One of the unique things about the Christian faith is our focus on suffering. Christ calls us to suffer for his name, and we find God uniquely and especially with the poor and hurting. The idol of comfort is seen as a stumbling block within our faith, and Christ often condemns the rich and comfortable.
Yet, for many western Christians, life is without significant suffering. How should we feel about that? Is it a blessing, or is it a symptom of an inauthentic faith? This article takes up these questions.
Originally published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland. Please click "read more".
As I write Hurricane Irma is currently pounding the state of Florida. The storm comes on the heels of Hurricane Harvey which greatly impacted coastal towns and cities in Texas, especially Houston, where flooding was devastating.
My sister moved to Houston with her husband about a month before the storm hit. Thankfully, their particular community fared well and she did not suffer too much damage to her property. However, just around the corner her neighbors were literally under water. Countless people lost everything that they had: homes, businesses, modes of transportation, priceless family treasures, schools, churches and so much more. The long term financial and emotional impact that will be felt by many – especially the poorest communities – will be immense.
As the storm ravaged Houston and, eventually, died away my family had an ongoing group text message exchange set up where we received regular updates from my sister on her condition. I was, of course, relieved to see that my sister and brother-in-law were safe; however, for some reason one particular word that kept popping up in that text message exchange really disturbed me: “Lucky”.
“Lucky” was the word that many of my family members used to describe my sister in the midst of this tragedy. She was perpetually reminded by others that she was “lucky” not to have lost her home or been injured.
The word “lucky” was disturbing to me because it began to raise a question in my mind: “How should we feel when others suffer while we do not?”
Should we simply say that we feel “lucky”, or should we be lamenting the tragedy being experienced by our neighbors? Should we feel sorrow that we enjoy a sort of normalcy while others do not? Should we see our lack of suffering as a gift, or should we see it as a symptom of a life of privilege?
While the hurricane issue is one profound example of this, the reality is that as Christians we must address these questions all the time. How should we feel when we know that some people are homeless but we are not? When some are sick but we are not? When some are being killed for their faith but we are not? How should we feel knowing that some live in war zones whilst we live in relative peace? Or, how should we feel driving a nice car when we know someone else needs to walk to work?
Many of us, in the spirit of Christian charity, do not ignore these questions – and thanks be to God for that. Many of us seek out ways to use our non-suffering to help serve those who are suffering. This, oftentimes, comes in the form of acts of giving (of time or resources).
And while that is wonderful, I do think that as Christians we need to pause and think about our lack of suffering.
As Christians who do not suffer we are an anomaly. It’s always tempting to think that what is normal for us is normal for others. In the global west Christians enjoy a lot of religious freedom and cultural acceptance. Nobody will harm you if you identify as Christian or publically go to church. But throughout the world that is not the norm. Across our world people are, indeed, killed, oppressed or persecuted because of their Christian identity. These people are our family in Christ.
And beyond religious persecution, our levels of wealth, material comfort, and available amenities (healthcare, transport, education, etc.) are so much greater than those found anywhere else in the world. These too are abnormal when looked at from a global view.
When Christ was on the cross he looked down at his mother – Mary – and a disciple standing at the foot of the cross. In his suffering he remarks to his mother, “Woman, behold your son”. And to the disciple he remarks, “Behold your mother.” What Christ is saying is that those who believe in Him are knit together as family. In the literal, genetic sense Mary and the disciple are not related. But in the spiritual sense they are mother and son: they are family.
When I work in a hospital setting it is not uncommon to see family members weeping over their sick child or parent or sibling or grandparent. I see a sense of desperation in their eyes, and I often get the very real sense that they would trade their healthy life to take away the suffering of their sick relative. They are nervous, anxious, and dedicated to providing for their loved one.
But here’s the question: why? Why do these family members care so much? Why are they so worried? After all, they are the healthy ones. Of course, they care because they truly love their ill family member and that is what true love looks like in times of suffering.
I would say, then, that we should regard our fellow people around the world in much the same way. Christ says that we are one family – yet, we often don’t feel that sense of familial connection. People who are suffering around the world – and in our own countries – are not just people that we should be concerned about: they are, in a very real sense, our family.
And so, since we are family, we ought not regard ourselves as “lucky” that we are not suffering. Instead, we ought to suffer alongside and with our suffering family members. No family member would count themselves “lucky” that they are not sick while their mother or brother is. So, in much the same way, we don’t count ourselves “lucky” that we are not suffering while our neighbors are. Instead, we mourn, pray, and support them in any way that we can.
When we encounter suffering in the world we should approach it for what it is: the suffering of beloved members of our family. I wonder how our thinking might change if we viewed life through this lens. How would we react if we saw our biological brother or sister sitting on the street homeless? How would we feel if we know that our biological parent was in a war zone? Or, what if our biological children were in prison or being persecuted for their faith?
At the crucifixion Christ reminded Mary and his disciple that, in faith, they were bonded together as family. Today, from Heaven, Christ looks down to remind us that we are all a human and spiritual family. We are part of a family that transcends even genetics. We are part of Christ’s family – and that family is just as real as our traditional ones.