by Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands” —bell hooks
On a recent television program my family was watching, the show’s hero, who had helped a woman out of an abusive relationship, was attacked by the woman’s violent, spurned-partner. The attack was so brutal and gratuitous that I remarked to my spouse that many of the recent shows and movies we’ve been viewing allowed their heroes to undergo severe, debilitating violence before their inevitable victory. Do the writers believe overwhelming suffering makes victory sweeter? Is there something noble or heroic about suffering?
Every season of Lent, when I am preparing for the Holy Week liturgies and observances, I must confront the suffering of Jesus. In doing so, I also become increasingly sensitive to the news about suffering. Everywhere I turn, I see headlines and hear stories about people enduring unspeakable pain, violence, and suffering caused by nature or human hands. And I must prepare myself for the inevitable tendency to extrapolate from Jesus’ redemptive suffering that all suffering is redemptive, which is borne out by how people generally view suffering. A Pew Research Center poll from last year found that 68% of U.S. adults believe “everything in life happens for a reason,” and more than half (61%) believe that “suffering exists ‘to provide an opportunity for people to come out stronger.’” We know that people cope with suffering by intentional meaning-making to understand and explain the experience and regain some sense of orderliness in their world. I have benefitted personally from the testimonies of growth, overcoming, and deeper discipleship because of suffering.
I understand the desire for suffering to mean something, to see the ugliness and violence we experience transfigured in such a way that we can testify that it will always turn out alright. However, I worry that people misinterpret the Apostle Paul’s claim that he rejoices in his afflictions because suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope as an invitation to suffer (Rom 5:3-4). And unfortunately, overcoming violence, oppression, and discrimination is sometimes used as evidence that suffering is always redemptive or that there is no longer a need to hold anyone to account for it. In the effort to make suffering noble, we may inadvertently expect it, pursue it, or adjust ourselves to it. The social critic bell hooks invites us to be honest about the wounds of our suffering. But she also invites us to take control in reconstructing our lives in response to it. As we continue our journey to wholeness during this season of Lent, I pray that, even as we accept the inevitability of suffering, we remember that God does not require it, and we do not deserve it. Amen.