The Joy of Suffering

The Gospel is a strange thing sometimes. Often, it challenges our most fundamental conceptions of truth. It forces us to question our basic assumptions about humanity. This is no more clear instance than in the value and valorization of suffering in the scriptures. For example, the Lukan Beatitutes offer a vision of salvation for those who suffer the most in this world. This overall theme is difficult to miss in Jesus’s ministry. The model of discipleship is suffering. Jesus’s instructions to departing missionaries are to take minimal provisions. The culmination of this is in Jesus’s command “If any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23 and par). The suffering of the cross is not imposed by an outside power, but commanded by Jesus himself. Similarly, 1 Peter 2:21-25, 2 Cor 10-12, the list goes on and on.

Our own scriptures contain similar instructions to embrace suffering and pain as the essence of our discipleship. Yes, man is that he he might have joy (2 Ne 2:25), but we also say that we are made partakers of misery and woe (Mos 6:48). What if the misery and woe is the joy? What if the lone and dreary wilderness is the same thing as the Promised Land? We are not commanded to find joy in tithing, fasting, sexual abstinence, etc, but that these things are the joy.

The foundations of humanism are based on the exact opposite assumptions about the nature of the goals for humanity. Humanism was founded on the idea of the height of humanity as a state in which there is no suffering. The individual is autonomous, free from restrictions, and is able to enjoy a certain economic quality of life. Asceticism, submission, obedience, and denial are the vices of humanism. This has been the driving political ideology of the West for the past 300 years. Contemporary Christianity, including Mormonism, often shares this ideology of human potential, but this is often held in tension with the scriptural and historical root of these traditions as fundamentally anti-humanistic. The ideal of human suffering, especially one in which God is pleased by human suffering always lurks in the background, troubling in interesting ways the ability to fully adopt the core ideology of liberalism.

So what is the relationship between the role of suffering in the process of salvation and the humanistic goal of the absence of suffering? Aren’t the vices of humanism the virtues of Christianity, and Mormonism in particular? Our most crucial story of salvation, the NT drama, is one where suffering is essential. Indeed, it is God’s will that his own son suffer. Is God not the author of our suffering? But the human condition is not the only one which suffers. Isn’t the divine condition one which suffers as well (D&C 19 and the weeping God in Moses)?

In the gospel, can suffering really be joy? Is this simply a pre-modern idea, or worse, a tool of power to justify and enforce the suffering of others? If there are good and bad kinds of suffering, how do we tell the difference? Is there something truly important about suffering as constitutive of our subjectivity? Doesn’t Christianity teach us that the humanistic ideal of a subject who is not subjected is simply an illusion?

7 Replies to “The Joy of Suffering”

  1. What if the misery and woe is the joy? What if the lone and dreary wilderness is the same thing as the Promised Land?

    I find the question of value paradox particularly interesting. I believe we can find two (sometimes conflicting) models of how we deal with seemly opposite values: An extirpation model, where we root out anti-value (in this case suffering) and preserve value (the notion of Heavenly Kingdoms where suffering ceases and Satan is gone comes to mind). Secondly a sublimation model where anti-value is subsumed by value (All of these trials are for our own good–D&C 122).

    It’s interesting though to persue the question further by asking in what way is “suffering” “joy”? Usually we would be prone to say that such a phrase doesn’t make sense, but looking at some of the things you suggest (the process of birthing a baby also comes to mind), we see that the same event could be both things at the same time. Do we talk about joy and suffering as two sides to the same coin? That the suffering is simply the means to the joyful ends (this seems to be suggested in D&C 122)? That suffering is just the shallow appearance of a deeper joyful reality (fasting is painful, but once we understand it properly, it becomes a joy)? Can we push it further to say that the two are actually the very same thing?

  2. smallaxe,
    These models are extremely useful! You put the question forward in an interesting way. I am particularly interested in the latter issue, when pleasure and pain, humiliation and exaltation, suffering and joy, bondage and freedom become the same thing, not merely one as the means to achieve the other. These instances strike me as extremely instructive theologically because they help us understand the behavior of religious persons when such behavior seems to go against “secular” values.

