Suffering and explanations

Standing with St John and the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross, Christianity has been willing to look upon suffering with an unflinching eye. When we begin to flinch (or sometimes worse, to explain), we turn from the path set for us by the crucified Lord. In the course of recent discussions, I’ve heard some responses to suffering which may be worth contemplation.

First, in both evangelical/Pentecostal and New Age contexts, I’ve noted strong influence from New Thought traditions. This influence shows up in a response to suffering with the direction (or the implication) that the sufferer is somehow responsible, and should change his thinking, do his affirmations, or, in a more traditionally pious vein, pray more effectively or accept God’s healing more wholeheartedly. I think New Thought (a generic term for Religious Science, Divine Science, Christian Science, Unity, and similar groups) has gifts to offer to the larger Christian tradition. However, I believe Dion Fortune was wise in her remarks (coming from a Christian Science childhood): The mind has powers which we hardly suspect, and it is a fine thing to explore them within the moral and spiritual commitments of religion, but it is not so fine a thing to make a religion of the mind, as if it is all that is.

The opposite of “you caused it yourself” is “God is doing it to you.” This perspective on suffering often arises in traditional/orthodox settings, in which a sufferer is told that God is purifying her, or that she is making reparation for sins (her own or the world’s). We all know persons who have met suffering with a grace which transforms them and radiates outward, but we can easily think of others who have been plainly and simply broken by the pain which has come their way. I am shocked by the facile willingness to imply that the latter have failed to see and respond to the hand of God.

A third version, common among esotericists, is to see one’s difficulties as caused by another, i.e., a magical attack by another person or some other sort of being. Far be it from me to deny that we can impact others, and be impacted by them, in subtle ways, intentional or not. However, how much power do we really ascribe to such? Where is our trust in Christ?

If one is suffering, one might choose to explore these perspectives (among others) to see if they have any wisdom to offer in one’s particular situation. Maybe yes, maybe no. However, it seems to me that we need to exercise great humility and reserve in applying these explanations to the pain and distress of other people. We are called to love our sisters and brothers, not to explain them. Sometimes, all we can see is a bloody cross and all we can do is faithfully stand alongside, leaving the rest to God.

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