I have mentioned suffering can lead to spiritual growth and I want to elaborate on that some more. Even Buddha’s experience discussed above led him to grow spiritually, yet he did so without the light of the Gospel and therefore his spiritual growth was incomplete. We cannot deny spiritual growth can result from suffering if one allows themselves to work through it. The reason suffering can lead to spiritual growth is that it reminds us of “ultimate” things.
Every week I celebrate the Eucharist. After one of those celebrations, I had a conversation with a good friend about a number of spiritual topics the scripture readings provoked that day. My friend mentioned the fact we fear or at least prefer to avoid those things considered “ultimate.” His words were profound! We discussed why people fall into spiritual sleep, a kind of numbness in which they grow comfortable with their spiritual “status quo.” My friend explained he believed it happens because we avoid the ultimate nature of things. Ultimate things are like playing poker and someone asks you to show your hand. We don’t like it when that happens, particularly if we aren’t holding a winning hand. Suffering reminds us of the ultimate nature of things. It reminds us not just that life and its pleasures are temporal, but that in the end there is an ultimate reality we must acknowledge. My friend indicated he realized that profoundly when he suffered a mild cardiac event. There is an ultimate reckoning we must acknowledge that becomes immediately clear to us when we suffer.
Think about the things we consider ultimate. Death is ultimate and if we ponder its reality we’re forced to change how we live! When we recognize how short life is we certainly don’t remain complacent taking it as it comes. We make it count. Our “bucket list” becomes more important than the daily grind. Anything in life that’s “ultimate” forces us into one of two positions. The first is to brush it off. We avoid dealing with it and psychologically dismiss it. For example, what happens when you’re told you need to eat better and exercise? You like to eat, drink, and celebrate, but the doctor just told you if you don’t change your lifestyle you’ll die. The first thing most people do is avoid seeing the doctor altogether. If we never go to the doctor, we never hear the bad news. If we do see the doctor and get a bad report, we immediately justify our behavior. We tell ourselves we deserve that extra piece of pizza, or that our relatives in Europe lived on beer and pretzels so we can do the same. We say we’re going to start a new exercise program tomorrow to make up for our poor eating today. In short, we psychologically avoid the ultimate result of our lifestyle choices. However, if we face this ultimate reality straight on we are forced to make serious life changes. If we don’t, cognitive dissonance forces us back into denial. When faced with a serious illness we’re required to change our way of life so we can thrive and live well. We become radically different. This same process applies to our spiritual life. Suffering is a way we’re reminded living in this broken world is not just temporal but requires a particular response. Suffering and crisis situations are opportunities for healthy change found in spiritual growth.
Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life. When suffering leads us to understand the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we find ourselves struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended, we naturally want to know “why” this happened. It is the catalyst for change, and hopefully, that change will be positive. Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them. Find people to forgive and forgive them. Find people in despair and show them hope. In short, live, don’t sleep through life. In the end, the ultimate question you’ll ask yourself as a result of any suffering is am I loved and do I love others enough. This ultimate set of questions leads us to the third thing suffering does in the Christian life. It draws us together in community in order to be helped and to help others.
If indeed suffering is part of the human condition and cannot be avoided what is the Christian response to suffering in others? How can we process suffering? The simple answer is other people. We have already demonstrated because of our need to love, be loved, and connect with other people, we will potentially suffer. The paradox is in that suffering the companionship with others heals us. Suffering draws us together. The Christian realizes they are not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way. We are one body and that one body suffers when any member of it is in pain. I once heard someone say, “When one Christian bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been the case a number of times. Here is an example from the writings of Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who was giving an account of how Christians lived:
“And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”
Suffering is a mechanism in this broken world that allows God to be manifest through the grace-filled acts of Christians. In this way, suffering is a mechanism for spiritual growth. It causes within the Christian a nagging prompt of the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she can. Even if that relief is merely being present with them so they know they do not suffer alone. One can sum up suffering in the Christian life from this quote by A.W. Tozer:
“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering. Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing. You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure. You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death… You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven” (Tozer, 1977, p 122).
I’m not saying we want to desire suffering or that God takes great joy in our suffering in order to make us love him more and grow spiritually. I am simply saying that suffering, like all of life, can be a means for us to grow and become more profoundly aware of the mystery of this life. In the end, we must find ways to love one another more profoundly and when one of us suffers there is no greater time to choose to love them at a difficult vulnerable time.