smile while you're bleedin'

When I was a kid I heard a lot about "suffering with Christ."

It's something they harp on when you grow up in Christianeseland, and even though you sometimes suspect it's all about getting you to shut up and stop whining about your undoubtedly-expensive toothache, you bury that sentiment under a load of guilt because, well, you don't want to get lightning-bolted. It's sort of the Christian version of Stoicism.

It also has a fair bit of support from the Bible - mostly the parts after Jesus died, un-died, then re-sort-of-died. Back in the parts of the Bible we call the "Old Testament," the writers had no compunction at all about expressing exactly how they felt about suffering - which was that they were completely against it. David, the once-King of Israel and (apparently) a man after God's own heart, wrote lengthy poems of protest in which he raged against God for making him suffer while other, less virtuous people strolled through rose gardens, sipping margaritas.

After Jesus, though, when Christians got invented and then dipped in hot pitch and burned to death for the Emperor's amusement (true story), they started to say things about suffering that seemed, well... weird. In Romans 5:3, for example, the author talks about how "we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope." The message seems to be, "suck it up, Princess, suffering is good for you."

I recently heard a guy speaking on this subject, and he was making the argument that when things got to be going too well in life, he'd pray for suffering so he could get closer to God. Which is a fatalist, depressing, and (let's face it) weird way of looking at the world.

It reminds me of a time when I was out tree planting and I was waiting in the food line at the mess tent with the owner of the company and I said to him, "you know, sometimes things just get going too nice: the land is great, the tree prices are great, my friends are great - even the weather is great. And when that happens," I said, "I start to worry about something bad sneaking up on me and I think, NO, I'm not gonna let that happen! So whenever things get too good I throw my hand up high in the air [at this point, I raised my hand high in the air], and I punch myself in the balls!"

I guess I was operating under the theory that self-preservation will keep you from hitting yourself hard enough to make it hurt (I was wrong), and although in that case I was just thinking I could get a laugh (I was right), I think the principle is still the same.

So, when this speaker started to talk about praying for bad things to happen to you, I cornered him later and explained as tactfully as I could that I thought the Bible was saying something completely different. The way I see it, all that talk of suffering being a good thing comes from the shift in perspective that Jesus brought. By getting down and dirty with us in our suffering, Jesus was showing us a picture of what true love really is. He was saying that if you really want to love, you have to be willing to suffer with those who suffer. To grieve with those who grieve, to (Republican-Party-2009-be-danged) empathize with other people.

You don't have to pray for suffering to come to you - it's already here, all around you. All you have to do is step outside your own tiny world and start being aware that everyone is fighting a very difficult battle. All that talk of the joys of suffering isn't a rallying cry for the "New Christian S&M Movement" - rather, it is an invitation to dig down deep into the mire of the world and, by loving, to lift our fellow humanity above it.


  1. Thanks, Josh. I needed to hear that. I'm all for asking God to bring us closer to Him but I've always been weirded out by the 'I'm going to pray for bad things to happen to you so that you can lean on God more'perspective.


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