The Purpose of Suffering:
A Christian Perspective
The concept of suffering plays an important role in Christianity, regarding such matters as moral conduct, spiritual advancement and ultimate destiny. Indeed an emphasis on suffering pervades the Gospel of Mark where, it can be argued, we are shown how to “journey through suffering” (Ditzel 2001) in the image of the “Suffering Son of Man” (Mark 8:32), Jesus Christ. Although theologians have suggested that Mark was written to strengthen the resolve of the early Christian community (Halpern 2002, Mayerfeld 2005), the underlying moral is not lost on a modern reader grappling with multifarious challenges regarding faith in the face of suffering. In his article “A Christian Response to Suffering”, William Marravee (1987) describes suffering as an “experience over which we men and women continue to stumble and fall”. The way we view God is crucial to the way we view suffering according to Marravee, who delineates the disparity between a view of God as an ‘outsider’ and the biblical image of God – where God is an ‘insider’ who suffers with us in our struggle. This essay seeks to explain the Christian view of suffering and the purpose suffering can have in our lives.
Suffering is an individual's basic affective experience of pain or distress, often as a result of one’s physical, emotional or spiritual circumstance (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 2006). Suffering can be classified as physical; for example pain caused by a dislocated knee, emotional; for example one’s grief over the death of a loved one, or spiritual; which is described as the state of being separated from the blissful nature of your divine self (soul). To suffer physically or emotionally is often unavoidable; however it can be argued that spiritual liberation is possible through raising our consciousness from our ordinary human consciousness to the divine consciousness (thus making us closer to God). When spiritual liberation is achieved, all concerns for physical and emotional suffering end (Catholic.org 2000).
There are many different perspectives on suffering with regard to its meaning, significance and purposes. Pope John Paul II (1984) wrote "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering", that it centres on the notion of redemptive suffering - to remit one’s sins in order to save the soul from eternal suffering (damnation). Personally, I believe suffering can have a purpose. It can enrich life by giving us knowledge of both the good and the bad, arguably making us more appreciative of what we have . Indeed, James Stewart (2005) purports, "If there were no suffering, would there be compassion? If there were no discipline and hardship, would we ever learn patience and endurance? Construct a universe with no trouble in it and immediately you banish some of the finest qualities in the world."
Our experiences of suffering may also help us in our moral conduct as an experience of suffering serves to make us sympathetic to the trials of others. We learn to a) help the afflicted (through consolation and relief) and to B) not inflict harm on others, having experienced suffering ourselves. Furthermore, many spiritual seekers in the past have felt that suffering and spiritual progress are inexorably linked, pointing to St Teresa of Avila and St Francis of AssisiI as examples . I believe that if we can learn from our suffering we can progress spiritually, perhaps finding, like Jesus did, that even the greatest suffering cannot overwhelm. This indeed, makes it purposeful .
However, the meaning and significance we draw from suffering is dependent upon our beliefs. It is important for those who are suffering to understand and believe that God is with them in their experience and has shared in their pain. As was ascertained in class discussion, to believe that God is with you in your suffering, is to relieve yourself of the burden and despair of suffering. Although such a belief does not “resolve...
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