I have to say right from the start that by any measure there are ‘degrees’ of suffering. In the developed world few know what it is like to suffer to the degree experienced by those in the developing world. So in talking about suffering as a concept, we have to set out a framework by which we understand the term. If we don’t then a valid response would be ‘You don’t know what suffering is really compared to…….’ and that would be correct.
So in addressing the idea of suffering, I am speaking in the context of something we might find unbearable for any reason, but equally feel unable or incapable to do anything about, not what the worst off in this world might experience. I might add that suffering isn’t really about length of time of experience, but it is about intensity.
It’s a funny thing, I’m not sure whether it is just a British trait, but share some discomfort with any person or group and you will rapidly become aware of what are their current discomforts. And probably how badly they rate your situation compared to theirs as well. Thing is that comparing suffering is like comparing the worst dish you have ever been served in a restaurant. Because you can’t stand the taste ordinarily, you might not even consider ordering what someone else ordered so would have no concept if it was a bad example of that dish. Or you might find that something that was too sweet for someone else was just about perfect for you. The truism ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ comes readily to mind.
Because all experience is subjective, bad experience is subjective. Our experience results in our paradigm or world view. How we see the world and what we expect of it. Physical suffering is something that has similar physiological effects on most people. A broken bone hurts. A cut that bleeds is painful. But if you were in a position to talk to someone who has a negative fatalistic paradigm you might well find that they can live with a significant degree of physical, psychological or emotional discomfort in a way that someone unused or unwilling to compromise their expectation wouldn’t. Because negative fatalists expect things to be bad, there is no expectation things won’t be bad. So where they are and what they are experiencing is all they will ever experience and short of death there will be no change. If you were to suspend compassion, you could then argue that the choice is therefore very simple for them.
Does this mean that suffering is all in the mind? By no means, although how we understand our experience can colour the extent to which we accept something happening that we don’t like. For sportsmen the concept of ‘no pain, no gain’ is common. They are willing to put themselves through considerable discomfort in order to achieve something tangible. Is that suffering? Well yes, in that at certain moments they have to cope with something that otherwise they would seek to avoid. But it is through choice, and it is with a specific goal in mind.
When suffering becomes intolerable is when it is either not through personal choice or has no expectation of a definite end. Or worse still when it is both inflicted and without hope of an end. In these circumstances can we be expected to make choices as to how suffering might effect us? Any kind of dogmatic answer to this would be wholly inappropriate, one size does not fit all and therefore neither does one answer. The most one could say would be “If you can choose, then try to”. We are not talking here about choosing whether we are discomfited, but how we are able to live with the discomfort.
Denial is of no help. It merely pretends that something is not the case when we are aware at some level that it most definitely is the case. This never gets resolved and compounds the negative effects of the situation. As Christians is there a difference? Certainly there is a difference if we consider why the suffering is happening. The idea of a hope set before us as we serve God throughout this life and into the next is a powerful motivation. We see this in the life of Watchman Nee and many others. Suffering can be endured if the reason for the suffering is of sufficient worth. Whether we would be able to ‘consider it pure joy’ (James 1: 2-8) is a different matter. See Suffering for my previous thoughts on this.
Setting aside motivation through faith to live through suffering, there are nonetheless other ways in which we can help ourselves deal with life circumstances. Firstly recognising temptation (see Temptation shame and self view) as we have thoughts that direct us to feel sorry for ourselves or focus on how hard life is. Secondly fill our lives with positive relationships, people who have compassion for our situation but do not cause us to dwell on it. Thirdly develop our relationship with the Father taking Jesus as our model (see Jesus relationship with the Father).
It’s a lifetime thing dealing with adversity, including living with suffering. Whilst we hope for God’s Kingdom coming and removing the cause of suffering in His mercy during this life, we live with the truth that for Christians this life is as hard as it gets. Suffering doesn’t exist in Eternity.
© Paul Wood