Suffering comes in all forms, but whether it’s mundane or Earth-shattering, suffering is one of the only constants in this world. Throughout history and many different cultures, there have been thousands of coping mechanisms and explanatory systems that try to explain why individuals experience suffering and how best to deal with it when it comes.
Two examples are Christianity and our Western modern perspective, which both offer very specific and very contradictory coping mechanisms toward suffering. But as American Christians, we are heavily influenced by both and have a duty to distinguish between a Biblical and life-giving understanding of suffering and a worldly and detrimental understand of suffering.
Dr. Benjamin Myers, OBU’s Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature, aids in detangling these two perspectives that both seem so intrinsic to our church and our life, but in reality, are the source of much spiritual confusion because they both hold so much weight in our culture yet contradict each other so starkly.
To be able to tell one of these perspectives from the other, we must know what constitutes both. Dr. Myers explained how our modern Western world understands and copes with suffering.
“In modernity we tend to think of suffering as an anomaly and as something that is avoidable if we would only organize things the right way,” Dr. Myers said.
If you look, there is an overwhelming amount of examples of this understanding in our culture. Even our simple expected exchange of “How are you doing?”, “Good, how are you…?” has become a certain ritual in our culture, in which it is incredibly awkward and unexpected if someone for once was honest in saying, “No, I’m not doing well.”
And even in an honest moment when someone breaks this social expectation, the listeners often feel unequipped or unwilling, or both, to listen to another’s hardship and offer help and comfort. This expectation of perfection and comfort affects every part of our lives and culture, from our fast-food to our Christian walk. Dr. Myers commented on this.
“Christians sometimes assume that, if we are suffering, something must have gone wrong in our walk with Christ,” Dr. Myers said.
This understanding comes directly from the fact that we expect everything to go comfortably and perfectly and when it doesn’t, we are confused and expect something to be wrong with either us or with God.
The Christian understanding of suffering is the exact opposite.
“The Biblical view is that suffering is inevitable because we live in a fallen world… The New Testament gives us the rest of the picture: that suffering is part of the birth pangs of the Kingdom of God… Many Christians also believe that suffering is itself sanctified by the suffering of Christ,” Dr. Myers said.
In opposition to our Western modernistic view in which suffering is not normal and should be avoided, a Biblical understanding says that suffering is a constant and that God uses it positively to grow His church and bring his kingdom. Dr. Myers said this is one explanation for those ever so odd passages “throughout the New Testament, [where] we are told to rejoice when we suffer for Christ.”
This makes no sense from a Western modern understanding of suffering. Why should we rejoice in suffering? We want to avoid suffering at all costs. But if suffering is a sign that God is working, growing and bringing his kingdom closer to Earth, then what more could we celebrate?
It is always difficult to transfer knowledge about things to rooted understanding that changes how you live. But if we as redeemed and alive Christians are to truly show that we are different from those who are still in death without Christ, then we must show that we see the world differently and thus react to suffering differently than those around us.
Dr. Myers pointed to the scriptures and other great books to help us truly understand our Biblical stance on suffering.
“Think of how God says of Paul ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’ [in Acts 9:16]. I would also say to read Ecclesiastes…to understand that suffering comes to us all, that this is the common lot of man, not a special case in which God is picking on you,” Dr. Myers said.
Secondly, Dr. Myers recommended other Christian works of literature.
“Writers like Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor are particularly good on that subject…and maybe some great books like The Iliad and Le Morte Darthur,” Dr. Myers said.
These workshelp us to see just how universal suffering is and how God can use it for good. While reading may not seem to be too explicitly life-changing for some, think of how you end up seeing the world like your friends and your family and others that you spend a lot of time with. That is the exact reason that reading God’s Word and these great books can change your perspective; spending long amounts of time with those words and ideas slowly start to change you and help you transfer knowledge about suffering, to correctly rooting that perspective in your heart so that all you do is influenced by it.
Likewise, always surrounding yourself with the Scripture changes your initial perspective of the world to match how God sees the world and therefore, see the world as it truly is. It is because of God’s gift of hope that we can rejoice in suffering and in doing so, show how greatly different we are in the life that Christ gives us, as opposed to those that are dead and are vulnerable to suffering without Him.