American Christianity, by and large, is not very comfortable with the idea of suffering as redemptive in any sense.
I appreciate this interview with the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (of Great Britain) in which he addresses suffering in the context of love. I try to watch it at least once a year, and Lent is a particularly good time for it.
Here are some excerpts from the interview (and the video below)
Roy: I did an interview last year with Eli Weisel, a Jewish author for Man Alive. He contradicted the Christian notion of suffering. He said for example that in the Jewish faith life of suffering is completely alien to what they believe. Life should be celebration, should be joy. And suffering had no redemptive power as far as he was concerned.
Metropolitan Anthony: Well, I think it’s difficult to uphold this view completely in the face, for instance, of the image of the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah and of quite a few other passages from the Old Testament. I think that he’s right when he says that life should be a celebration. But then life should not be marred by the condition of men in which we live.
Roy: Do you think God wants us to suffer?
Metropolitan Anthony: I would say, I’m sorry to be so stubborn, I would say He wants us to love not to suffer. But suffering is always inherent to love in a world which is disharmonious, ugly, violent, aggressive, and so forth. He does not want us to suffer. He wants us to love. Yet, he warns us, love means death, the shedding of blood, heart blood or physical blood.
Ideally, yes, it should be celebration. But in the face of a world of disharmony, of hatred, of mutual antagonism, of contrast in a position, then suffering is inevitable, is a fact. And it can be turned into a redemptive experience.
Roy: Is the notion that suffering is redemptive unique to the Christian faith?
Metropolitan Anthony: Well, for one thing, in itself, suffering is not redemptive. Suffering is redemptive only if it is connected with love and when the suffering is a result of giving one’s life or giving something of oneself. In itself suffering as such may be a curse and a hell without any issue out of it.
But I think that this being said it is true that suffering,when endured in the name of love, for the sake of love, ultimately for the sake of God and of men, in a personal way, is redemptive. And I think it is only in Christianity that it has all this fullness. Because I believe that only in Christianity has history and the physical world a complete significance.
Metropolitan Anthony: Well, St. Paul I think made it extremely clear when he said that if we do not suffer the right way we suffer in vain. And also in the Epistle to the Corinthians when he speaks of love and says that even if I gave my body to be burned but have no love it would be vain and empty.
I think it is the love that gives meaning to the suffering. Otherwise it’s a purely physical event . . . I think lots of people miss this point, and many other points indeed, in the Gospel and in life in general. Because it’s much easier to work out of a world outlook in which enduring suffering is meaningful than to say to endure suffering is nothing if I do not love. And loving is infinitely more difficult than enduring.
Enduring is a passive state. Once suffering is inflicted, it takes courage, determination to undergo it. While to love does not mean undergo, it means volunteer. It means take upon oneself. It means give what is not claimed. And that is a much more difficult thing.