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On Suffering

Find the good and praise it. Alex Haley

David Brooks of the NY Times has recently written a brilliant op-ed on suffering. While he draws some terrific conclusions about happiness, I’d like to briefly explore a few insights in relation to Good Friday. Brooks writes:

It should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. . . . suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

Well said, Mr. Brooks.

By contrast, there is a significant portion of Christian theology which – intentionally or unintentionally – glorifies the suffering of Jesus. Representing those of the intentional camp, Mel Gibson makes Jesus out to be more like Rocky. The point seems to be that Jesus can take a lick and keep on ticking. The more he suffers, the better.

By contrast, the Gospels depict the trial and execution as the result of a scheming, murderous few who rile up the crowds. In short, the suffering was not noble. It was evil. Accordingly, the true strength of Jesus is not in terms of the amount of pain he was capable of experiencing, but by the grace of God that redeemed that suffering. Without Easter, Good Friday is torture and execution – an abuse of power that still goes on today.

Clearly, then, the suffering of Jesus was unique in one sense. But for those of us who continue to experience pain today, Brooks offers a fascinating insight:

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

If I might reflect “in a religious sense,” how does this relate to Jesus?

“Atonement” is sometimes defined as Jesus paying the price for the sins of humanity. Some would argue, then, that his suffering is noble because he takes on the wrath and fury of divine punishment. That’s why Jesus has to be like Rocky, bruised and bloodied and continually getting up off the mat.

A different line of thought (alluded to by Brooks) suggests that we can break down atonement into “at-one-ment.” Jesus on the cross does not glorify suffering; instead, he is “at one” with us as humans – at perfect harmony, not only with our best, but also our worst. From the cross, Jesus is reported to have said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In other words, he sees “life as a moral drama.” And, if we believe that he has experienced the depths of our pain, then we might be able connect with others in order to “redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.” I think of the community of Virginia Tech and how they continue to rally on April 16th in order to hug and pray and cry and support one another. That is inspiring to me . . . and it’s also a good prayer for Good Friday.

VT shootings

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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