by Tony Oliphant
No one likes to suffer. We’re hardwired to flee pain. When we look at the world, we can see that most things exist to distract us from suffering. There are any number of things to keep us from overly difficult labor or to alleviate pain. To an extent, that’s acceptable. The Lord gives us gifts to help us fight against the curse of a fallen creation. But what about when avoidance of suffering becomes the end-all and be-all of existence? That’s when we get into trouble.
Sometimes end-of-life decisions are made solely on the basis of avoiding any suffering. For Christians, this is a problem because we have a completely different understanding of suffering. We know from Scripture that God chooses to work in weakness. As Christians, we frame everything in the light of Jesus. When St. Paul begged the Lord to remove his thorn from him, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Because of this power of Christ working in weakness, St. Paul tells us: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Why is this? As the baptized children of God, baptized into Jesus’ own death and resurrection, we know that our suffering draws us always to the suffering of Christ. Our suffering draws us to the cross. It’s at the cross that we learn that our value is not assigned by our suffering or lack thereof, not by some abstract “quality of life,” not by anything the world can grasp or articulate. Our value—the value of every single redeemed child of God—is assigned by the blood of Jesus, shed for us. This blood, poured out for us when Jesus was crucified and forsaken on Golgotha in the greatest suffering anyone has ever experienced, is what gives us a unique view of suffering. This blood gives us an exceedingly great value, no matter what our social, financial or medical status.
What does this look like in real life? It doesn’t mean that we must willingly inflict every ounce of suffering on people. It doesn’t mean that we can never let go when it’s time to make difficult decisions. However, it does mean that the avoidance of suffering—the avoidance of the cross—is not something to be sought for its own sake. It means that we don’t eliminate those who suffer. It means that we have compassion—not false compassion, which seeks the extermination of the weak and hurting—but true, godly compassion. We grieve with the suffering as they’re in pain; we rejoice with them that God’s power is being made perfect among them. We speak the Gospel to them, letting them know that nothing can stand between them and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Our Father, “who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32)—gave Him up to the agony of the cross—will not suffer anything to stand between us and Him. It means, as St. Paul says, we live in the tension of desiring to depart and be with Christ and remaining in the flesh as long as it is necessary (Phil. 1:23-24). That means letting the Lord decide what is necessary. It means living by faith, not by sight, and clinging only to the words of our Lord in times of joy and in times of trial.