Three Kinds of Suffering

The ideas in this essay are very much works-in-progress. I welcome your thoughts and corrections as I wrestle with suffering. Because it is a work in progress, the essay will change over time to reflect the input of others and my own conversions.

There are three kinds of suffering: suffering for bad choices, redemptive suffering, and suffering that is beyond our understanding.

The first kind of suffering happens when we make bad choices. If you stick your hand in the fire, you get burned. If you steal a car, you go to jail. In the Bible, this kind of suffering shows up in places like Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is rigid, orderly, tit-for-tat. Of the three kinds of suffering, this kind makes the most sense to us.

The second kind of suffering is redemptive suffering, or suffering for a higher purpose. People sacrifice themselves for higher purposes all the time. They might suffer so that their families can have a better life, or they might die for a country in military service.

For Christians, the ultimate example of redemptive suffering is displayed on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly suffers so that we might be saved. Christ’s suffering is the reason why I Peter can call his readers to suffer for their faith. This kind of suffering is part of a bigger story. Peter (and also Paul) call us to suffer for Christ, because of “an eternal weight of glory” that is coming. Because in the end all shall be well, we can endure a little suffering now. This suffering still kind of makes sense, because this kind of suffering now is leading to glory later. It is not pointless.

But there is a third kind of suffering, the suffering that defies reason and explanation. It’s possible to suffer for doing something stupid, it’s possible to suffer for following Jesus, but it’s also possible to suffer for no reason at all. There is some suffering that will never make sense in this life. This is the suffering of Job, and some of the lament Psalms. As Job finds out at the end of the book of Job, the reason for this kind of suffering is a mystery. It lies beyond us, in the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. As Job’s friends discovered, if we try to explain this kind of suffering, we make things much, much worse.

Did you notice that all three kinds of suffering are in scripture? That’s because all three kinds of suffering are valid human experiences before God. If you are suffering, God may be calling you to discern, in conversation with pastors, friends, and family, what kind of suffering you are experiencing. But there is always a chance that the reason for your suffering will elude you. If you are a pastor, or in a position of spiritual authority, it is worth remembering that there is more than one kind of suffering. This should increase our compassion, and cause us to pause and listen before we diagnose other people’s problems.

Also, people are complicated. It’s possible that someone is experiencing more than one kind of suffering at the same time. We should never be too quick to tell someone why they are suffering. As sufferers and spiritual caregivers, a posture of humility, patience, and discretion goes a long way toward Christian love.

Nonetheless, as a pastor, if someone explicitly comes to me for counsel about their suffering, I do have to make choices about how best to counsel them, and those choices are heavily dependent on which kind of suffering they are experiencing. So, in a real way, wrestling with this typology has concrete and important consequences for offering spiritual wisdom to people who are suffering.

I think that these three kinds of suffering form a helpful typology for helping people to walk through their suffering with God. But, like any typology, it is reductionistic and overly simplifies the complexity of people.

There is a deep paradox to the cross that cannot be simply explained by human models of redemptive suffering. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is not exactly like someone jumping on a grenade for someone else. It doesn’t have the same simple formula of “I suffer so that you don’t.” If God truly took his own wrath upon himself on the cross, and if God invites us to take up our own crosses and enter into suffering with Christ, then the redemptive suffering of the Christian life is much more mysterious than simply suffering for a higher cause. It is nothing less than an entryway into the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. So the typology breaks down at the foot of the cross. As the earliest readers of the Bible knew, the suffering of Job and the suffering of Jesus are mysteriously, figurally linked. There is a kind of suffering that is beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond God.

And this is why the Psalms of lament are the place for us to go in our suffering. The Psalms remind us that all of our suffering –– whether from stupidity or the cross or for no reason at all –– happens in the presence of a Holy God. Suffering is beyond us, but it is not beyond God. Suffering finds its end in the heart of the Trinity, as the Lamb stands slaughtered before the throne.

By the Holy Spirit we are joined to Christ and enter into the life of God. In this age, our life includes suffering. Even though that suffering sometimes makes no sense, we still follow Christ into the mystery of the holiness of God.

Dante. The Trinity should not be boring.

