence,” he talks about how the Stoic should deal with suffering.

According to Seneca, the order and complexity of the natural world show that there must be a source of providential guidance that directs everything according to a plan. Indeed, the course of life and history is fixed by an irrevocable law. Our part is simply to submit to the things we cannot change.

We should not fear adversity, says Seneca, for it provides an opportunity to exercise our capabilities, like an athlete training against an adversary to become stronger. The more difficulties a man endures, the stronger he becomes. “Prosperity unbruised cannot endure a single blow, but a man who has been at constant feud with misfortunes acquires a skin calloused by suffering; he yields to no evil, and even if he stumbles, carries the fight on upon his knee.”

We cannot expect to become strong, Seneca insists, if we never struggle with suffering. To live a life of prosperity and ease is to miss the opportunity for growth. “No tree stands firm and sturdy if it is not buffeted by constant wind; the very stresses cause it to stiffen and fix its roots firmly.” Thus, the truly courageous man welcomes suffering as an opportunity for growth. “Great men, I insist, sometimes rejoice in adversity precisely as brave soldiers rejoice in war.”

The true Stoic perceives that misfortune cannot harm his soul. He despises the pain and suffering of the body because he thinks that the body is of little value. Virtue and strength of spirit are the only things that really matter, and no suffering of the body can take those away.

The Buddhist

Next we look at the Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh and his 1999 book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Nhat Hanh explains that Buddhism begins with the recognition that all human life consists of suffering. The first step in finding liberation from this suffering is to acknowledge its reality. The next step is to recognize that wrong perceptions are the cause of our suffering: we accept the apparent reality of the ephemeral world instead of focusing on the deeper reality inside us. We should not look for happiness outside of ourselves, but instead should focus on our inner being, where happiness is available. We already are what we want to become. We simply have to understand ourselves and touch our true nature.

So how do we transcend our suffering and find the happiness that already exists inside us? We need to relax, breathe deeply, and focus on the present moment. It is essential not to immerse ourselves in the failures of the past or in anxieties about the future. Instead, we must touch life deeply in the present moment. Focusing on the present rather than the past or the future is essential for finding happiness.

Although the Stoic and the Buddhist both recognize the reality of suffering, then, in a sense we can say that both of them claim that suffering is superficial. The Stoic believes it is superficial because it is ephemeral and cannot affect the virtue of the rational soul, which is the core of man’s true being. The Buddhist believes suffering is superficial because it is part of the appearance of things and not part of the deeper reality that lies inside of every one of us. Suffering is genuine, but only up to a point. If we focus on deeper reality, our suffering will not matter as much to us anymore.

Similar & Different

There are aspects of the Christian approach to suffering that are similar to the Stoic and Buddhist ones. For example, in his book When God Doesn’t Make Sense, James Dobson has a chapter called “The Adversity Principle,” in which he gives advice that sounds very similar to that of Seneca in “On Providence.” Dobson notes that what he calls “the adversity principle” operates in biology. A species that never fights adversity is weakened.

Dobson illustrates this point with an example almost identical to Seneca’s: He observes that while a tree in a rain forest is easily blown over by the wind, a mesquite tree in an arid climate, because it puts its roots down thirty feet or more for water, will not be blown over even by a gale. Dobson thus believes that God allows trials to come into our lives to test us and make us stronger. In this adversity principle, then, we can see how Christians share to some extent the Stoic view of suffering.

Philip Yancey, in Where Is God When It Hurts?, advises us not to focus on questions about who caused our suffering or whether we are being punished in our suffering. Instead, he writes, we should focus on trying to bring something positive out of our experience of suffering. According to Yancey, the message of the role of suffering in the Bible is: “Pain turns you to God.” God uses pain to direct our attention away from ourselves and toward him. And when this happens, we grow in our faith and endurance.

