"Suffering is presumed to have little of no meaning or purpose beyond the constant quest to eradicate it."(1)
There are lots of ways to respond, as a Christian, to suffering. To seek healing comes to mind, as does the eradication of the pain that is causing the suffering, or sitting in the dust with the those who suffer, prayer, lament, anointing, confession and absolution, and that's just for starters. The problem is that all these practices and their accompanying theologies share too much space in our heads with the Enlightenment's optimism and trust in humanity's ability to control 'nature' generally and overcome pain and suffering specifically. These days we have to fight pretty hard not to succumb to the now generally accepted principle that pain and suffering are to be avoided at all costs. (See quote above) In this view a return to health is understood in terms of the absence of pain and suffering for the autonomous individual. Once healed the autonomous individual can return to their individual life having the suffering and its cause eradicated from their life. In this view, we would have no need, at least in respect of that particular pain and its cause. There is, of course, something desirable and good in the eradication of pain and suffering. But as the sole way of looking at our human condition, or even the dominant way, it is mistaken because it misunderstands the human person and presents an utterly fraudulent hope. We are not autonomous individuals with healing returning us to a needless state, thank you very much. And second, we cannot live lives devoid of pain and suffering, and even if this particular instance of it can be eradicated, just wait, one day it won't be eradicated. One only has to look around us to see that the hope of avoiding pain is a vain one. (I'll be blogging later this week about the asceticism of life, or the asceticism that we should be teaching our children is an absolutely essential and unavoidable part of life.)
Jesus commands us to embrace the cross. Let's not make a straw figure of the crucified Christ as though he is commanding us to hate ourselves. Self-hate is not the only alternative to the unrequited hope of avoiding suffering. The call to carry the cross and follow Jesus is a call to actively suffer at times (witness, justice, etc), and not to fear the suffering that might come from bearing the pain of grief rather than burying it alive, and not to fear facing the truth of our psychopathologies and the pain such self-honesty will bring. But more than this, a specifically Christian response to suffering will also include those practices that help us remain faithful in the midst of suffering, and that help us continue to believe in the God who seems often absent. This last, so often overlooked, is an entirely appropriate response to suffering from those who claim to follow the forsaken, crucified Jesus. Jesus' cry of dereliction from the cross is, after all, a prayer, and is a prayer of faith, not disbelief. The lament, prominent in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture, is exactly one of those practices that can keep us faithful, but more on that later.
1. John Swinton, "Patience and Lament: Living Faithfully in the Presence of Suffering", in Francesca Arran Murphy and Philip Ziegler, The Providence of God. p. 276.