Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Suffering and Redemption

Continuing with The Wild Reed's 2014 Holy Week series, I share today a third excerpt from John Neafsey's book A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Justice. (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

As with all the excerpts from Neafsey's book shared so far in this series, this third one focuses on suffering, a key theme in the Gospel narratives of Jesus' final days and a reality which, to some degree or another, we all experience in our lives.

Suffering does not always have a redemptive outcome. Painful life experiences have the potential to deepen and mature us, to make us wiser and more compassionate, but this is not always how things work out. Pain can also make us numb or bitter or self-absorbed. It can make us so preoccupied with our own discomfort that we have little energy or interest left over for anyone or anything beyond ourselves. Suffering can soften the heart – or it can turn it to stone. And so we should be careful not to romanticize or spiritualize suffering too much, to assume that it will inevitably have ennobling or transformative effects upon consciousness or character.

One factor that determines whether suffering will have a redemptive outcome is our attitude toward it. "Suffering by itself is no cure," says author John Sanford, "it only cures us when we have the right attitude toward it." From this vantage point, the issue is not the particular form the troubles takes (e.g., illness, injury, depression, poverty, persecution) or even the degree of pain associated with it. Rather, what makes the difference is how we look at the difficulties life sends our way. How we see our problems has a profound impact upon how they are experienced, including the degree to which they are felt to be either meaningful opportunities for growth or meaningless obstacles that are better avoided.

The "right" attitude enables us to discern meaning in our sufferings. Meaning is what makes it possible for us to make spiritual sense of what otherwise seems senseless, to bear what would otherwise be unbearable. According to Victor Frankl, whether suffering becomes an occasion for spiritual triumph or defeat depends entirely on our capacity to discover a meaning or purpose in it. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who wrote of his personal experiences of extreme suffering in the Nazi concentration camps in the class Man's Search for Meaning, emphasized the human capacity to choose our attitude toward suffering regardless of external circumstances. "Everything can be taken away but one thing, " he wrote, "the last of human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. . . . Fundamentally, even in the worst of circumstances, we can decide what shall become of ourselves mentally and spiritually, retaining our human dignity even in a concentration camp."

– John Neafsey
A Sacred Voice is Calling
pp. 115-118

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Intimate Soliloquies
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paul Wapner
In the Garden of Spirituality – Caroline Jones

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