A Christian View of Suffering

“At the heart of Christian belief lies a suffering, crucified God. Yet in recent years some have argued that Christian emphasis upon a suffering Jesus is dangerous, that it gives rise to an ideology that encourages those who suffer oppression simply to accept suffering. There are more things wrong with this argument than I can take up here, but it is not surprising that such arguments should arise in a culture devoted to self-realization. In such a setting, the cross must always be countercultural.

Suffering is not a good thing, not something one ought to seek for oneself or for others. But it is an evil out of which the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus can bring good. We must therefore always be of two minds about suffering. We should try to care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means available to us, for a good end does not justify any and all means.

Unless we are thus of two minds, understanding suffering as an evil that can nonetheless have meaning and purpose, medicine is likely to go awry. It seeks health — but not Health. The doctor is a caregiver, but not, we must remind ourselves, a savior. Ultimately, all of medicine is no more than an attempt to provide care for suffering human beings. That care, however, cannot by itself offer the Health and Wholeness we ultimately need and desire. If we respect the moral limits that ought to bind us, we will not always be able to give people what they desire. We may not be able to give the infertile couple a child, the elderly man an old age free of dependence, the young woman freedom from the child she has conceived, parents the healthy and ‘normal’ child they had wanted, the terminally ill patient a painless death. But we can and should assure them that the story of Jesus is true — that the negative and destructive powers of the universe are not the ultimate powers we worship.

Part of the pain of human life is that we sometimes cannot and at other times ought not do for others what they fervently desire. Believing in the incarnation, that in Jesus God has stood with us as one of us, Christians must try to learn to stand with and beside those who suffer physically and emotionally. But that same understanding of incarnation also teaches us that to make elimination of suffering our highest priority would be to conclude mistakenly that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. We should not act as if we believe that the negative, destructive powers of the universe are finally victorious. Those who worship a crucified and risen Lord cannot give themselves over to such a vision of life.”

~ Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Grand Rapids, Mi.; Eerdmans, 1996), 7-8.


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