This position is somewhat similar to the Buddhist insistence that we cannot and should not ignore suffering, but should acknowledge it and use it to gain deeper insight into the true meaning of life. Whereas the Buddhist emphasis is on the truth that man can discover inside himself, however, the Christian emphasis is on the lessons we can learn from God.

Moreover, the problem of suffering is more acute for the Christian than it is for the Stoic or the Buddhist, and this for two reasons. First, as Christians, we cannot claim that suffering is superficial. While the Stoic can regard the physical life of the body as inferior and unimportant, the Christian professes that the human body is part of God’s good creation and that it will someday share in the eternal life of the new earth. The Buddhist can disdain the reality of birth and death and suffering as part of the ephemeral world that has no enduring significance. But the Christian affirms the reality and importance of life and experience in this world as the theater in which God accomplishes his work of restoration and redemption. Our physical life here and now is important to us and to God.

The second reason why the Christian problem of suffering is more acute has to do with the nature of the God whom we confess. Christians believe in a God who is both almighty and loving. How, then, is it possible that he allows so much pain and evil and suffering? As Dobson notes in his book, we human beings, for reasons we cannot comprehend, are incredibly precious to God. If we are indeed so precious to him, why does he allow us to suffer so much? He certainly has the ability and power to deliver us. So why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t God rescue at least his own believing people from their pain?

A Christian Answer

If the problem of suffering is more acute for the Christian than for the Stoics or the Buddhists, is there also a Christian answer that is more satisfying than theirs? Consider this from Henri Nouwen in Turn My Mourning into Dancing: “There is no human suffering that has not in some way been part of God’s experience.” If, as Christians, we profess a God who is both infinitely powerful and infinitely loving, we can also say that this God is the God who has come into our world and suffered along with us. In Jesus of Nazareth we have a God who has become part of our human life, with all of its pain and weakness and anxiety. No Stoic or Buddhist can make such a claim.

This is an amazing teaching. The Christian God is the God who suffers alongside of us. This means that, no matter how deep and anguished our experience of suffering may be, Jesus has already been there before us. There is no pit so deep, no pain so intense, no anxiety so overwhelming that Jesus has not experienced something even worse. Therefore, he is able to stand beside us and to take our hand and lead us through the pit of our suffering. As the God who suffers with us, Jesus understands and sustains us in a way that no one else can. This is more than a sufficient answer to the question of how God relates to our suffering.

But Jesus’ suffering alongside us is not the final Christian answer to suffering. The empty tomb and the Resurrection are. God’s immersion in our life of suffering would be incomplete if it did not lead to Christ’s triumph over suffering and sin and death. Christ’s resurrection is the final victory over suffering.

This helps us by releasing the power of the Resurrection into our present experience of struggle and suffering. Through the Holy Spirit living in us, we can experience some of the power of Christ’s resurrection right now, as we face our pain and fight temptation and sin. In Christ we have a new confidence and a new power to overcome our present suffering.

Christ’s resurrection also helps us because it is our guarantee of final victory. Some of the sorrow and pain we experience in this life will remain with us until we die. But they will not last forever. It is much easier to endure suffering if we know that it is only for a limited period of time. And that is our Christian hope. We look forward to the day when all our pain and suffering will be removed forever, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Here is a Christian hope and promise that no Stoic or Buddhist can match.

Leaning on Jesus

But it’s still hard. There are times in my own experience when pain and frustration seem unbearable. There are times when it seems that the suffering will never end, that the promise of final victory will never come. At such times it may help us to imitate the tough endurance of the Stoic. It may help us to focus on the present moment instead of the sorrows from the past or the anxieties about the future, as the Buddhist advises.

But it is most helpful of all to throw ourselves on the mercy and the promises of God. Jesus cares. He understands. And he is waiting to welcome us home to a land in which pain and sorrow have been banished forever. 

Daniel Boerman is a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary whose articles and reviews have appeared in numerous Christian periodicals. He is currently working at home as a freelance writer. A lifelong member of the Christian Reformed Church, he and his wife have two adult children and two grandsons.

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