I recently read a science fiction book called Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
It was an interesting book in a lot of ways, but one of the concepts (almost a side-note, actually) that stuck with me was the idea that without suffering there can be no great art.
An age of peace and prosperity for all had arrived on earth, and a side effect of this was that there was no longer any great music being composed, great literature being written, great art being created.
The end of suffering meant the end of greatness.
The author, by the way, was an atheist.
An atheist was more able than many Christians to see that there is good in suffering.
This seems backwards.
We Jesus-followers in our time and place spend so much time pursuing comfort. Difficulties are viewed as a threat to one’s well-being, suffering or even mere unhappiness is seen as intolerable oppression. Do you disagree with someone at the church you attend? Leave it and find another. Do your kids annoy you? Send them off to daycare or school.
I also recently read Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher. The whole book is a fascinating look at Christians who survived the totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union and warnings they want to give us in the West today.
Dreher gives an entire chapter to the idea of suffering as a gift.
He interviewed person after person who were persecuted, jailed, even tortured for being a follower of Jesus, and every single one spoke of their gratitude for the suffering they endured.
“Suffering is a part of every human’s life. We don’t know why we suffer, but your suffering is like a seal. If you put that seal on your actions, interestingly enough, people start to wonder about your truth – that maybe you are right about God. In one sense, it’s a mystery, because the Evil One wants to persuade us that there is a life without suffering. First you have to live through it, and then you try to pass on the value of suffering, because suffering has a value.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such. What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you. In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”
“And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison! … Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!'”
“Taking up your cross and carrying it is always going to be uncomfortable. We can say clearly that this current ideology of comfort is anti-Christian in its very essence. But we should point out the fact that the church, not once, ever called its followers to look for suffering, and even made it clear that they are warned not to do that. But if a person finds himself in a situation where he’s suffering, then he should bear it with courage.”
Even though doing so means to “declare oneself a kind of savage in today’s culture – even within the culture of the church,” I will say this clearly: there is great value in suffering.
To refuse to see suffering as a means of sanctification is to give way to, in Aldous Huxley’s words, “Christianity without tears.”
Again, in the words of one of the religious dissidents under the communist regime:
“Christians must embrace suffering because that’s what Jesus did, and because they have the promise, on faith, that to share in his suffering will bring glory in the next life. But sometimes, we can see results in this life.”
God does not, let me be clear, will evil to happen. He can, however, as he showed in his own Passion, permit suffering for some greater good.
No one has the power to avoid suffering – it is part of the human condition.
We cannot control whether we will encounter suffering. What we can control is how we react to it. Will we run from it and betray our Lord?
Or will we let it change us, serving as the refiner’s fire and purifying our love for God and others?