Living Gospel

Luke Timothy Johnson on Sin, Suffering, and Scripture

This is from an essay in Johnson's book Living Gospel that I am reading for school. This is some heavy and important stuff that enables us to have some hard and crucial conversations about the nature of suffering. Consider what he says:

...It is nevertheless important that those of us sufficiently free from pain at the moment to think at all should think hard and well about suffering, for it falls into one of those fundamental categories which, when we get wrong, we also go wrong. And I think there is a lot of bad thinking in our world today about suffering, which actually adds to people's pain.

I have in mind primarily the contemporary heresy that more or less identifies suffering and evil. This is a dreadful error, first of all because it makes evil a cosmological rather then a moral category, with the unitended consequence that suffering is trivialized and evil is made banal. It also deprives suffering of any positive value. A reality that is actually deeply ambiguous and polyvalent is reduced to something simply negative and is thereby distorted. ...

The easy equation between suffering and evil results in part, I think, from a failure adequately to formulate what we actually mean by suffering. ... Let us think of suffering as the pain of a system in disequillibrium. ...To feel pain, then, requires life. But to be alive means also always to be in disequillibrium, for change is the single constant of mortal life. Therefore all living things suffer as a consequence of existence. ...

...When pain is inflicted on another in order to make the organism sick or damaged, or in order to bruise another's heart, or in order to confuse another's mind, then it is legitimate and even necessary to speak of evil. To cause needless suffering is to do evil. But the evil resides in the intent to do harm, not in the suffering itself, which is a natural function of all living beings.

It is critical to observe, however, that systems also fall into disequillibrium -- and therefore experience pain -- from positive causes. Bodies that grow in size experience pain -- ask gangly adolescents and bodybuilders -- and bodies that give birth experience enormous pain. The cost of physical life itself is suffering. Likewise, a soul that grows in compassion does so through pain. And all learning involves pain, a truth so obvious the ancient Greeks coined the motto, mathein pathein, 'to learn is to suffer'; a contemporary rendering is the one used by athletes, 'no pain, no gain'.

...It is our contemporary culture's tragedy to have lost any sense of suffering as a positive dimension of human existence. ... We consider the equation between evil and suffering so self-evident that we make avoiding suffering the equal of fighting evil. ...

...It is important to note that the New Testament's perspective on suffering -- and therefore also our perspective -- is not shaped by an infusion of a new philosophy, but by a new experience of God in Jesus Christ that enabled human thought to reach a point it had not before. Three aspects of this deserve emphasis. First, we see in Jesus' ministry and, above all, in his death and resurrection, a mode of suffering that is life-giving. Second, in Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit we see the self-revelation of God's own inner life. Third, what we have learned of God in Jesus enables us to think about human suffering in terms of creation rather than simply in terms of destruction.

...He [Jesus] not only experiences what all other humans experience of pain and loss and grief, he reaches out to the pain of others and participates in it.

...We seek to live even as God has shown us God's own life in Christ. We therefore do not avoid suffering as evil, we do narcotize ourselves against pain, we do not seek to hold our lives securely as a system in perfect balance. Rather, we recognize that stress and suffering are not only intrinsic to all life, they are entries into the deepest mysteries of life itself. In the name and in the power of Jesus, we therefore embrace the suffering that comes to us as the opportunity for transfiguration, as the path towards transformation into that self-emptying giving and being fillied again ever more richly that is God's own life.

What do you think? Is it dangerous or even wrong to equate evil and suffering? Is Johnson onto something important here? How might our day-to-day lives and our understanding of God's work in our lives be different if we understood suffering in this way?

Certainly some important things to consider.