What is the point of suffering?

Posted: 5 November 2011

Anyone out there had any sufferings cross their path lately? Perhaps it’s something transitory like recently losing a job. Perhaps it’s something long term like caring for someone with a disability. Maybe it’s the anxious wait to meet the right person or the heartache of dealing with marriage problems. Then of course there are the sufferings that most of us will never have to encounter such as starvation or a lack of clean drinking water. Suffering is a strange thing, it surrounds us and all of us will meet it in some shape at various points through our lives, yet most people have no idea about how to respond to it.

I recall once being down about something and a friend said to me in all sincerity “just remember that there is always someone worse off than you”. I am sure many of you have given or received similar advice. And at face value the logic is true, I am not living on a dollar-a-day in a third world country; I have a car and a house and people who love me. Surely I would be better to consider the trials of others before getting all worked up about my own sufferings?

Of all the faith systems in the world, Christianity has the most profound understanding of suffering, after all its founder was put to death and the instrument of his death – the cross – has become the enduring Christian sign. The call of Christ to “take up your cross” is a part of common speech. But what does it mean to take up our cross and how does that play into the daily sufferings we face?

Perhaps if we do not understanding suffering the best we believe we can offer is a consolation which compares sufferings. The crux of the matter though is that while God does not directly will for anyone to suffer, he does allow such sufferings and he allows them in ways that can be beneficial for us, if we embrace them in the correct spirit. Our crosses are actually specifically shaped for us, they take into account our strengths and our weaknesses and what we need (often this is very different from what we think we need). Perhaps the family with no food in Africa is objectively in a more desperate situation than I am but my particular cross is not one of starvation. It really does not matter what someone else is suffering with because what is real to me is my particular suffering in this moment, even if it is objectively less than another. I do not need someone to tell me that my cross is not the biggest cross, the fact is, it is my cross.

If we believe Christ’s command to take up our cross then it would seem we actually have a duty to embrace the particular sufferings that fall our way. I am certainly not saying that we have to desire suffering and pain, but perhaps we need to look more deeply into our particular cross to see what good is within. If we live with an attitude that refuses to accept suffering then we might actually be closing ourselves off to an important gift that has been offered to us alone. Every event we encounter is in a broad sense, sacramental, that is, it is an external sign containing within it God’s action for us.

We might consider what would have happened if Christ decided not to embrace his cross. The cross of Christ is the source of salvation, it points to a love that we will spend our lives aspiring towards. Our own crosses are our paths to salvation when taken up and united with the cross of Christ. You may know the phrase “offer it up”, it’s often something told to children who are complaining but it has a deep and lasting value that we should probably all seek to embrace in our own lives. To offer something up, from drinking cold coffee to the way we deal with tragic news, gives us an outlook that quite simply, the world cannot give.

It is not that one walks into the hospital room of a friend diagnosed with cancer and simply says “offer it up” and walks out. If though in our lives we have come to understand that our crosses can be the tools that God gives to help us towards salvation, we will be in a far better place to truly be with the one who is suffering. Instead of trying to distract the sufferer from their pain and pretend it is not as bad as it could be we can help them to see the cross before them with new eyes.