More than any other time, the season of Lent raises for us the question of suffering. Indeed, the great advantage of Christianity over competing faiths is its technology for rendering suffering meaningful. Beginning with the book of Genesis, divine revelation seems to me less an answer to speculations such as, “Where did the world come from?” (the Greek myths’ “just so” stories were equally satisfying) than to the vexing question: “Why do bad things happen to good people — especially to me?”
Genesis answers this neatly by explaining that none of us is quite as good as we think, that we’re flawed copies of a rogue prototype who lost us the right to paradise. Some people find it troubling that the tale of Adam in Eden in some ways mirrors pagan accounts of a Golden Age, equally free of suffering — as if that proved the Jewish revelation carried no more authority than those. Instead of worrying over this, I’d like to ask a deeper question: If we weren’t created for something better than the perilous life we face, where on earth would man have gotten that idea? None of the animals dwell in safety, live forever, or enjoy perfect abundance. No aspect of existence in a planet governed by entropy, with nature red in tooth and claw, would suggest that things had ever been any different. Imagine if, instead of a widely disseminated belief that man had once dwelt in happy excellence and perfection, we found instead that culture after culture had independently come up with quite another idea — let’s say that we once were like dolphins, living under the sea. If anthropologists kept coming across such a notion, wouldn’t it give biologists something at least to think about?
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While we have no direct evidence that paradise ever existed, we do have daily reminders of the reality of the Fall. A few minutes spent surfing the Internet will prove to the bleakest, most dogged optimist that, however man was originally programmed, a pretty serious virus has worked its way into the code. I challenge the most intrepid evolutionary biologist to find the “survival value” of the instinct that drives fertile men to obsess over pictures of lesbians kissing. And what aspect of natural selection is served by dressing one’s mate up as a show pony? I really could go on all day, and prove my point with links, but this is a family site . . .
While subsequent narratives (Noah’s and Abraham’s) show a cause-and-effect connection between serving God and receiving an earthly reward, the Book of Job backtracks a little — warning us not to see in every trial the shadow of punishment. That profoundly unsatisfying book of the Bible, which seems to conclude with, “‘Shut up,’ God explained,” reminds happy people whose lives are going well not to jump to conclusions that those who suffer must somehow deserve it. This point Christ would make explicitly, noting that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). If Job’s story were the Bible’s last word on the suffering of the innocent, the God we contemplate would indeed be as inscrutable as Islam’s Allah. But, of course, the story goes on, and prophetic predictions of a saving, “suffering servant” come true in the person of Christ — who echoes the pains of Abel, and all the innocents ever to perish throughout the ages.
The story of Jesus’ passion is not a tragedy from which we can all learn valuable lessons, or a cautionary tale for aspiring founders of religions. (And from this we learn: snazzier miracles, less puzzling parables, and for God’s sake don’t mess with divorce.) Too many film adaptations present Christ’s life as the career of a noble moral reformer, with piercing blue eyes and a stoner’s blank affect, needlessly cut short by intolerance. But if this were true, then Peter would have been right to draw his sword, and Christ would not have rebuked him. He would have beat a hasty retreat from Jerusalem, as Mohammed fled Mecca, and Mormon founder Joseph Smith fled the mob in Carthage, Illinois, that shot him to death. Instead of “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” we might remember as the last words of Christ the stirring, “Feets don’t fail me now!”
We aren’t to draw from Jesus’ story the lesson to seek out martyrdom — though some saints made that mistake, like the girlish Teresa of Avila, for whom God had other plans. We do not fetishize suffering, or consider it good in itself. If we did, the Church would be betraying her worldwide mission by running hospitals, schools, and pregnancy centers all aimed at alleviating human misery; she could save herself all the trouble by leaving folks to their fates and advising them, “Offer it up!” Indeed, if suffering were in itself redemptive, we could sanctify souls by purposely inflicting it. I made this point imprudently to my students, and for the next few days the guys were walking around, punching each other in the arm and saying with a smile, “Offer it up!”
No, the proper Christian attitude toward suffering is that it is evil, the fruit of the fall, almost the worst thing in the world — except for sin. The only reason on earth to embrace suffering is to avoid committing a sin, or to atone for one. Christ Himself didn’t rush to the cross like a suicide bomber, but pleaded with His father to let the cup pass from His lips. Only because there was no other way to atone for men’s sins did He bravely, and with a fortitude we cannot fathom, carry the cross.
We can gain such fortitude for our own daily trudge by interrupting our self-pity sessions to think about the passion. By uniting our own sufferings to Christ’s, and offering them in reparation for sin, we gain an astonishing cosmic power — to turn the useless, toxic substance that is suffering into the balm that heals the soul. So it turns out that the essence of Christianity is its technology for recycling. Who knew?