The idea of suffering is an important part of the Christian faith. While it is often times underemphasized and treated as an evil in modern Western society that values fulfillment and pleasure, it plays an important role in the New Testament and the development of the faith throughout the centuries. As Jesus and His followers were inevitably at odds with and deviating from the socio-political culture in which they inhabited, the persecution, the exclusion, and the daily reminders that the world was not as they believed it should be made faithfulness as a Christian necessarily entail suffering. To be at odds with the world one inhabits and to be reminded of it by the way people treated them would make suffering not just a possibility, but a necessary reality if one wishes to embody God’s character in imitation of the Messiah’s suffering love and faithfulness. As such, the Apostle Paul takes up the theme of suffering, both by direct reference and through reference to the cross, including in multiple places in Romans such as 5:3 and 8:17-39.1
However, in our modern psychological world that analyze people based upon interiority rather than their relationship to the world, we tend to treat suffering based upon its emotional state and we do not readily distinguish between different types of suffering. We are apt to analyze all suffering as fundamentally similar because of the similar emotional experience that occurs when people are going through long-term anguish. Furthermore, in a society that highly values empathy and acting on behalf of victims, the idea of suffering is often times blurred by people who feel the need to save people from suffering and by people who exploit such appearances for ulterior gain. Our ideas of suffering are too interiorized, empathized, and victimizing to appreciate what suffering is.
Having been a person who has experienced a lot of suffering in my life (picked on relentlessly and excluded in grade school, the loss of my brother by his own hand and seeing his dead body, being sexualized and objectified, having had my future curtailed, and struggling through extreme levels of lingering stress), I unfortunately feel like somewhat of an expert on the subject. MY psychological background has given me the ground to analyze. AS such, what I offer here is an analysis of this experience that I saw in my myself and what I observed and inferred from others that attempts to assess and analyze the nature of suffering, dispel false ideas, and give a nuanced understanding so that those that suffer can work through it and those that love someone who is experiencing suffering can comprehend it. I am not formally trained as a psychologist nor am I a physician, so do not treat this as a precise clinical description of psychological suffering nor is this about suffering primarily rooted in physiology/the body.2
If I could define suffering, I would call it a prolonged battled with pain that does not readily abate. While we may be apt to talk about suffering when something bad happens, I would caution against this usage as it diminishes the true nature of suffering by treating as grief, victimization, etc. Suffering may entail grief, victimization, etc., but suffering is about a prolonged battle over psychological pain. This pain is further defined by the feelings about where our life currently is far from what we wish it would be; psychological pain at the core is a dissonance between what we think is real and our values. So, bringing this together, I would define suffering more specifically as a prolonged struggle of feeling life is far from what we wish and hope for it to be.
As such, suffering is not about mental disorder, such as depression. While depressed and other mental impairments people may suffering and suffering may lead to such mental struggles, these are not the same. Suffering may be caused and the effect of mental disorder, but suffering is neither wholly explained by nor wholly explains mental disorders, particularly depression.
Furthermore, suffering is not about victimization; while victims of injustice often suffering, not all victims experience such a prolonged bouts of pain. In addition, sometimes there is suffering that is brought about by the consequences of our own bad actions where we are not the victims but the perpetrators. Pain and its prolonged experience is not automatically someone else’s fault, but nor is it automatically the sufferer’s fault either.
Also, suffering is not experiencing an event of distress or loss and the immediate, natural feelings from such loss. Losing a significant other, not getting into the school you hoped for, losing one’s job, feeling wrongly treated, mourning the loss of a family member, etc. all can evoke deep pain, but this pain is natural and will abate when everything within us and the world is close to as it should be. Suffering happens because something within ourselves and the world holds us back from going through the natural process of pain and loss. So, suffering is not merely unfairness, injustice, loss, etc. Typically speaking, the emotional pain, grief, fear, and anger people experience are psychological processes that changes something about the way we think, feel, actions, and relationships in the short term and the long term; when this emotional process allows us to adjust to the circumstances we live in or adequately adjust our circumstances, we experience change in such feeling, thinking, action and relationships where we no longer experience the strong, dissonant disharmony of what we believe to be true and what we wish were true. In other words, most of the time, the negative feelings of life events allow things to change so that we don’t experience this prolonged psychological pain that is suffering.
So, I would say more specifically that suffering is the result of the natural adjustments our emotions lead to us to do in changing ourselves and our context that does not accomplish the purpose of bringing together what we believe to be true and what we wish to be true. Maybe a victim of a rape remains in persistent fear of their rapist and never transitions to feeling anger and finding responsible people to help address the violence and violation done to her/him; or maybe they do transition to anger and never find someone to help. Maybe a person whose spouse passes away never learns to let go on that relationship and their dependence on that person, or maybe there is no one available or the lack of resources at hand to help one to transition. A person caught in serious moral violation may never fully accept their fault and let go of what they lost and will persist in believing they were unjustly treated and therefore experiencing prolonged suffering. The causes of suffering are diverse and various, but at the end, it is because our belief about what is true or our believe of what should be true do not adjust accordingly.
Given the various causes of the dissonant disharmony of suffering, one can speak of suffering coming in different forms. Each of these forms of suffering entail a certain way we relate to the world and context around us, and as such, each form has a particular response one can take to overcome such suffering in a moral and beneficial way (There are always multiple ways of addressing our circumstances, but there are often fewer choices when we consider the impact our actions have on others and ourselves). This will be the topic of my next post. My ultimate goal in that will be to give a more nuanced view on suffering that can help sufferers, help helpers of sufferings, while understanding it in such a way that accords to the moral world of the New Testament and clarifying what type of suffering is Christian suffering and what types of suffering are not.