A Scholar, a Saint, and a Nihilist Discuss Suffering

… and they all say the same thing: that suffering draws out all of the best qualities in human persons.

We live in a culture that rejects suffering, and our politics are driven by self-victimization; whoever touts their injuries and makes a compelling case that they have gone through some hardship or oppression is entitled to a special status, often at the expense of others in society. Science and psychology are devoted to the elimination of all discomfort, all shame, all difficulty, anything that may pose a challenge to a comfortable, self-satisfied lifestyle. We love our wounds and we are like children who wish to show off our scrapes to whoever will notice.

At such a strange time in history, I thought it would be interesting to take note of what these three men said at different times about the trials and pains of life.

1. The most familiar:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

In 1940 C.S. Lewis penned his famous response to “the problem of pain,” the challenge to God’s existence which argued that the presence of suffering and hardship in the world ruled out the possibility of a loving, providential God. In Lewis’ explanation, pain is a testament to God’s mercy insofar as it works as a wakeup call to come back to Him which is impossible to ignore. For Lewis there was no escape from suffering in life, but there could be healing in the realization that pain is a mysterious gift from a loving Father who challenges us to become the best that we can be.

2. The most shocking:
“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering–do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it–has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1886, 80 years before Lewis grappled with the growing secularization in the modern world, Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated the havoc in the human soul that would follow from the “death of God.” Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not a militant atheist who rejoiced that “God is dead;” although he was not himself a believer, for Nietzsche the death of God was a great misfortune for mankind, whom he understood to have inherent spiritual longings by nature. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche explains that religion is necessary to human flourishing since it causes men and women to strive for greatness; part of that striving includes the acceptance of pain and suffering as a means by which one grows in strength. For Nietzsche suffering was the ultimate educator with the power to lead mankind toward beauty and nobility. Nietzsche realized that no great civilization was built by a people attached to comfort and unwilling to suffer.

3. The most beautiful:

“Such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us in our gross human stupidity misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.”

In 1535 Sir Thomas More joked his way up the executioner’s block when he was sentenced to death for refusing to speak in favor of Henry VIII’s divorce against his conscience. His famed good humor followed him to the most difficult and frightening moment of his life. Written just weeks before his death, this remark about suffering from The Sadness of Christ sounds similar to Lewis’ argument that pain is the way that God calls to us; More delves deep into the human psychology of pain when he explains that humans imagine suffering to be injurious when in reality, as Nietzsche and Lewis realized, suffering can work for the good of humanity. In this passage, suffering has the power to rouse a drowsy soul from its sleepy, unreflective state, immersed in destructive or lazy habits. It is a reminder of the presence of God that keeps a soul on course and prevents it from drifting aimlessly. In More’s estimation, suffering is a privilege that we ought not only to welcome, but to pray for.

One of the greatest marvels of human persons is our ability to bear and even thrive under difficult circumstances, the ability to live well when things around us are not going well. Strength is interior – it does not depend upon the perfect alignment of social, political, material or other circumstances. What these three men each realized is that when these external circumstances fall into disarray and one feels attacked on all sides, it presents an opportunity for the strongest and noblest interior qualities to emerge.

And just as an added bonus:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”

– Aeschylus, Oresteia, 458 B.C.

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