Site icon Jake Owensby

Why Do We Suffer?

Like lots of adolescent boys, I dreamed alternately of being an Olympic athlete or a rock star. I imagined leaning into the tape at the finish line or laying down riffs in a packed auditorium.

Not a single one of these fantasies included hours upon hours of grueling, repetitive workouts on the track and at the gym. Images of sitting alone with my guitar practicing scales until my fingers bled never even occurred to me.

Obviously, no Olympic team sought me out. And Bruce Springsteen I’m not. Even if I had possessed the raw talent to run the 100 meters at an international level or to cut records for a major label, one thing was missing. Or should I say, 10,000 things were missing.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that to master an art or a craft takes 10,000 hours of practice. If you want to take on Usain Bolt in Tokyo, then you’ll be spending the equivalent of about 420 uninterrupted, sleepless days worth of pounding the track and pumping iron.

And to accumulate those 10,000 hours, you’ll probably miss Spring Break trips to the beach with your buddies, midnight movie premiers, and spontaneous road trips.

We hear all the time that we should pursue our dreams, as if the dream itself will motivate us. But as Mark Manson points out, a dream becomes a genuinely motivating force in our lives when we commit to the sacrifices involved in realizing that dream.

Well, actually, Manson’s word is more jarring than that. He says “suffering.” The question that clarifies life is this:

For what dream are you willing to suffer?

Manson is not a Christian. Nevertheless, his perspective helps us understand the suffering of Jesus and the meaning of suffering in our own lives as followers of Christ. And what he says contrasts sharply with what many of us take to be common sense.

We are a pain-avoidant culture. Set aside the staggering increase in opioid addiction. Just consider the number of shelves at your local pharmacy or grocery stuffed with Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, and the like. “Suffering,” the OTC aisle suggests, “is for losers.”

Our aversion to suffering has infected Christianity. A host of smiling, successful preachers insist that our faith will summon not only material wealth but also bodily health down from the heavens. Believe and feel the lumbago vanish. Now this is a peculiar message from a faith tradition whose defining symbol is a cross.

As Manson points out, suffering is a part of life. You can try to avoid it all you like. Plenty of people do. But suffer we will.

Ironically, some of the people who pursue a pain-free existence most obsessively end up suffering most tragically. Addicts and alcoholics initially find escape from the sorrows and hardships of this life in their substance of choice. Eventually, the compulsion for the next fix or drink can cost them family, career, friends, and health of body and mind.

We will suffer. However, our suffering can make life deeply meaningful. We can choose. We can choose what dream we are willing to suffer for. As a part of that process, we set aside dreams for which we are unwilling to suffer.

That’s what Jesus was doing in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness. (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Turn these stones into a bag of nice hot bagels,” Satan says. Jesus declines. Filling your own belly is good. It relieves your physical discomfort. But it won’t add significance to the wounds and sorrows that litter even the most charmed life.

“Toss yourself from the steeple. If you’re as holy as you think you are, God will catch you before you hit the pavement.” Again, Jesus declines. A life shaped by spiritual disciplines is a good thing. But trying to impress others—even God—with how regularly and fervently you pray misses the point. Suffering just to prove how holy you are doesn’t sound, well, all that holy.

“Okay,” Satan says, “how about political power and military muscle then? You can whip the world into shape. Make everybody follow the right kind of values.” Jesus is blunt this time. A life devoted to making others suffer for the sake of control has nothing to do with God. On the contrary, in Jesus God comes to us to redeem all suffering.

And with this final temptation, Jesus arrives at his moment of clarity:

Jesus commits himself to suffer for the healing of the world. He does whatever it takes to make the world whole.

He feeds the hungry and mends the sick and restores lunatics to sanity. He breaks bread with street walkers and extortionists, drug addicts and con artists. By costly example he teaches us to forgive the unrepentant, to resist the violent with compassionate truth, and to give the thief who steals your shoes the shirt off your own back.

The religious establishment branded Jesus a troublemaker and a heretic. The political powers killed him. By raising him from the dead, God said that this kind of suffering is setting things right.

We will suffer, we frail and fragile mortals. And we can do more than merely endure senseless misery. Jesus challenges us to choose his dream. To suffer for the healing of the world. To take up the cross and follow him. To follow him through suffering to life eternal.

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