In one sense, for an individual living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world to interpret the experience of suffering is absurd. Though suffering is a universal experience, its magnitude varies vastly. One need pay only trivial attention to world news to be aware that suffering at a magnitude beyond our comprehension is commonplace. Thus, for someone who has experienced so little of suffering to dare seek to interpret it smacks of arrogance and folly.
In another sense, to interpret the experience of suffering within the context of a “language” that has something positive to communicate could appear to be nothing short of a disgrace. Suffering hurts. One of the most powerful imperatives of human progress is to find ways of avoiding suffering. Consider the drives to master agriculture, architecture, medicine and economic growth. Is not the avoidance of suffering the primary driving force behind the massive, sustained effort that cultures have invested in these pursuits?
Thus, one is tempted to view suffering as a totally negative experience. In this case the only legitimate attitude towards it is scorn and the only moral response is to banish it from human experience. And these responses are correct, expressing the best of human goodness if they are applied universally as opposed to as a zero-sum game in which we seek the reduction of our own individual or group suffering at the expense of increased suffering to others.
And yet, there are reasons to consider suffering in a different light than all of these considerations would lead us to conclude. For example, suffering has sometimes proved to be a crucible experience, leading to insight and character growth that has changed both individual lives and entire civilizations for the better. Seeking to understand the dynamic by which that which is so bad can lead to results that are good is clearly a legitimate pursuit.
But ultimately, the concept of suffering as a potentially positive experience must be investigated because it is at the very center of Christianity. Try as we do to avert our eyes, suffering stares down at us from the tree upon which our Savior was transfixed. It calls out to us from the fall, from the experience of patriarch and matriarch, prophet, apostle and disciple. Thus, its presence permeates both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. And so, we are compelled to seek out its meaning and purpose.
We must do so with humility. We may have suffered so little that we cannot plumb its true depths. And yet, if suffering is a language through which God chooses to communicate then we must try to better understand. Let’s do so at whatever level of suffering we have experienced, seeking to better know Him who loves us.