If you listen to Christians, or read us, you are sooner or later certain to encounter our encomia to suffering. Not that we admire suffering in and of itself. We dislike and avoid it at least as much as the next fellow. But it is common to hear us recommend that we should “offer up” our suffering to God as an integral portion of that sacrifice to him of our whole being which is his first and greatest commandment. Since one sacrifices only what is good, this notion of offertory suffering would seem to imply that suffering is somehow good, however much we may abhor it.
Christians also routinely suggest that our suffering can have great redemptive efficacy, as our portion and participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ, to whose body we are all joined as intimately as we are joined to our own members. Suffering, then, must have some inherent salvific – that is to say, salving – aspect (granting that, as with any other creaturely act, if it is to succeed as an operation of the restoration of justice, harmony, and indeed health, pain must be suffered properly).
And because human suffering can be joined to that of Christ, so as to ramify its salvific effect, an ancient tradition of the Church understands our suffering as meritorious, indeed even glorious.
Suffering must somehow be good.
What good then is it? Or, how does it work what is good?
Let me suggest at the outset that if you are still stuck on why there is such a thing as suffering in the first place, you have a more fundamental problem: the Problem of Evil. For that, you need an effective theodicy. This post is not about theodicy. It is about the spiritual benefits that Christianity discovers in suffering. Until you are satisfied that there is a Sufficient Reason for pain, there will be no way that it can possibly make sense to you. Indeed, it cannot then but seem to any normal human heart anything but utterly absurd and pointless, and thus purely evil. This is a perilous position, spiritually, for it is next door to nihilism and despair. If you find yourself oppressed by the Problem of Evil, it would be a good idea to work on understanding the Problem and its solution, and to pray for reconciliation to the reality of evil – which, under any adequate theodicy, must be tantamount to reconciliation to God’s purposes in Creation.
If however you have somehow satisfied yourself that in the domain of a just God nothing that comes to pass can fail to serve the providence of his perfectly good and just purposes, then you are capable (at least in principle) to recognize the point of suffering – the end it indicates, and toward which it tends. In that case, what follows can seem at least comprehensible, whether or not you find it adequate or agreeable.
Let me begin by suggesting that pain is a necessary sequela of a being that is disordered with respect to its fellow creatures, to its own internal ecology, or to God. In practice, any one of these sorts of disorder generates the others. Pain is what it is like to suffer disorder.
But notice that the being that is somehow disordered may or may not be the same being that suffers on account of that disorder; as the child suffers on account of his father’s addictions, without himself being in any sense responsible for them. Note also that the being whose disorder is causing pain need not belong to the same category as those upon whom the suffering falls. As children of a universe fundamentally disordered before we were ever conceived, we are not ourselves the sources of the earthquake, fire or flood that erupt from time to time to kill and maim us.
The whole system of creaturely things has been disordered, and accordingly suffers throughout. And because the causal order is coherent, a seamless garment, suffering anywhere therein pervades the whole of it; for worlds cohere by means of the sympathy of their constituents, one event telling its tale to another. But for that very reason, there is no great likelihood that any local accounting of the suffering due to a particular instance of disorder will turn out fair or just. As a product of disorder, suffering is ipso facto to some extent unaccountable: unjust, adventitious and messy. Under the aspect of eternity, we may be sure that everything will eventually work out toward justice. But in a fallen universe, perfect justice anywhere is going to be rare.
This is why sublunary life is inherently tragic, and – considered only in its own terms – absurd.
A concrete example will illustrate these points. Say that you accidentally miss the mark – this being the meaning of the Greek term that the New Testament uses for sin, hamartia – and smash your thumb with a hammer. Your aching thumb did nothing to deserve its agony. And the suffering of your thumb is transmitted to your whole body: to your brain, obviously, but also to all your tissues, which grow angry, inflamed, tender and irritated in sympathy with the distant injury to your thumb. When you’ve really whacked your thumb, your whole self is sore.
And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.
— 1 Corinthians 12:26
Likewise, an injury to any part of the world is an injury to the whole of it.
All right, then. I grant that the pain of an injured thumb inclines us to treat it tenderly, and so promote healing. That pain serves a useful purpose. But what is the spiritual benefit of pain, the ontological benefit? If it is spiritually useful, what is it useful for? Forget bashed thumbs: how does the sacrifice of any victim do the world any good? In particular, and archetypally: how did the suffering of Jesus on the Cross do any good – how did it help the creaturely predicament, of being trapped in sin and suffering, for Christ to suffer?
Now, when I wonder about such things as this, my tendency is actually to ask the question, addressing it to the world at large. Often, an answer floats up, a likely candidate for my consideration. Such flotsam is often productive. Even if at first glance it seems irrelevant or silly, it can turn out to be the key.
When I asked how pain works any good, what came up was a saying that the US Navy Seals use to encourage each other under the duress of their extreme physical training: Pain is weakness leaving the body.
