Suffering in Christian Life


By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Iraq War left Army Reserve Chaplain David W. Peters reeling from post-traumatic stress and a broken marriage, but he is not done with voluntary suffering. Not by a long shot.

Peters opts for trials that exceed what most human beings could endure. He trains for 100-mile ultra-marathons by taking demanding runs, such as the 41-miler he bit off last year to mark his 41st birthday. He says he felt ashamed for running only 52 miles when a hamstring pull ended his last quest for 100.

Peters is quick to make clear that he is no masochist. Nor does he subscribe to any sort of theology that might regard bodily punishment as appeasement of an angry God. Rather, he ranks among faith leaders who find value in the long Christian tradition of willful suffering. He and others want to see it reclaimed in a healthy, theologically sound way.

“The more I train and cause my body to suffer, the less I suffer existentially,” said Peters, now associate rector at St. Mark’s Church in Austin and author of Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People Who Have Been to Hell and Back. “There’s that relationship between mind and body. … When we pamper the body and do nothing, I think that increases our suffering.”

He sees the struggle in the eyes of veterans. They’re beset with anxiety in the absence of the physically demanding group regimens they used to do daily during deployments. In their nostalgia for the armed services, they yearn for order and shared sacrifice.

Peters finds Christians crave something similar, especially now as Lent looms and new spiritual challenges beckon. They want something like the peace he found in boot camp, which he called “the greatest three months of my life.”

“I had no doubt. I had no anxiety,” he said. “Everything was scripted and physically difficult. And that kind of physical stuff and fatigue really displaced all my other issues about meaning in life and what matters and was I having a full experience of life.”

Choosing a path of suffering to follow a crucified Savior has been a solid theme in Christian spirituality through the ages. The Apostle Paul exhorts believers in Romans 12:1 to “make your bodies living sacrifices.” Early generations revered the desert fathers, who withdrew from worldly comforts and deprived themselves of food and sleep. Wearing hair shirts and sleeping on wooden pillows were signs of exemplary piety in the Middle Ages. For post-Enlightenment missionaries, suffering could mean accepting poverty to plant churches abroad or to establish historically black colleges in the American South after the Civil War.

But recent decades have caused many to rethink whether choosing to suffer is necessary or wise for spiritual growth. The Rev. Jared Cramer, rector of St. John’s Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, notes how Episcopalians are often encouraged to give up nothing for Lent, but rather to take something on. For Roman Catholics, prescribed Lenten disciplines require none of the austerity that marked pre-Vatican II piety. As long as Catholics avoid meat on Fridays during Lent and keep to one small meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, there’s no need for further fasting, according to revised Roman Catholic guidelines.

“There’s this idea in the church that we’ve moved beyond self-denial,” Cramer said. “That may be a popular conception, but it’s very foreign from the way our prayer book invites us to practice the Christian life.”

Cramer notes how the Book of Common Prayer prescribes special acts of self-denial for Fridays throughout the year, except in Christmastide and Eastertide. He encourages parishioners in Lent to follow some form of the season’s classic disciplines of fasting, prayer, self-denial, and daily Scripture reading. If possible, he says, do them with goals in mind, perhaps to pursue clarity of calling or purge some bad habits. If no goals seem pressing, then just do them and be open to what might happen.

Cramer ranks among Episcopal thinkers who believe voluntary suffering does not have to be antiquated, unhealthy, or dangerous. When managed well and pursued for the right reasons, it can open doors to spiritual growth.  By studying the Atonement and the reasons for willful suffering, they carve out space where modern people can in good conscience choose sacrifice. Lent can be a time to begin.

First, stumbling blocks need to be removed. Peters observes that Episcopalians, like other mainline Protestants, have increasingly questioned the implications of traditional Atonement theories. What does it mean for Christian practice if the Son of God died on the Cross in obedience to God the Father?

In the austere spirituality of Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, he barely ate or slept on grounds of ascetic discipline. He expected rigor from his flock as well.

