Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.
Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God.
Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Suffering never asks our permission before it strikes. It never sends a warning about the chaos it ensues. It isn’t polite and it isn’t packaged with a beautiful ribbon on top. As I discussed in the first article of this series, suffering encounters us in media res (in the midst of things). The sweep of damage associated with suffering comes without siren or preparation. It’s often only after the fact that we can begin to make sense of why and when and how it came to pass, but until then we are left to endure, with patience (if we’re lucky), the pain of whatever calamity we face.
The Martyr & The Minimizer
It doesn’t take long once you’re in a season of suffering before the armchair theologians and amateur counselors spew every manner of unsolicited advice. “God has a plan!” “All things work out for our good.” “Just focus on the truth, not your feelings.” To be fair, people are generally well-meaning. Not everyone is using your pain as a platform to bolster their aphoristic acuity. Some people are really trying to help. However, if we’re honest, pithy half-truths salve the pain of suffering about as much as a wet bandage heals a bullet wound. Sincere empathy and co-lamenting are unfortunately rare in our experiences of loss. My recent experiences of loss have unearthed a deeply tormenting tendency I have when I can’t make sense of what God is doing. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it “minimizing” and “martyring”. You’re probably all too familiar with what I’m talking about. The second you are confronted with your suffering or the suffering of others, you downplay it. You pretend that the pain you’re feeling isn’t legitimate because somebody else has it worse. It’s not fair for you to complain about having a hard day because children in Africa don’t have food. It’s not fair for someone else to complain about an argument they had with their brother, because you were up all night with the kids. You couldn’t possibly understand what real suffering is like, because you haven’t experienced what starving African child [x] is going through, and other people should just get over their millennial snow-flakery and realize that you’re busting your tail ten times harder than they are. If they had to live a day in your shoes, they wouldn’t complain about their easy life. I’ve been on the receiving and giving end of this kind of talk and the motive is the same: spiritual immaturity and cowardice.
A Kingdom of Weak-Kneed Wretches
“Cowardice, immaturity? I thought they were touting their difficult life because they were way stronger and more spiritually mature than me?” or “Aren’t they more optimistic because they know Jesus better than I do?” I thought the same thing, until I began observing the life of Christ more closely. The center of the issue of minimizing and martyring is a misunderstanding of how Christ defines strength.
We are deeply Western, whether we want to admit it or not. The bedrock of our understanding of what it means to be strong is tethered to the notion of a rags-to-riches, bootstrapped narrative. The people we respect are the ones who have overcome the impossible odds and succeeded despite the storm. The mountaineers, achieving single-mothers, and marathon runners are the prophets, saints, and gurus of our culture. To buckle under the weight of suffering is weak, to succeed in the face of it is strength.
But, is this how Christ, the Suffering Servant, conceived of suffering? Is this how Paul, the imprisoned apostle, approached the crippling weight of the “thorn in his flesh”? Is the kingdom of God peppered with powerhouse achievers who overcame the odds and never complained or weak-kneed wretches who can hardly clutch the hand of Christ? To be clear, the kingdom of God isn’t a kingdom of losers. It’s a kingdom of weak losers. Losers who have forsaken the allure of worldly gain, sacrificed their pride, vainglory, and bootstrapped sensibilities for the immeasurable riches of knowing a hint of the death and resurrection of Christ. To lose is to gain in God’s economy. To be weak is to exude the Spirit’s strength. I’m not talking about making too much of our pain, like the martyr. Nor am I talking about making too little of our pain, like the minimizer. I’m talking about marrying our pain to the experience of Christ’s Passion: sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, the weakness of Jesus, the loss of Jesus, and, subsequently, the gain of Jesus’ resurrection. We are weak-kneed, soaked in bloody sweat, bruised and mocked, but not because we are un-American. We embrace the “trials of various kinds” because we belong to another Kingdom.
In The City of God, Augustine says that we welcome death and suffering in the name of Christ, not because we are shallow and lack strength, but because we despise the schemes of the devil so much that, by embracing suffering in Christ, we “stomp on death and pain like something dead”. This is powerful imagery. We are so unafraid of how the enemy might lie to us in our suffering, that we beckon it and make a fool out of it by the Spirit’s fruit of long-suffering and patience. Our culture sells quick-fixes and shortcuts like it’s going out of style, but the mark of strength in the life of the Christian is a willingness to embrace the long road of suffering as a means of knowing Christ.
People who minimize the suffering of others as “not real suffering” are doing so out of fear, not maturity or courage. They are so afraid of the uncertainties of their own suffering that they can’t celebrate the enduring power of the Spirit in another co-sufferer. They don’t believe that the Suffering Savior dignifies their pain as a unifying experience. They don’t trust that God might bring to bear real hope and real faith in the face of what they can’t make sense of. So, since they can’t locate any divine hope in their suffering, they makeshift hope through the martyr’s complex. If they suffer more than others, maybe they’ll get a trophy, at the very least.
People who minimize their own suffering as “not real suffering” are likewise operating out of fear. I’ve felt this in my own story. I’m afraid of admitting that I’m hurting, that I’m weak, that I can’t bear the weight of it. I fear it so much that I put it out-of-mind, out-of-sight. In either case, the soil of Western idealism is dry and anemic. It’s not brave, courageous, or mature to sidestep what Christ wants us to gain through our loss. When Western idealism breathes into our various experiences of suffering, we will be prone to minimize suffering or operate out of a martyr’s complex. Christ didn’t minimize suffering, he endured it. Christ didn’t muscle his way through the cross, he felt it. He bled. He died. But He did so with patience: honest, visceral, painful patience.
Sharing in the Way
As followers of the Way, we don’t have to stoop to the theologically near-sighted, a-spiritual martyr’s complex or fearful denial in minimizing our pain. We can embrace it, feel it, lament it, join others in it, and, in the process, share in the death of Christ that blooms into victorious resurrection-life. Dependent endurance, patient hope, rejoicing and lament is the anthem of our citizenry. The Way is difficult, impossibly heavy, and burdensome, but it’s shared. Reject the childish ways of minimizing and martyring your pain, and embrace the variegated trials of the narrow road that lead to life in Christ.