This seems right. It has the heft of truth. Not that pain is the actual departure of the weakness; but it is the feeling of the departure, the feeling of purgation. When the body is trying to get rid of poison, we vomit. It’s ugly, but it sure can make us feel better. Pain does not, of course, always accompany the strengthening of the body. Indeed, it can end at death, the ultimate purgation. That does not mean that the pain of the death of the body is not the purgation of the weakness of the body. More on that in a moment.
By “body,” NB, I mean to indicate not just our own bodies, but by extension the Body of Christ – which is itself embodied in, and therefore involves, the whole world. It might seem odd at first to think of bodies as themselves integrally embodied in their worlds. But really it makes perfect sense: the notion of a body without any world to be embodied in, and by, is incoherent (although not vice versa). I do not mean to indicate pantheism; that the Logos is immanent in the things that express him, and by which in Creation he expresses himself – in, i.e., everything whatsoever – does not mean that he is *nothing but* those things. The artist comprehends his handiwork, but not vice versa. Likewise, that the omniscience and omnipresence of God exhaustively cover all things does not mean that any collection of things exhaustively covers God. Pantheism is to the Mind of God as eliminative materialism is to the mind of man.
To suggest then that God is embodied in his creation – whether in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, or in the Church, or in the whole created order – is not to blaspheme by demeaning him, as the Hebrews righteously worried. On the contrary, it indicates that Omnipotence is nowise constrained by his works, but has rather, in his Creation as in his Incarnation, redeemed and ennobled even the meanest of created things. That God is glorified in his holy Temple, and by his Presence sanctifies and glorifies it, so that it is full of his glory, does not vitiate his own immense glory. To be even a paving stone in the House of the Lord is glorious; and that the House of the Lord has paving stones does not reduce his magnificence. Every house needs pavements.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.
— 1 Corinthians 12:22
Bodies and their worlds are integral. Thus as I have pointed out, the resurrection of a human body has to be a resurrection of the whole causal system under which human bodies are compossible, actually produced, and causally comprehended. In other words, because our bodies are fitted, not just to worlds such as ours, but to this very world, with its particular tragicomical history, so the resurrection of our bodies involves the resurrection of our world. Thus the Christian hope is, not just for some life utterly different than what we now enjoy, in some other world quite unlike our own, but rather for the perfection of this very life, the one we now lead, lived in a renewal of this very world. The descent of the New Jerusalem is the ascent of the old.
Worlds are integrities. Thus we have to admit that a world wherein there is anywhere some consciousness is simply, basically, a conscious sort of world; and so, likewise, also for suffering. Pain suffered in any part of the world, then, is first just pain suffered by the world. When you smash your thumb with a hammer, the pain of the whole world increases, and the whole course of history adjusts to the reality of its pain, not just via the butterfly effect, but ontologically: to provide ontological room in the world for the suffering of your thumb, other potential states of affairs that would have allowed no such room have to be shouldered aside *by the entire system of things.* Every event subsequent to the hammer’s smashing of your thumb must instantly adjust to the fact of its injury, in an impeccable dance wherein no jot or tittle is ever dropped or missed. And the adjustment must be immediate, and it must immediately pervade the whole created order. We should not really be surprised, then, to discover that nonlocal quantum entanglement is a basic feature of a relativistic system wherein no events are truly simultaneous – where, i.e., no events are truly local to each other (where, that is to say, events are truly disparate, so that there are more than one of them).
Suffering anywhere, then, is what it feels like when the weakness of this fallen disordered world is purged from the whole body of creation; when its vice is washed away, and the vitiation of its full power, glory and being is repaired.
Any creature may find itself the victim (the word is chosen advisedly) of supererogatory suffering – suffering that its own acts have not earned. No matter. Locally, this is unfair; generally, sub specie aeternitatis, all is properly counted in the Book of Life.
One way or another, all the weakness of this world will have to be purged, in order for any part of it to enjoy the fullness of being for which we were all created, and of which we are all capable. Someone or other is going to have to suffer all the suffering that there is to suffer. Every bit of the poison has to be worked out of the system.
[I] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.
— Colossians 1:24
But in the limit, the world being pervasively disordered, does not the painful excision of its peccant parts entail its utter dissolution as a coherent causal system? Is not the complete purgation of the world equivalent to its destruction? Is death the terminus ad quem, not just for Christians laying down their lives at the altar, but for the whole shooting match?
Yes. But this is not news, is it? Everyone knows that everyone will suffer and die, and that the world will end. How could it be otherwise? Christians are not different in that respect. What makes us different is that we look toward the end of all things with glad expectation and hope. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth, but rather to shed its body of death and rise to a life more full and complete, than to die forever. The eschaton is to the world as the perfect offering of martyrdom is to the believer. It is an occasion of rejoicing: for we look, not for the death of the living, but the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.