The truth is we all suffer. Suffering is a large part of life. As the Dread Pirate Roberts told Princess Buttercup. “Life is pain highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Princess Bride 1987).
I sometimes lament at how often Christian music is so victim sounding–everything is terrible, everything is wrong, I almost gave up–but I found God. These are common themes. Common themes are important for reaching a world with common problems. Maybe I am too hard on the redundancy, but might it be that simply singing a problem out for a verse, and then offering the solution within the following chorus is a bit trite? Isn’t that a bit undermining to the reality of suffering as a whole? I wonder if our preaching hasn’t taken a similar turn and thus our message sounds equally light in substance? I say this because suffering is a bigger problem than simply being alleviated within the next movement of music.
Since suffering is a massive reality, what we do with it impacts everything. It usually trickles down to a few of options, we can grin and bear it, or we can rally against, we can ignore it, or I guess some can relish in it–God forbid. The grin and bear it crowd has a derivative of the religious notion to the “claim victory over it” approach which doesn’t allow the problem its full limelight, which I wonder if it strays too close to the ignore it camp. Moving passed the problem to the glorious solution every Sunday morning is a great way of leaving people behind. The grin and bear it crowd might also be a base way of saying responsibility informed by patience and piety. But this idea of rising up from the ashes, shaking off the dust off of life, the grin and bear it model has fallen out of vogue because becoming authentic now is the order of the day. But to rally against means, why would I just take it when it is someone else’s fault? It is more authentic to admit your suffering, to own your victim-hood, to identify with your pain, but in doing so, a culprit must be named.
Marxism, whose founder Karl, just posthumously celebrated his 200th birthday, seems to have convinced the world that class struggle is the source of all suffering. This is in place of it couched innately in our being, our nature–sticking to our very bones. With enlightened thinking, we believe utopia is just around the next corner, we must ignore the fall of mankind. This causes us to come up with all sorts of other avenues for our pain to blame. Thus things like shame, guilt, and sin are now viewed as part of the suffering, rather than a symptom of it. Therefore, throwing off such notions became the solution, because the suffering became external. It’s not my fault.
Marx said this: “The secret to the holy family is the earthen family. To make the former disappear the latter must be destroyed in theory and in practice.” The key to destroying the holy family (religion) is destroying the earthly family. This is ringing closer to relishing in suffering rather than addressing it, but I digress…
As I said the problem has always been suffering. We know this, the world knows this. We experience this, the world lives it every day. World religions are all about addressing suffering. They all do it differently, but now the world has increasingly turned their back on God when they equated him with the suffering itself. Rather than accepting suffering as a truism, a part of life, we equated it with a question to be thrown in God’s face. What really happened was the extraction, the dissociation of guilt/sin with suffering. The suffering was translated to the outside. Once the suffering was out there, Marx could easily get us at each other’s throats. The best way is for us to fight over the undeniable reality of suffering. It divides us from even each other, as it did us, with God.
Since pain is so undeniable, it could be treated as a problem from God, rather than an issue that God was working on alongside humans. Pain was something that screams louder than God, and if it could be turned against him well…all bets were off. With that shift established, we have little recourse but to tear it all down. With new answers being sought in the enlightenment, this would naturally result in the Death of God Phenomena.
One of the reasons Marx was so hard on religion, was because he recognized it actually undermined suffering, thus his premise could not stand. In other words, it lowered registrations with the revolution. People were looking at their suffering, and while being encouraged to fight the oppressors, they were instead discovery life while walking through it, with their fellow-men as followers of Christ. Of course, godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6), but this wouldn’t do for Karl. In order to raise fervor for the uprising, the idea of suffering must not be overcome through religion. Religion must go, and go it went, as we have seen in Europe, and it is trying to leaven out the whole lump here in America as well. No fault divorce, abortion on demand, evolution being taught instead of creation, prayer kicked out of schools, sex education as instructional, religion is more and more marginalized, the faithful ridiculed, are all undermining results of God carrying the burden of suffering himself, rather than man.
This is why our institutions are so hard on religion. Households get divided when little Johnny and Sally discover at college that mommy and daddy and the church have been lying to them. This is why leaving religion is a common trend upward 50% when in higher education. The estrangement means religious influences wane. The kids are taught identity politics because the problem of evil/suffering became this thing on the outside, or rather the continued unwillingness to look inside.
With God knocked down a few pegs, our cross-hairs turn back upon each other. But with it becoming passé to say the proletariat versus the bourgeois, it had become blue-collar versus white-collar, but now it is victims versus privileged. The more victims we identify the more oppressors must be present. So it has largely gone from economic to cultural to social. Always with the goal to root out suffering, and this is why communication breaks down. It is a fundamental emotion to fight against the very real suffering people experience. No amount of debate is going to alter the pain a person feels, which has now been artfully predefined for them. We have shortened our hands for solutions, but the problem still looms.
Meaning the world admits that suffering persists despite our best efforts, so new efforts are in order.
All this to say, if Christianity doesn’t practically address suffering, then our premises will continue to ring more and more hollow, sounding all the more shallow every passing day. Even the message of Jesus can fall short, if he isn’t presented in a real way, as an actual rubber meets the road solution to suffering, to perishing. Yes, Christianity contains truth, but truth doesn’t keep you warm at night. Premises do not restore broken relationships. Facts don’t feed your family. Theology doesn’t hold your hand throughout loss. Even our formulas of Bible reading/prayer don’t always seem to silence all those inner demons. But people who are changed by Christ can, and must. If our message is to survive this cultural deceit, we must enter into the suffering of others.