“There’s a real fear of that Puritan model in Episcopal circles,” Peters said. “You can’t go rooting out the tares in the wheat field. That’s why [intentional suffering] has got to be voluntary. It’s got to be presented as one of the many facets on the path to God.”

What’s needed is not a jettisoning of sacrifice from Christian piety, said Cynthia Crysdale, a theologian at the University of the South. Voluntary suffering still has a place, she said, as long as Christians understand their calling is not to suffer per se but to respond to God’s love, which can lead down paths of hardship.

“This false sense that harming oneself is getting one closer to God;  people are trying to cleanse that out,” said Crysdale, author of Transformed Lives: Making Sense of Atonement Today. “They do sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater, as if it’s all wonderful progress and we’re just going to be happy and loving ourselves. There’s no death and resurrection involved. But there’s no two ways about it: death and resurrection is there, and you’ve got to die to yourself.”

It is crucial to know that personal suffering is not what saves, Crysdale said, in part because it mitigates the tendency toward savior complexes. Christians who wrongly believe that suffering is what God still requires can fall prey to the idea that they are saviors.

Then it can seem, wrongly, as if every painful episode in their lives were a deposit to earn God’s forgiveness. They do better to trust that God’s love is already assured, the Atonement is done (through the Cross), and responding to this love can mean willfully traveling a hard path. That could mean something as simple yet demanding as caring for a disabled loved one.

For Cramer, following Christ means following the One who chose suffering. Christians need not fear that this implies a life without pleasure or a dour spirituality. On the contrary, he sees willful suffering as a path to heightened awareness and deeper connections with God and neighbor.

The benefits to willful suffering aren’t as rare as some might think. To go without food by choice, for instance, forges understanding and compassion for those who have no choice but to go hungry. To leave habitual pleasures behind for a time can allow for clear assessments: could I change how I use my time or income? Such questions are more answerable after a time of doing without.

In Peters’s view, the crucial factor is that suffering be a truly willful choice. Where purposeful suffering runs amok, he says, is when someone insists that someone else needs to suffer. Such dynamics can be unproductive and unhealthy.

Yet the Church offers a blessing when it pastorally guides those who know deep down that a real connection with God won’t come easily.

“We have to offer the narrow way that Jesus talked about or the path of the monastics,” Peters said. “It’s deep inside Christians already. It’s in their hearts. There’s something about Christianity that recognizes that there is some value in birth pangs and pain. And when we tell people there is no value in that, I think we’re really out of touch with how the laity think of the spiritual life.”

As a priest, Peters keeps alert for those who crave to experience a certain kind of beneficial hardship. He compares Lenten worship to funeral preaching: both are times when everyone is listening closely and open to a new, profound message. He offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) spontaneously, asking, “Would you like to do it right now?” in situations when he senses someone needs unburdening. He knows from running that inhibitions come down in the crucible of physically demanding activities. He sees Lent as a fertile time because Christians are being shaped as they enter once again the narrow way.

For Cramer, the litmus test for voluntary suffering is whether it leads to greater love of God and neighbor. If it leads instead to vanity or feelings of estrangement, then the practice is misguided and it’s time to reconsider.

Crysdale says discernment is crucial. It involves asking: what is really drawing me to God? To get at the answer, she cites Ignatius of Loyola on “hard consolation” versus “easy desolation.” Hard consolation draws a person to God through hard tasks or even grief, whereas easy desolation involves a comfortable life that lets a person drift away from God.

Discerning a call in a group, rather than alone, can help a person be sure that a path of voluntary suffering is genuinely responsive to God and not self-serving. She observes how some in our day still hear a call to dramatic Christian sacrifice, including devout nurses and doctors who risk their lives to care for Ebola patients in African hospitals. Others embrace what are their own, less visible crosses to bear.

Either way, voluntary suffering is still part of Christian tradition. It’s just being discerned with fresh nuance and intentionality.

“There are wonderful heroes and martyrs today,” Crysdale said. “The question is: what am I called to do?”

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