Faith: Our Response to Suffering
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 8:27-38
I’m going to make a sweeping statement. And there might be some meaningful qualifiers we can make. There might be some exceptions. But, you know, I’m going to stand by it. Here it is: When it comes to having faith, when it comes to turning to religion, when it comes to asking any question about the meaning of life at all, we’re usually talking about suffering.
Suffering inspires the big questions. “Why did this have to happen?” “Did I do something to deserve this?” Or it causes us to make, well, sweeping statements to give us a little certainty to stand on. “It was fate.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God needed another angel.”
With all the coverage of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I was at my first job out of college on September 11, 2001. Working as an editor in Norwalk, Connecticut, about 50 miles northeast of the World Trade Center. I had a coworker whose husband worked in 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed later in the day after the two towers went down. Another coworker whose wife was trapped in Manhattan after they closed the bridges and tunnels. A supervisor whose husband was a New York City firefighter. They all made it home safely, thank God.
But I remember the images of that day. Images I won’t describe because, honestly, they still haunt me. They still terrify me. I used to feel bad, guilty maybe, or embarrassed, that I felt so much about that day. No one I knew died. It wasn’t my tragedy, I thought. But it was. It was a tragedy for all of us. It was traumatizing for everyone who saw what happened, whether in person or on the news. In the United States and around the world.
There was the acute suffering of those who lost loved ones, and there was the shared suffering of everyone who suddenly felt less safe. How could people do such a thing? It didn’t make sense.
We created certainty that day by naming an enemy. Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden. We attacked the group who gave him shelter. The Taliban. Which meant that we attacked the country of Afghanistan. Starting a 20-year war. And we now know how that ended.
That’s what we do in times of suffering. We try to explain it. Try to make it make sense. Try to make the problem simple so that there’s a simple solution. Try to find some semblance of certainty so that we can feel safe again.
That’s what Peter did when Jesus told the disciples that he would suffer. That he would die. “Oh no, that can’t possibly be right,” he said.
Because Peter had just named Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus basically confirms it. Basically. “Okay, but don’t tell anyone,” he says. And that probably made Peter feel pretty good. Because I imagine he had the prophecy from Isaiah on his mind:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Maybe in Peter’s mind, he saw Jesus—his friend, his teacher—taking over. Defeating the Romans, reestablishing the throne of David, and ruling with strength and wisdom and power. Maybe when he saw Jesus as Messiah, he saw revolution. Uprising. The end of Jewish oppression. A simple solution.
So when Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering and die, when he says this immediately after confirming that he is indeed the Messiah, Peter is a bit confused.
And what does Jesus say when Peter questions him, when he rebukes the notion that Jesus must suffer? “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus says very plainly, sometimes we must suffer in order to live our values, to live our faith, to follow God’s call for us.
We Christians tend to go to two different extremes when it comes to suffering: we either avoid it at all costs, as Peter was suggesting Jesus should do. We shouldn’t suffer! We should dominate and take power so that we don’t have to suffer! Save our own life, gain the whole world.
Or we valorize suffering, which is to say, their suffering has made them stronger, therefore the suffering is valid. Which is how we often interpret the cross. Jesus suffered, therefore suffering is good and we should imitate his suffering. The first few centuries of Christianity were filled with people who actively sought out martyrdom for this reason.
We also do this when we celebrate the suffering because of poverty, disability, or oppression. “They’re so brave,” we might say, as if there’s nothing anyone can do to alleviate their suffering. As if the suffering itself is proof of some sort of divine favor. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and look how much they’re handling. They must be so faithful.”
But suffering isn’t a sign of God’s favor, nor is it something we should try to avoid at all costs. Either approach is just our way of bringing false certainty to something we can’t understand.
Because suffering just exists. Whether by tornado or hurricane or earthquake, or by sin or evil, suffering exists. I don’t know why. I could speculate theologically about it—about how choice and change are fundamental to our existence, about how the very agency that gives our lives meaning is also what causes us to sin and suffer. That’s kind of what the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the fruit is all about.
But the plain answer is: I don’t know. No one knows why suffering exists.
What I do know is that God does not send suffering upon us. I don’t even think that God sent Jesus here to suffer, despite Paul’s interpretation. When 9/11 happened, I think God was devastated alongside us—devastated by the sin, by the violence, by the death of that day. I think God saw our fear and our tears, and I think God was afraid with us, wept with us.
Because it is more important for me to know and believe that God is love than it is to understand why suffering exists. I’m going to say that again: It is more important for me to know and believe that God is love than it is to understand why suffering exists.
And honestly, I think understanding why suffering exists is beside the point. Because it just exists. It’s here. It’s part of our lives. That’s what I think Jesus means when he says he must suffer. How could he not. And given his path, his call, he knew his suffering was going to be greater than most.
Suffering exists. But what is important to us, what is important to our faith, is how we respond to suffering. How we work to alleviate suffering.
That was Jesus’ entire purpose. While he walked this earth, all he did was alleviate suffering: by feeding people, healing people, casting out demons, and, yes, by standing up to the Roman governor on behalf of oppressed people, on behalf of his faith. In the face of the greatest suffering, he chose to take it on so that others may not have to carry it.
Our call is not to look for suffering to take on, like martyrs, nor to avoid it completely, but to be willing to do what it takes to alleviate the suffering of others. On 9/11, firefighters and police and EMTs rushed into those towers, into the Pentagon, as they burned, willing to take suffering onto themselves to alleviate the suffering of others. Willing to take up that cross, willing even to lose their life.
But it’s not always so dramatic. In fact, it’s rarely so dramatic. Sometimes it’s a matter of just noticing how we’re going out of our way to avoid suffering—and who that then moves the suffering onto.
It’s about how we tip our waiter. How we treat the cashier at Target. How we notice someone is upset and stop to ask them how they are. How we see someone being mistreated in public and step in.
It’s about how we show up for those in our community. How we listen to them, really listen, and believe them when they tell us how they’re suffering—even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s about understanding what we might need to give up so that others can thrive.
And it’s also about not holding on needlessly to your own suffering. You deserve to have what you need. You deserve to thrive. It’s a balance.
I think we know the difference between taking up our cross for the sake of the gospel, and simply carrying a heavy piece of wood on our backs. Just as we understand the difference between having enough to thrive, and hoarding more than we need.
Suffering itself isn’t redemptive. Nor is suffering some sort of divine retribution. God doesn’t balance the scales by hurting us.
Whatever it is, for whatever reason it happens, suffering isn’t what gives our lives meaning. But how we respond to suffering, well—that’s where we find Jesus. That’s where we find the heart of our faith.