We must become people who develop testimonies of how our own real suffering was addressed through the person of Christ. If it hasn’t, then what do we really have to offer? It must be personal because suffering is so to the heart. The fundamental shift in belief that the problem could possibly be something on the inside, is no longer a foregone conclusion anymore. People don’t readily recognize sin and forgiveness as necessary anymore, but suffering is so real. Since it is viewed as an external enemy we must shift to how Christ has silenced our own demons. The person of Christ shall not change, but the way we testify must.
The way we address suffering is so important and difficult because it points the same way as truth. While our music may start to sound redundant, thematically, they aren’t too far afield, which is something for me to remember. Because addressing suffering, is coming to terms with the truth. It is attempting to address that universal norm that we all stumble through. Yes, we all suffer, this is why you can’t lead well if you haven’t suffered. A lesson all pastors must grapple with. Hopefully, those above us understand the need for sympathy and a reminder of the problem. Agreeing that we are fallen and lost and in need of a savior.
But our solution must be better than a refrain from a song. I found Jesus and now all my pain went away. That doesn’t sound authentic, and is that really true? No, what we found was the loving, and forgiving, all-powerful companion throughout the storm, not a new-found reality of nothing but clear and bright sunshiny days. The gospel must be deeper than that. I am becoming convinced that theology in our day, is meant to inform the way we relieve others people’s suffering. The way is obviously through Christ, but the central premise cannot simply be understood through better edicts, but better addressing our estrangement.
Sympathy is important, but you need the clear-headedness of a changed heart to navigate the suffering. This is that whole honoring Christ is our hearts while giving a reason for the hope that resides within. We cannot actually enter into a failure to honor Christ. We cannot enter into the idea that the problem is always on the outside, but we can sympathize to a time when it was. Because if you are stuck in the system you can’t rise above it. Solutions need to be formed from experience on the outside but while clearly looking inside. Empathy is good for an inter-personal relationship but not for such solutions. Because we have a new reality of a relationship with Christ. This is why the Levitical priests themselves must first be clean in order to do the work of atonement. We need a clear vision of the cross and Christ to actually help. Being a better person while grinning and bearing it is only half the answer, but it is useful at bringing the problem back within arms reach. While it addresses issues in a utilitarian way, it still doesn’t address the ongoing suffering heart.
This is why when you remove God from the equation, you start to lose focus and turn your eyes to blaming others for the solution. It is our inner compass that keeps us pointed north. This is important because many people do and have discovered this essential truth. They need to take responsibility and even love their neighbors as themselves. The golden rule can in a sense be reasons too.
But as Jesus taught, the great command is two-fold. If we only address the loving neighbor part, which entails a certain amount of responsibility, eventually these people can become victims of being the only ones. With this reality drawn out over time, virtue degrades into vice, meaning is lost, and the cycle repeats. This is why we also need to love God, because a large part of our suffering is estrangement from God as well, not just people.
The important point here is the solution to suffering is love.
Love God, Love people. This takes a certain responsibility to achieve. It takes a certain self-reflection to recognize we are not actually doing this. In other words, purpose leads us out of the doldrums. In looking at the example of Christ, he rises above it. But to be a better person, meaning overcoming purposeless desire, or as the Bible says those who overcome to the end will be saved. We need to address the violation of God as well.
A part of addressing suffering is recognizing how our natures impact the world and then choosing to go against our natural proclivities to claw our way to the top. But we need forgiveness to wash away sins, to reverse the curse. So we need the utilitarian answers of loving our neighbors, which comes through a certain amount self-reflection and wisdom, but we also need the retroactive redemptive answer, which actually makes the other solution tenable.
The Christians worldview is the only place where we get a distinct, ultimate, relational being who defines all this for us. It is where we get the solution to suffering that people used to accept and navigate suffering with. As the church we need to continually ask, are we actually confronting the reality of suffering in the world? Are we offering true hope? Does the meaning we offer give purpose to the storms of life, or are we leaving reality as chaos, without addressing such things?
Jordan Peterson has stated a renewed vigor in responsibility. People are waking up to the idea that they can address the problems within, rather than always looking out. This idea of grinning and bearing it, so to speak, has put him at odds with a culture of blaming. The same way we have been, but he is bringing brass-tact solutions. This renewed reminder, or perhaps a different answer, is useful for Christianity. This idea that something can be done through effort. I know Christianity is not effort, but making a choice for Christ, is a response we make through grace. The idea that purpose through pain is what helps us escape suffering, but he admits that purpose tends to create a hierarchy, and with hierarchy it necessitates resentment. So he reminds us that it is useful to have a goal, but useless to compare yourself. These are Christian principles packaged as mere psychological maxims, but true nonetheless.
Have we been forgetting to say them? He is just speaking of discipleship. I have experienced pushback from even wanting to discuss the idea as if it is graceless to imply people need to work on their walk.
What I mean is while we admit that nothing can be done without Christ, once in Christ reaping what we sow is entirely a premise that we are taught. Discipline is entirely the road when following Christ. If we want to change the world, we do personally need to rise to the occasion. Do that while balancing that fact we can do nothing without the help of God, using the tools that we obtained not by our own hands but by grace.
We can’t just say or sing pretty words to a world that is suffering anymore. We must be those pretty hands and feet. Speak to the suffering and reach the heart. Reach the heart and make an impact that changes the world. Change the world for the kingdom of Christ.