Three Kinds of Suffering

The ideas in this essay are very much works-in-progress. I welcome your thoughts and corrections as I wrestle with suffering. Because it is a work in progress, the essay will change over time to reflect the input of others and my own conversions.

There are three kinds of suffering: suffering for bad choices, redemptive suffering, and suffering that is beyond our understanding.

The first kind of suffering happens when we make bad choices. If you stick your hand in the fire, you get burned. If you steal a car, you go to jail. In the Bible, this kind of suffering shows up in places like Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is rigid, orderly, tit-for-tat. Of the three kinds of suffering, this kind makes the most sense to us.

The second kind of suffering is redemptive suffering, or suffering for a higher purpose. People sacrifice themselves for higher purposes all the time. They might suffer so that their families can have a better life, or they might die for a country in military service.

For Christians, the ultimate example of redemptive suffering is displayed on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly suffers so that we might be saved. Christ’s suffering is the reason why I Peter can call his readers to suffer for their faith. This kind of suffering is part of a bigger story. Peter (and also Paul) call us to suffer for Christ, because of “an eternal weight of glory” that is coming. Because in the end all shall be well, we can endure a little suffering now. This suffering still kind of makes sense, because this kind of suffering now is leading to glory later. It is not pointless.

But there is a third kind of suffering, the suffering that defies reason and explanation. It’s possible to suffer for doing something stupid, it’s possible to suffer for following Jesus, but it’s also possible to suffer for no reason at all. There is some suffering that will never make sense in this life. This is the suffering of Job, and some of the lament Psalms. As Job finds out at the end of the book of Job, the reason for this kind of suffering is a mystery. It lies beyond us, in the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. As Job’s friends discovered, if we try to explain this kind of suffering, we make things much, much worse.

Did you notice that all three kinds of suffering are in scripture? That’s because all three kinds of suffering are valid human experiences before God. If you are suffering, God may be calling you to discern, in conversation with pastors, friends, and family, what kind of suffering you are experiencing. But there is always a chance that the reason for your suffering will elude you. If you are a pastor, or in a position of spiritual authority, it is worth remembering that there is more than one kind of suffering. This should increase our compassion, and cause us to pause and listen before we diagnose other people’s problems.

Also, people are complicated. It’s possible that someone is experiencing more than one kind of suffering at the same time. We should never be too quick to tell someone why they are suffering. As sufferers and spiritual caregivers, a posture of humility, patience, and discretion goes a long way toward Christian love.

Nonetheless, as a pastor, if someone explicitly comes to me for counsel about their suffering, I do have to make choices about how best to counsel them, and those choices are heavily dependent on which kind of suffering they are experiencing. So, in a real way, wrestling with this typology has concrete and important consequences for offering spiritual wisdom to people who are suffering.

I think that these three kinds of suffering form a helpful typology for helping people to walk through their suffering with God. But, like any typology, it is reductionistic and overly simplifies the complexity of people.

There is a deep paradox to the cross that cannot be simply explained by human models of redemptive suffering. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is not exactly like someone jumping on a grenade for someone else. It doesn’t have the same simple formula of “I suffer so that you don’t.” If God truly took his own wrath upon himself on the cross, and if God invites us to take up our own crosses and enter into suffering with Christ, then the redemptive suffering of the Christian life is much more mysterious than simply suffering for a higher cause. It is nothing less than an entryway into the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. So the typology breaks down at the foot of the cross. As the earliest readers of the Bible knew, the suffering of Job and the suffering of Jesus are mysteriously, figurally linked. There is a kind of suffering that is beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond God.

And this is why the Psalms of lament are the place for us to go in our suffering. The Psalms remind us that all of our suffering –– whether from stupidity or the cross or for no reason at all –– happens in the presence of a Holy God. Suffering is beyond us, but it is not beyond God. Suffering finds its end in the heart of the Trinity, as the Lamb stands slaughtered before the throne.

By the Holy Spirit we are joined to Christ and enter into the life of God. In this age, our life includes suffering. Even though that suffering sometimes makes no sense, we still follow Christ into the mystery of the holiness of God.
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2 thoughts on “Three Kinds of Suffering

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Steven. I’m thinking of Marilyn Adams’ _Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God_, where the focus is on “horrendous” evils that, rather than producing fruits of patient endurance and hope, etc. (and so forming the soul into something more beautiful, as in some other theodicies), instead deform and destroy persons. I think this corresponds roughly to your Type 3, since any suffering that does produce the fruit of virtue could be regarded as having a higher purpose, in that way.

    It does seem to me, as you get at toward the end, that Jesus blurs the lines between Type 2 and Type 3. The crucifixion is a paradigmatically horrendous evil, but Jesus also approaches it as his mission to fulfill in obedience; he accepts Type 3 with the voluntariness and purpose that is characteristic of Type 2—drinks the cup; and so even the meaninglessness and forsakenness of the cross are assumed into the “kind of suffering that is part of a bigger story,” even if the *causes* of the suffering still aren’t explained. And I think that we may be called to a similar maneuver with our suffering.

    I may be stepping out too far, since I have not studiously attended the lab component of my courses in suffering. But in the little trials I have had, I do think that to regard myself as called to them, receiving them from God and so remaining within “the God-relation,” has been of some help in restoring meaning.

    All may of thee partake.
    Nothing can be so mean
    Which with this tincture,
    “For Thy sake,”
    Shall not grow bright and clean.”

    —Herbert

    • This is so good, especially what you said about being called to suffering as way of remaining in relation to God. Thanks Matthew.

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