The book of James opens with a very difficult passage:
James 1:2–4 (NET)
2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
Approaches to Suffering
Suffering is universal, everyone has, is or will suffer.
How we view the world impacts how we approach suffering.
Buddhism of course is centrally concerned with suffering. Suffering is eliminated when one eliminates from themself the illusion of their self. Buddhism can be seen as a sort of spiritual suicide of the self. I agree with Peter Kreeft’s lecture on Suffering that I’d rather keep my self even with suffering.
In the book “The Call of God” a number of people cite the existence of suffering and loss in their lives as the motivation for abandoning the Christian faith. Their prayers for good things and relief from their sufferings were not heard which led them to the conclusion that God is not there or God does not care. See Richard’s quotes.
Suffering and Purpose
Peter Kreeft quotes Victor Frankl who quotes Nietzsche “A man can endure almost any how if only he has a why.”
Pointless suffering leads to despair. How can despair be resolved? Many say it can only be resolved by death, Kierkegaard disagrees.
I would imagine if one is a thorough materialist and our selves, our lives, our stories all go away with the extinction of our minds then most suffering should simply be avoided, resolved by death or ignored as simply being meaningless. Given this perspective suicide is practical if we face suffering.
Suffering and Recompense
Christianity along with a number of other major world religion believes that at death or the end of this age God will judge the living and the dead and suffering due to injustice and perhaps other sources will be addressed and made up for. From genocidal dictators on down the world’s wrongs will be tallied and the living and the dead will be called to account.
This is a hopeful thought, especially if we count ourselves among the victims.
Suffering and Character in This Age
Suffering can build character in this age, we see it all the time. Suffering can build maturity and give wisdom in some. Suffering can make people able and ready to forgive, be patient, and be generous towards others who suffer.
In others suffering embitters and destroys. Hurt people hurt people. Suffering can make people fearful and in their fear and instinct for self-preservation lash out which can multiply suffering. We see this commonly too.
James’ point, however, seems to be that this faithful endurance that suffering can create in us is of value not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Character that Endures Past Death
Protestants, having jettisoned Purgatory in the Protestant Reformation don’t generally do a lot of reflecting upon the character change needed in our transition from this age to the next. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man makes me ponder some of our assumptions. Abraham, Lazarus and the Rich Man keep character after their deaths.
I suspect that the faithful endurance suffering in this age can produce is a maturity that will be highly valued in the age to come. You can’t believe this if you’re a materalist, believing that all we are is a pack of neurons. In the Christian life even suffering can be turned to our good.
To Live With Other Willful Selves
Despite all of the ravages of life in this age it seems to me the most common source of suffering is other people. People in competition with us for resources and opportunities, people we love who do things we don’t like or things we don’t think are wise or life-giving, people who do damaging things to others or are wasteful with precious things. People are a primary source of unhappiness.
Common to many complaints about God are simply differences of opinion on various choices. A side effect of having been given the capacity to choose, to have complicated desires and opinion is the natural outcome that there will be differences, sometimes consequential differences. It would seem that if one has difficulty getting along with others then getting along with an all powerful, all decisive being would be maximally difficult.
The family is the place where many of these conflicts arise. Marriage counselors, whose profession is dealing with conflict between willful selves, see openness and receptivity to the will of the other to be vital for a healthy, productive and happy relationship. What is necessary to have this kind of openness?
What is Maturity?
This is a more difficult thing to define than we might think. Maybe a list of adjectives might help. A mature person is
- Secure (not driven by fear)
- Generous (able to give and receive)
- Stable (predictability in relational interaction)
- Reasonable (open to the influence of others)
- Teachable (open to the ideas of others)
- Durable (able to withstand trials and temptations)
- Self-accepting (to be honest and settled with what we are, giving up the demand to replace God)
The list isn’t exhaustive but I think illustrative enough.
It’s not hard to see the value and necessity of these trials for life in this age. We all want to be around people like this and to have people like this be our friends and family. but what about the age to come?
It seems clear that if the age to come will be deeply relational but also secure and safe then the kinds of beings we will want to be surrounded with must also have these qualities.
Many of these qualities can’t simply be grasped aspirationally. The definition of a trial is something that tests these qualities.
If there is continuity of self into the next age.
If there is continuity of character into the next age.
Then sufferings of this age produce character that will have everlasting benefit in the age to come not only for us as individuals but for community.
To See God
I would also argue that these are all necessary qualities to see God and to live in his presence. Without these qualities seeing the face of God would crush our fragile selves and produce endless torment. For me the best explanation of what would motivate an enormously powerful and yet enormously evil being like Christianity and other religions posits in the devil (and demons) would be creatures who can’t tolerate the face of God and that intolerance is manifest in a desire to destroy all that they cannot control or possess.
Suffering in the light of promised redemption has the capacity to make us mature and complete.
If Jesus who was perfect, could be further perfected by suffering, how much more can we, who are imperfect, derive benefits in this age and the next.