Love vs. Suffering

20 Nov

Maybe this is obvious and I’m an idiot for taking 28 years to work this out, or maybe this hasn’t bothered anyone else, or maybe these conclusions are the wrong ones. So, some humble thoughts.

I read back through a bunch of old journals this year, and my overriding impression of myself in my early twenties was that I was a bit of a martyr. I mean, I got that we can’t work ourselves into God’s approval. But when it came to living as a Christian, I felt bad if I didn’t find life hard, because I couldn’t get away from this:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And Paul repeatedly tells all those early Christians:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

Hurray for suffering! says the New Testament. It’s part of the fun of being a Christian!


But most of all, Jesus, Paul and the rest of them talk about how much God loves us; how we can only be saved by love; how we need to accept that love and live a life characterised by love.

It seemed to me like there was a tension between sitting still and happily accepting God’s love, and having to lay down my life, commit myself to the hard way and sign up for suffering. How do those things go together? Maybe I didn’t think very hard about what love is.

When you love someone, you don’t deliberately go looking for suffering like some sort of sadist. But you’ll take it if it comes, for the sake of the one you love. You don’t go looking for pain; it’s just part of love.

You can see that God loves us because he was prepared to go through the most unimaginable suffering for us. But I don’t think he did it just because suffering is a noble thing, or because he had to. It was where love led him, and he was prepared to go there. That’s what makes it beautiful.

When you become a Christian, can you simply sign up for suffering; take up your cross and grit your teeth?

What about Peter? He thought he could do that:

“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

But when the time came for him to take up his cross (literally), he ran away. Willpower, determination, bravado and dedication to a cause got him nowhere. When Jesus talks to him later, he never asks him if he’s now willing to go to death. He never tells him off for breaking the suffering contract and doesn’t ask him to try a bit harder next time. He asks him one thing, three times:

“Do you love me?”

Peter admits it; realises it. He does love Jesus. And for Peter, it’s humble love that led him to a cross in the end. Not bravado. That day he stopped going looking for trouble, but, fuelled by love, he took it when it came the next time.

You’d have to be a nutcase to consider it “pure joy” to suffer for a philosophy or theory. People would make appointments with psychiatrists. But nobody thinks it’s nuts to wade through suffering for your family; to rescue your kids from a burning building; to donate a kidney to your brother; to do your back in carrying your girlfriend home for a mile because she lost her shoes in the rain. There’s something about those things that’s strangely satisfying… that feels a little bit like joy.

Perhaps I learnt this about Christian suffering: It’s not about going looking for trouble. Love and be loved, and when it finds you, you’ll be able to smile at it.


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