It’s true. Paradiso is not as interesting as the rest of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Compared to Inferno (and even Purgatorio), Paradiso is a slow, dreary slog. Like Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Inferno is yet another embarrassing example of the curious literary axiom that the wicked make better stories than the pious. For some reason, damnation will always be a hot seller. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable entrance of the Trinity into Paradiso. While it is almost nonexistent in Inferno and Purgatorio, the Trinity is a key “character” in Paradiso. I wonder how differently the three parts of the Divine Comedy would be if the Trinity was allowed a little more economic wiggle room across the three-tiered universe? The vision of the Trinity in Paradiso is so geometric. It is a celestial mobile with everything in its right place, a little too much like the forced symmetry of the Athanasian Creed for my taste. (I know, the creeds aren’t really cooked to taste. I will gulp down the Athanasian Creed, even though it burns a little. But it does seem like Dante poured too many Euclidian axioms into his pot.) I wonder if Paradiso would have a better reputation if we saw something in heaven of the mystery of the cross and the unpredictability of the Spirit?

Speaking of the Spirit, throughout the Divine Comedy the Holy Spirit is almost non-existent. The Spirit’s work is supplanted, replaced largely by the benevolent influence of the stars, the angels, and the saints. And the Holy Spirit is not the only person who is obscured. Throughout the entire work, Jesus Christ’s humanity is downplayed to the point of near invisibility. The Son fills out the Trinity, but the incarnation of that Son occupies a woefully small place in Dante’s cosmology. As a result (and following much late Medieval theology), Mary comes to completely occupy the place of human mediator. When Christ is rarified to a cosmic principle, someone else has to step in to fill the mediating void. Or, as Athanasius put it: “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus didn’t really become human, he didn’t really save humanity.

This elimination of Christ’s human nature shows up in Dante’s religious epistemology, too. If the Word was not fully incarnated, then there is a curious gap between our natural and our supernatural knowledge. For Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice; reason comes before revelation. Then, at the end of the poem, Bernard comes after Beatrice, so that contemplation comes last after revelation. There is a fairly strict order to knowledge: first reason, then revelation, then contemplation. To borrow Hans Boersma’s striking image, in the late scholastic period, the beautiful tapestry of heaven and earth, revelation and reason began to come apart at the seams. The universe was already rivening into Kant’s chasmic bifurcation. Reason happens first, then revelation, and never the two shall meet.

Here, Augustine and Anselm are a good corrective, with their definition of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason doesn’t precede revelation. Revelation precedes reason, and indeed continually sanctifies it. On this, contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley is especially helpful. For Coakley, contemplation is not the end of theology. It punctuates our theological work as the beginning, the middle, and the end. As such, it is an essential practice of theology. Contemplative prayer continually sanctifies our reasoning about the revelation that we have received. I wonder if Coakley’s non-hierarchical model of knowledge is a more integrated and faithful way of receiving the grace of God daily in our acts of knowing.

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At the very end of the Divine Comedy, at the highest heights of heaven, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary that she would “keep [Dante’s] affections pure after so great a vision.” Dante does have room for life after contemplation, but that life is one of precarious purity, not one of emboldened action. Compare St. Bernard’s prayer for pristine preservation with the actions of Jesus coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration. Where Dante tries to keep his elevated contemplative superiority over against his Florentine rivals, Jesus re-enters the active life with vigor, by healing, casting out demons, and hanging out with dirty sinners. And he does all this in the power of the Spirit, a power which, as I mentioned earlier, is ominously lacking in Dante’s work.

Yes, it is also true that the vision of the Trinity at the end of the poem is intensely moving and aesthetically powerful. And it is true that at the end of the poem, all of the saints are gathered around the throne, forming a recap of the history of salvation. But it’s not enough. Where is the economic Trinity? Where is the action of God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world of embodiment and history?

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s sly mashup of the Divine Comedy in Jayber Crow. Berry, ever the modern, refuses to grant Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory their borders, preferring instead to blend them up inside one man’s soul. What if, cautiously following Berry, we let the Trinitarian cat out of the celestial bag and let it play in the theater of the world a little more, even into the depths of our condition? As Sarah Coakley would put it, the Holy Spirit dismantles our vision of God and puts it back together, in a daily process of being joined to Christ and so growing closer and closer to God. This practice of contemplation does not simply withdraw us into interiority. It also thrusts us out anew into passionate engagement with the world. This is the way the Trinity truly crafts our lives, not in a geometric model of the universe, not just within the caverns of our souls, but within the drama of the Triune God.