Legitimate Suffering

Re: Suffering Is Your Ally — Steven raises a common and important issue Westerners have with suffering and pain.

On the one extreme, we have a typically middle-class American doctrine in the Prosperity Gospel. This idea stands on the ancient ground of the Pharisees, something we detect when the Twelve seem bewildered when Jesus suggests that material wealth is a major hindrance in moral redemption (Matthew 19:16-30). We dig a bit into the rabbinical traditions to discover they taught that the primary mark of God’s favor was material wealth. Thus, the wealthy (Jews) were already favored by God, while the poor were accursed. So the Prosperity Gospel equates poverty with spiritual failure. Alongside this, the only reason you aren’t instantly (or at least quickly) healed of every possible ailment is that you just don’t have enough faith.

Apparently, even mere discomfort is somehow attached to spiritual blindness, because “God didn’t intend us to suffer.” Well, God didn’t intend for us to die, either, but even the most notable sages of the Prosperity Gospel die from serious conditions often related to aging. You’ll hear all kinds of excuses and legalistic nit-picking and semantic gymnastics defending their petty materialistic excuse for theology. Jesus called it worshiping Mammon.

On the other extreme are the weird ascetics who suggest that suffering has some magical saving power. They go out of their way wallowing intentionally in distressful exercises in self-discipline to cleanse their souls — or something like that. Nothing in the New Testament promotes this unless you insist on some perverted legalistic reasoning from the words meant to be read as parable.

I can try to untangle all of this. Basic theme: Pain is a part of living in a fallen world. We are wired for pain, and not all pain is the result of moral culpability. Walking in faith is not a magic spell against pain and death. Sometimes obeying God in a particular context means accepting painful consequences, permanent disability or even death. We don’t make a virtue of suffering; we make a virtue in tolerating it for the sake of God’s glory.

Suffering becomes an ally if you respond appropriately internally. It reminds you that this fallen life is a mixture of sorrow and joy and each has their place. It reminds us that we are fallen and need to keep our eyes on His glory, allowing Him to make the decisions. We see pain as an ally when we remember that He intends it will drive us into His arms. And Paul in the Corinthian letters says that our obedience to God’s moral laws makes us a friend of Creation and an enemy of fallen people. People with a perverted view of morality will stain everything they can touch, so some elements in our natural world will reflect the pervasive perversion. Walking in divine truth makes you a threat to whatever people imagine is their justification for moral perversion.

Thus, we should expect a certain trend of increased suffering as a sign of obedience — but this assumes you are reading these things from your heart, not your reason. In return, there is a balancing sense of peace reflecting back from our convictions, something the fallen world cannot have.

So we might sometimes do things to bless and redeem other lives that we know is going to cause some sorrow on the way. But we do not go out of our way to increase human suffering as a whole. There is no glory in torment, so things like hazing to join a club has a limit before it becomes sin. You and I will judge things differently, but the mere presence of hazing shows a complete lack of heart-led awareness in the first place. Getting involved in something inherently difficult already requires a certain amount of “pay your dues” without adding artificial suffering to create a false pride.

This bleeds over into a thousand other moral considerations. That’s how it works with God’s living moral character, AKA faith, moral discernment, biblical laws, heart-led living, etc. It’s organic and living, not objective and rational. There is no “ideal” and no absolutes; ultimate reality (moral truth) is seldom binary in this world. It’s that quantum morality thing again, where you have to discern things on multiple levels simultaneously, which is particularly difficult for Western minds trained in linear logic. There may be no single right answer, where God Himself lets you choose any of several paths because He’s prepared to work with you whatever you choose. He’s a real person, too, not some abstract objective ideal.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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6 Responses to Legitimate Suffering

  1. Pingback: Kiln blog: Legitimate Suffering | Do What's Right

  2. Mr. T. says:

    Do you think any/some psychological concepts or theories are useful at all when talking about faith or religion? Or different takes on it?

    For example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_Disintegration


  3. pastor says:

    Mr. T. wrote: Do you think any/some psychological concepts or theories are useful at all when talking about faith or religion? Or different takes on it?

    Excellent question.

    Before we answer that, we need to nail something down: Different cultures produce different atmospheres for human development. It’s the same with subcultures within a given society. Thus, any model of human behavior will likely be contextual; I’ve not seen a single one that appears “universal” in any sense. Having said that, a surprising array of models and schools of psychology have some element(s) of moral truth. Most of them go too far in one or another direction. So the Theory of Positive Disintegration is more careful, and does offer some limited usefulness. The biggest problem with psychology is that most of the founding theorists take themselves too seriously. And those who use psychology in practice just about have to write their own theory, if only internally, because they forget the psychology of the psychologist (called “metapsychology”). What makes humans similar and different applies to the ability to notice trends and peculiarities. There hasn’t been that much good work done in metapsychology.

    If we step back even farther, and start talking about heart-led moral living, we recognize the whole thing is built on sand. There are some really cool things you can do with sandy soil as long as you realize it’s sand. Every school/theory of psychology can say some useful things about religion and faith, but it’s always contextual and provisional in nature. Nothing they say can be taken as definitive. I have two favorite writers in the field: Thomas Szasz and M. Scott Peck. Both of them make huge errors, but offer some insights that I use all the time. Szasz gets one thing right: Most of psychotherapy is bullshit, based on the medical model of “mental illness” when the real issue is moral failure. Almost the entire field of psychotherapists are hostile to that kind of talk, which actually is in his favor. Peck was one who warned us that typical social mythology is our biggest threat to finding peace and stability. He proposed a working model of human development that included dealing squarely with most problems as the normal and natural result of bad cultural expectations.

    No two of us could or should come up with the same answers as to which theories we can use. My teachings on psychology are my answer to certain problems I see. The worst you can do here in our little virtual parish is promote things that we can’t use. That’s not to signal God’s objections, but our objections. If you feel driven to stay with it, all that means is you need to do it somewhere else. Unless you are Jesus Christ, you have no standing to assert universal solutions.


  4. Linda says:

    I dont think trying to make spirituality a human thing is a good idea. That means trying to explain “being in or with the Spirit” with human words or theories is pointless because we can’t.

    It is a singular and unique relationship that manifests itself in our hearts as we communicate with God. How that then manifests itself in our lives internally (how we think, act, react, respond) and outwardly is or should be the result of that relationship. Whether we suffer or dance, it is still the same path. Feast your eyes upon Jesus. His Glory is what we shall then seek.

    Making more out of it than that is wandering down the wrong way. Does anyone get what I mean?


  5. Mr. T. says:

    I can recommend Peck as well, though should read more. Will check out Szasz if possible.

    In general I got many useful practical and philosophical insights from cognitive behavioral therapy (such as Burns’s Feeling Good book) years ago due to some anxiety and depressions issues, but that was just “common sense”, not very spiritually or morally enlightening as such.


  6. pastor says:

    Linda wrote: Does anyone get what I mean?

    You reaffirm the unique individual nature of faith.


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