A guest post by my good friend, Aian Macpherson, an Anglican priest who ministers in Hull (UK)
In the last few days, since the canonisation of St Teresa of Calcutta, Facebook, blogs and even national newspapers have in turn praised and condemned her. I do not intend to repeat the whole to and fro. Whilst I personally disagree with the polemics levelled at her, I am not knowledgeable concerning her life history in detail and would not add anything new. However I can address one particular charge, as it is levelled against the Christian tradition at large as much as it is against St Teresa.
The charge, as I have read it, is that Christians and the Christian tradition glorify suffering and even wish it upon people. “Christians say suffering is good because it brings you closer to God!” is an illustrative sample of what is presented as Christian belief. I will attempt to explain my understanding of what the church actually means when it talks of coming closer to God through suffering in a way which is helpful to those of a different world view in the hope that they may understand more fairly what the church actually believes.
The Church does not wish pain on others, and for the most part Christians do not wish pain on themselves – though there are the extreme exceptions of monastic asceticism.
The world is full of suffering and suffering can be magnified by social expectations and values. The cause of suffering is not limited to the illness or syndrome. All societies and cultures and individuals may increase or even create suffering by how the sufferer is treated. Those who suffer most are historically the most socially excluded. Examples are numerous: continuing stigma around mental ill health, infanticide of infants with learning disabilities or the wrong gender, fear of people with AIDS, exclusion from society of lepers, abortion of children with downs syndrome, and on and on.
Those who suffer are too often, by a vastly varied range of cultural expression, condemned as ‘cursed’ or blamed for their own misfortune. The Bible contains a number of examples of what we could call the divine justice or karma approach. In the Book of Job for example, Job is asked repeatedly by his former friends to work out what he did to make God angry so that he can either say sorry and be forgiven or accept his punishment. In the end God makes it clear to Job’s ‘comforters’ that Job had done nothing to deserve punishment. Again, Jesus is asked what sin a blind man or his parents had committed that meant he was born blind, Jesus says ‘none’. There are other cases besides. Not only does humanity blame the sick and the poor for their lot, but also socially assures the rich and fortunate that they deserve their ‘blessings’. This is a phenomenon which occurs in the church as well as without – in the church it is known as teaching a (heretical) ‘prosperity Gospel’.
But for Christians it is not only the Book of Job or Jesus’ teaching that informs our understanding of suffering: it is Jesus death. Jesus in coming as man, in choosing death on the cross is God choosing to suffer with us. (Jesus death is also seen as saving us; it is effective redemption not empathy alone. However) because God identifies himself with the poor, the victim, and the suffering, suffering can no longer be excluded, shameful or unholy. Even in the darkest corner of human experience God is there – particularly there because it is the grieving who need comfort, the sick who need a doctor, the lonely who need a friend, the poor who need an inheritance, the cursed who need a blessing.
This is not advocacy of sadism or advice to seek suffering, because that would be a denial of the joy, healing and blessings which we receive. It would be a denial of the abundance and generosity of God received through creation.
Jesus’ identification with the poor is a challenge to live generously and empathetically. Jesus’ death is an encouragement to endure suffering with hope rather than despair when suffering is unavoidable, and to endure suffering on behalf of others if you can. From a psychological perspective it is edifying and strengthening; from the social and anthropological perspective liberating and revolutionary. For the Christian it is even more. It is the chance to know God is with you by faith, even in the experience of abandonment and Godlessness.
So do Christians glorify suffering? I don’t think so. I think they glorify Jesus, the one who suffered, and that he promises to make glorious our wounds.