Over the past several years I’ve started learning from the wisdom of people who have suffered and weathered some of the roughest storms of life. These people come from backgrounds different from my own. This wisdom has brought new sets of questions for me about the nature of pain and suffering and the place of God in all of that. My understanding and experience of the liberating work of God has matured as I’ve gained a deeper sense of how the cross and resurrection relate to suffering in me and in those around me.
I grew up believing that to suffer was central to my identity as a Christian. After all, the Bible told me so. I knew all the verses about God not giving me more than I would be able to handle and about how I am supposed to rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance and makes me strong. I knew that Jesus called his disciples to take up their crosses to follow him and that I’d be blessed for suffering on his account. I even knew a little bit of the history of the earliest Christian martyrs who stood firm in their faith in the face of torture and execution. Ultimately, I thought suffering was a test brought to me by God just as God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac.
I welcomed opportunities to take up my cross because I thought that it would make me a better Christian. All throughout high school I thought I was suffering when I didn’t get invited to parties or when I got up early once a year to pray around a flag pole. I put myself in these situations with zeal. But what I didn’t realize was that it was a privilege “to choose” to suffer in these ways, which, while uncomfortable, were not really suffering at all. Worst of all, since my idea of suffering was so small, I lacked empathy for my friends who were going through deaths in their family, generational poverty, and racial discrimination.
I am not sure if I missed something or if it was never taught, but I never made the connection between actual pain and suffering and the type of self-inflicted martyr-complex I developed in my youth. So when I sat with my close friend after his mom passed away from an aggressive form of cancer, or when my own marriage came to the brink of collapse, I didn’t know how to relate these experiences to the biblical and theological traditions about suffering.
Similarly, I didn’t know how to respond when another friend told me he abandoned God shortly after he almost lost his wife and first child during his wife’s labor and delivery. The image I had of suffering wasn’t big enough to account properly for painful experiences that we didn’t actively seek. So I sat silently in the full knowledge that no cookie-cutter church answer could absolve his pain.
Yet in the midst of all this suffering subtext came a fundamental misunderstanding of suffering generally and of Jesus and God specifically. Nobody likes to go through hard times, but when hardships do come, this misunderstanding of suffering may be why some people end up leaving the church or walking away from God. I see this now when people tell others who are grieving their circumstances things like, “It is God’s will,” or “God is testing you.” While trying to bring comfort, such words bite deeply into fresh wounds and communicate a theology of a disinterested God at best or of a sadistic God. In effect, those that say God directly brings pain to one’s life, make God out to be the author of evil. And with such thinking, then God’s goodness quickly goes out the window. We know that God is not evil, as Psalm 100:5 says, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” But how do we reconcile these opposing perspectives and truly help one another in the face of pain and suffering?
Learning to listen to and be with others who are suffering helped expand the narrow category of suffering I held in my youth. Learning that not all suffering is the same and that there are differences between types of pain helped broaden my understanding. I grew immensely from the writings of Womanist ethicist Emilie M. Townes, like her book A Troubling in My Soul (Orbis Books, 1993). In this book, Townes talks about suffering from the perspective of her own experiences as a black woman within the United States. She recounts a history of oppression and marginalization that she and her community have endured. She rejects the theology that claims God brought slavery, segregation, and their fallouts “for a reason.” What kind of a God would inflict those horrors on a covenanted community? These horrors are the result of a real evil, to be sure, but an evil that comes from a dominant society whose values and institutions promote a life-denying ideology.
As I understand Townes, the God who heard the cry of the Israelites in Egypt and who delivered them from their oppression is not a God with some poorly designed plot to run generations of people into the ground. This is a God who hears our cries and brings liberation. What is more, God’s work through Jesus is the supreme act of justice, which fully demonstrates God’s victory over evil. With Jesus’ victory, the Christian community is liberated to find wholeness. This wholeness is referred to as living in the “New Jerusalem,” and it is directly aimed at the here and now on both personal and community levels with respect to our individual spirits and the church in society.
But freedom from the forms of oppression experienced by the Israelites or by blacks in the United States required people partnering with God actually to do something about their conditions. However reluctant Moses may have been, he still went to Pharaoh, and the Israelites uprooted themselves from their deplorable, albeit familiar, predictability of life by venturing out into the desert. On both accounts, it took courage: courage to leave Egypt and courage in the midst of their suffering to trust that God had not left them and that God would transform them out of their suffering.