  3. <em><i> I am particularly interested in the latter issue, when pleasure and pain, humiliation and exaltation, suffering and joy, bondage and freedom become the same thing, not merely one as the means to achieve the other. These instances strike me as extremely instructive theologically because they help us understand the behavior of religious persons when such behavior seems to go against “secular” values. </i></em>

    There are other religious traditions that have a much longer history of dealing with value paradox. From the little I’ve read, Chinese religions approach these issues in rather sophisticated ways: The Zhuangzi and the Daodejing (Daoist texts) find value in anti-value–the useless gourd is ultimately the most useful, by not doing no act is left undone, etc. Confucianism posits the universal transcendant in the existential individual. Buddhism teaches that the world of illusion is nirvana and vice versa. I think all three approach the elision of value and anti-value you are looking for.
    One reason though, that makes this kind of thinking difficult for us to accept (among others) is the notion of positve good and evil in Mormonism. Good and evil are eternal and transcend this human world. As polar opposites, they cannot be combined. Chinese thinking (from what I hear) lacks this type of dichotomy and as such things like Yin and Yang are opposites, but are also to be found in each other (think of the black dot that appears in the white side of the circle and the white dot that appears in the black side of the circle in the common depiction of Yin and Yang). Good and evil of course become too much of one and/or not enough of the other in a given circumstance.
    The question of religious behavior contrary to secular values, IMO is closely tied to the question of modernization. If there is only one way to be “modern” then the clash between religious behavior and secular values is significant indeed; for it becomes a world-wide issue. If there are multiple ways of being modern (in other words, one could still hold to value paradox and be considered modern), then the clash between religious behavior and secular value is geographically limited to one subsection of the (Western) world; and the other areas of the world could in fact provide resources for negotiating that divide.

  4. Smallaxe,
    These are really important points. If you ever learn more about Chinese religions, I’d love to hear about it. I think that the issue of “multiple modernities” is an interesting one. To a certain extent, the impetus for this post came out of “postmodern” philosophies which challenged traditional Western binary ontologies. The interesting question that remains is how to conceive of the relationship between these pre-modern ideologies to which humanism was reacting, and the post-modern valuation of the pre-modern. What does a post-modern world look like without returning to the pre-modern?

  5. As I read 2 Nephi 2, along with some other mostly LDS scriptures, I think there is a latent affirmation of the value/anti-value paradox smallaxe discussed. I think that our theology gets us away from (if only a little) the notion of sin (or at least “original sin”) as purely negative. (Cf all the language about a “Fall forward“…) I think the notion can be pushed further, to the point that a separation is not merely a “necessary step” on the road to some other destination, but is itself an essential part of our being. We get into trouble when we try to explain the necessity of a fall at the same time we assign it a negative value, or a step with negative results.

    As HP put it once, (in a much more complex way than this), there is no Plan without Sin. If sin is necessary, are we currently looking at it correctly? (One could obviously include “pain” and “suffering” in this category.) I think this is one of the many areas in which other philosophies (such as Chinese religions) have much to teach us, and not just confirm what we already “know” to be “true”…

    Sorry if this is too jumbled or not what you had in mind. But I really like the proposition–it’s made me think (can you smell the smoke?).

    I wonder how this idea is explored from other vantage points…

  6. There is no Plan without Sin. True, but that doesn’t mean that sin is desirable – it just demarcates the territory where true happiness can be found.

    Also, Jesus said, “offenses must come, but woe unto those by whom they come”. Necessary evil, indeed.

    Suffering is purifying – if it produces the right results. When afflicted, we can either blame God and rebel against him and his plan, or we can humbly ask for power to “endure it well”. So suffering helps us decide whom we follow.

  7. Humanism advocates these (mostly) wonderful things, but in the real world runs smack dab into the problem of economics. How is everyone supposed to enjoy a decent standard of living unless there is a very high order of social cooperation (whether religious, free market, socialist, etc).

    Employment is suffering. Taxation is suffering. Tithing is suffering. Raising children is suffering. Government regulation is suffering. In principle, however, all to the greater good, notably less suffering as a whole, and also to lesser extremes.

    Unless one holds to the Santa Claus theory of the Atonement (or of economics, etc…) there doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery at all. In common terms, this is nothing other than the law of the harvest. If you can persuade someone upstairs to repeal the law of conservation of energy, we wouldn’t have this problem. It seems more likely, however, that we have this problem because it was neither enacted nor can be repealed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *