Is suffering really “The Way”? Or, from the song lyrics from The Offspring, is it true that “the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care?” Here’s my short answer: NO. So, why on earth does it seem that the traditional Christian church touts this path as the way to God and heaven? Read on for the synopsis of my sermon and a glimpse into early Christianity.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
It wasn’t long after Jesus’ death before Christians were being persecuted and even executed. We have Gospel accounts of Stephen being stoned to death and Paul being beaten and imprisoned, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. For at least two centuries Christians would be persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed for their beliefs. How did this movement withstand all of this? Well, part of the strategy of the traditional orthodox Christian church included convincing its members that suffering was a privilege, and martyrdom was the ultimate way to follow Jesus.
Their position went as follows: because Jesus physically suffered and died, if one really wanted to follow Jesus, then they should be prepared to do the same. Mark 8 promotes this idea. Followers should take up their cross – literally be ready to lose their life and follow. And this was a good thing because suffering and death was the fast ticket to forgiveness, salvation and resurrection. In Mark 8:38, Jesus says, “If you are ashamed of me” (in other words if you deny Jesus or run away just to save yourself) “then I and the angels will be ashamed of you when you find yourself before God.” Wow. Shamed and guilted into sticking around.
What began in the orthodox Church as a way to keep followers from defecting has, over the last 2,000 years, turned into an oppressive theology that leads people to believe that suffering glorifies God. Churches have proclaimed over and over that people should be happy in their suffering because then they can truly identify with, and become one with, Jesus. They should gladly bear their crosses and give up their lives.
This theology has been used (and abused) to glibly explain why bad things happen to good people. I have heard the phrase “this is your cross to bear” when it came to dealing with someone who has lost a loved one; for a person dealing with a critical illness; for a caregiver of a husband with Alzheimer’s; to convince women who have abusive husbands or people with miserable marriages to stay; and even for parents of children with disabilities. Suck it up and like it. Don’t get mad at God about it, because if you dis God there is a good chance you’ll get dissed when you get to the pearly gates.
It is abusive theology.
I firmly reject this theology.
Seriously, what type of loving God would require human sacrifice? In the form of Jesus’ death or in the form of martyrdom? What type of God would want us to suffer?
Yes, suffering is part of life. None of us will escape unscathed. But to seek suffering because we believe it will please God, or to joyfully relish in one’s suffering because we believe that is the will of God, is foolishness.
The Gnostics (that “heretical” early Christian sect), for the most part, had a different take on this. Their focus, as with all their theology, was on the spirit rather than the body. According to Elaine Pagels in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, Gnostics saw the crucifixion as an occasion to discover the divine self within.
The Gospel of Truth says:
Through the hidden mystery Jesus Christ enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and showed the way, and that way is the truth he taught them… He was nailed to a tree, and he became fruit of the knowledge of the father. This fruit of the tree, however, did not bring destruction when it was eaten, but rather it caused those who ate of it to come into being. They were joyful in this discovery, and he found them within himself and they found him within themselves.
For Gnostics, the Way was truth, not suffering. And truth included looking within to find the eternal self with each of us. With that discovery, each person would know that they were in Jesus and he was within them. All are within the Divine and the Divine is within all.
While the Orthodox are saying,”your suffering is good because it brings you close to God,” Gnostics are saying, “You are more than your suffering.”
Makes sense to me.