But for most of us with more privileged backgrounds who have never known this kind of oppression, we still experience the chaos of broken families, drug addictions, illnesses, and death. I may concede that God worked out the liberation of the Israelites but then doubt that this same liberation applies to me. After all, the wounds are open, the sting is unbearable, and I can’t catch my breath. Townes responds to the rift between large and small scale liberation with a helpful distinction between pain and suffering. Drawing from writer and activist Audrey Lourde, Townes notes that pain is inevitable and everyone experiences it. While pain is real, it is dynamic, meaning that it moves and changes. The dynamic aspect of pain allows us to move through the stages of grief, for example, and is what can move us towards change, growth, and transformation when a person courageously passes through it.
Suffering, on the other hand, is stagnant. It is “unmetabolized” pain. Suffering is pain that has gotten stuck in a feedback loop of sorts and never moves towards transformation or wholeness. It is reactive and life draining and, short of outright despair, one’s only tactic for survival simply is to endure it. Suffering often leads to oppression on the level of the Israelites in Egypt during those four hundred years, and oppression is sinful in every respect because through it some people are excluded from the privileges and wholeness of life.
Emilie Townes goes on to explain that her community historically experienced, and continues to experience, oppression and suffering as a result of the dominant White ideologies and racialized social policies. But the reality of Jesus’ resurrection provides a way out from accepting suffering as the way it is or the way it is supposed to be. The resurrection is God’s way of breaking the feedback loop of suffering. By courageously partnering with God, the possibility becomes open to move beyond suffering to pain and renewal. “The resurrection is God’s breaking into history,” Townes proclaims, “to transform suffering into wholeness—to move the person from victim to change agent.”
In the face of personal pain and large scale suffering and oppression in society, Christians are given the gift of the resurrection. This gift tells Christians that death does not have the final word, even in the worst of circumstances. The resurrection is the culmination of so many stories of pain and suffering occurring throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Like Noah’s rainbow, it is a promise that wholeness is possible, even though the floodwaters keep the land hidden.
Two language translations are helpful to better understand wholeness. In Hebrew, tamim is the word we most often render in English as “wholeness.” The word refers to something brought to completion—to be whole was to be complete, without impairment, and without defect. To be whole is to be repaired so that you lack nothing, and what needs repair other than something that is broken? Move over now and look at the Latin word salvus, from which we get our word “salvation.” Salvus is the act of mending something that’s been broken, much like we would put an antibiotic salve on an open wound before putting on a bandage. Christian promises of salvation, then, are more than merely the pie in the sky that you get to eat after you die. Christian promises of salvation are for the real healing of real wounds.
Christian salvation is something we participate in for ourselves, for our fellow sisters and brothers, and for the rest of the broken world. This is where theologian James Cone’s voice added to my understanding of pain, suffering, and Christian life. Cone’s most recent book is called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In it, he brings Christians in the U.S. face to face with the theological significance of our nation’s lynching trees as a symbol of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. In the first century, Romans reserved the punishment of crucifixions for threatening and deeply political crimes. The cross was an instrument of fear and terror and was employed symbolically to control the population by continually reminding everyone who held the locus of power. The lynching tree served almost the exact same function in our society as over 5000 men, women, and children were strung up on trees between 1890 and the 1920s alone. After the civil war and the abolition of slavery, “God-fearing” whites, primarily in the South, used lynching to remind blacks that whites were still in control. For over a half-century, blacks lived in the shadow of the lynching tree. To live in the shadow of the cross, as the Romans intended, or the lynching tree really was to live in a world where people were not allowed to be whole. Jesus’ death on that intimidating Roman cross and our claim of his resurrection transform the symbol. What was once a symbol of frightening death, has now become a symbol of freedom.
When I first read through this book I kept asking myself, “Why did Cone and members of his Christian community remain people of faith, and why didn’t they just leave the entire religion of their former slave-holders behind?” After all, it is reported that whites would interrupt their Sunday morning church service to participate in a lynching, only to resume their service after the lynching was over. I sat with these questions for a long time until I realized how deeply embedded the very questions are in my thin understanding of suffering.
How might we as Christians better face up to pain and suffering as a total body of Christ? How can we rejoice in our sufferings as Romans 12:12 instructs when I get to enjoy society’s many privileges at the expense of others? Part of an answer comes by learning how to see the interrelationships between how I live my life and how others live theirs. For me, it required learning to sit at the feet of marginalized people before I found true empathy. It required a new understanding of a God who walks alongside the downtrodden and works things towards liberation and wholeness because there is suffering, not by using suffering.
Cone expresses that it was not an option for him and his black Christian community in rural Arkansas to give up hope in a God who promised to deliver the church from oppression. Cone’s theology is such that God is the God of the oppressed, and that means that God is fighting on his behalf to make things whole again. Such assurance brings the necessary splinter of hope. And when this splinter of hope finds the support of an empathetic community willing to walk towards wholeness, we are empowered to move towards transformation. Then, with this transformation, we join back in with others and continually work to realize what it truly means to live in the New Jerusalem.