The Paradox of Suffering

One of my classes this term has me reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, to be followed by at least a few others. I’m struck by just how much of a romantic Merton is, and how young and arrogant he is at moments, though given that he wrote this relatively early in life, perhaps some of that can be forgiven. Despite whatever flaws I might find or just qualities I eschew (I’m aware of his interest in Buddhism later in life, but in the words of Max Barnett of campus Baptist Student Unions fame, “Even a cow knows to spit out the sticks.”), he does occasionally toss out some rather poignant observations. One hit me just a moment ago:

We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of [suffering]. You just had to take it… Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more… And it will devour you in the end.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. (Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pg 82)

He points to this state of avoidance of suffering as if it were significant only to those for whom God does not exist. I can’t help but think of myself, though, and admit that this is applicable to me, and it is applicable to many Christians who have hope, but seem to forget it as they go about life.

To what extent do I shape my life to avoid suffering? Not that we should seek it out or anything, but in what ways do I just craft my environment and my day-to-day activities to push out the things that I don’t want to face? The television deadens us. The internet distracts. Activity serves to prevent us from stopping to maybe feel what we don’t want to feel. And perhaps we have to push out more and more in order to keep the boredom, irritation, grief, anger, and more at bay.

This is a subject I come back to repeatedly in these blogs, but I think it’s a subject I have to come back to repeatedly in my own life. It’s a rut I fall into, and I think it’s a rut that human nature wants to fall into, and the industrialized world has turned into a way of life, especially, it seems, in America. We have the right to not suffer! But can we really avoid it? Divorce, depression, recession, death, illness, anxiety, even boredom… And if we never allow ourselves to truly experience the suffering we already live with, how will we grow used to the experience, and what happens when we can no longer escape it? How much greater will that suffering seem?

I think Merton’s implication is right. As Christians, we have hope, the assurance that things will turn out all right, and therefore suffering is something that we know we can go through. God never said it would be easy or pleasant, but as the old gospel tune says, “I read the back of the book, and we win.” Our faith and hope should give us the courage to face our suffering.

But I’m left with the question: to what extent does it? In what ways am I forgetting the final victory of Christ at the end of days and the indwelling presence of the comforter and instinctively avoiding the unpleasant rather than placing my trust in what God might be doing in it? And in me?

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