SUFFERING – Christian Response

sufferingresponseAll Christians suffer. Either you have, you are, or you will — “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). But very few have written about a proper response to this Christian discipline. I refer to suffering as a ‘discipline’ because it prepares us towards maturity. In this article I have tried to capture suffering from the perspective of Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), a philosopher and theologian of the nineteenth century. His book, Works of Love portrays his deep insights in relation to love and suffering both at the divine and human level. This article also attempts to see how the evangelical leaders like Dr John Stott and Dr Billy Graham come closer to the views of Kierkegaard.

Suffering, Love and Repentance

Suffering is an important trait in Kierkegaard’s view on love for God. For him suffering is the basic stepping stone towards one’s expression of true love for God. This is expressed in repentance which will involve emotional and spiritual suffering. . It may have social implications as well if we involve in the lives of others. Repentance is not a temporary episode which an individual passes through before embarking on a victorious Christian Life. Repentance is the central concept which signifies a lasting change in the individual’s character According to Billy Graham, the more human beings condemn themselves, the less they respect themselves, and it becomes a vicious circle. As a result, they become so preoccupied with  their own guilt that they have no place for love for others. Thus they experience a constant retrospection which leads to contempt both for themselves and others. Basically they can’t respect themselves or love others. Kierkegaard also held a similar view that one will suffer from guilt and contempt if they do not have divine love.

Kierkegaard believed that suffering is an expression of love. Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated that the way in which a person serves is by suffering and ultimately by being sacrificed. Kierkegaard found it necessary that Christ, ‘who was love’ would suffer so much and reasoned that the degree of suffering is a measure of the degree of love. Accordingly, he concluded that his great suffering was a mark of God’s great love for him. The only way to love God as far as Kierkegaard is concerned is through repentance and repentance is equated with suffering.

The notion of welcoming suffering is significant as it must be voluntary. Kierkegaard believes that a person must freely choose suffering, because ‘necessary’ suffering has no merit. Suffering is not only of the expression of God’s love for man, it is also the vehicle through which man loves God. Just as Christ showed His love for man by suffering, so man shows his love for God by suffering in repentance.

Love, sacrifice and Suffering

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard develops a new concept – ‘the double danger of a Christian.’ First, suffering refers to the “intense internal sufferings involved in becoming a Christian” and secondly, “the danger of the Christian’s challenge to live in the world. The second danger which stands in an essential relationship to the inwardness of Christianity will require the Christian to put up with being abominated almost as a criminal, insulted and ridiculed.

He says “Give up yourself selfish desires and cravings and give up your self seeking plans and purposes so that you truly work unselfishly for the good.” Thus for him, the ‘good’ is precisely the loving of one’s “neighbour”- every human person who is
in need. And unlike ascetic suffering of torturing one self , one must manifest this kind of love without the least hope or expectation of recognition or the return of such love from the human beings toward whom it is being expressed. It is only in this God- man – neighbor relationship that one is reconciled to God in forgiveness. This concept of suffering of Kierkegaard points out that true love will have to suffer and involves sacrifice.

Neighbour Love and Suffering

The Christian is called to love and love is the test. The Christian is to love all in a self-denying way. So, the Christian is in a sense an enemy to himself. “What bond of communion between man and man is most heartfelt? It is suffering” His book Works of Love emphasizes this much. For Kierkegaard, the notion of voluntary suffering is pivotal to becoming a Christian. The extraordinary person is the one who is willing to make whatever sacrifice is required for the sake of Truth.

Love the Unlovable

Another significant idea developed by Kierkegaard appears in the second series in Works of Love: ‘to love forth the good in the impure.’ To explain this, he uses the incident of the sinful woman (Luke 7: 36-50). Jesus, as the source of Love, “discovered” what the world  ‘concealed’- the love – in her. In fact, Jesus made the love in  her more powerful to hide and forgive a multitude of her sins.

It does not deny the sins but covers, hides and forgets them and makes them inoperative. Then comes the new life and the message of forgiveness goes into the heart: “go in peace” (v.50). Standing for the impure and hiding the sin of others involves suffering. It needs God’s love and strength. When Graham Staines and the two sons were killed it needed a Gladys to say, “I forgive the killers from my heart.” Suffering has not gone and its grip is strong . But God’s love overcomes all. Secondly the task is not to find the lovable object; but to fi nd the object lovable.” What if the other person is unlovable and is full of faults and weaknesses, buried under sins? It is not the responsibility of the Christian lover to prove that this can happen, thereby justifying his reason for loving the other. Even if the other person does not change, can we love?

Love, Suffering and the Cross

Dr John Stott emphasizes that  the source of all love is God and His love is expressed in Christ’s death on the cross. Like Kierkegaard, Stott also agrees, that, “apart from Christ and His cross, the world would have never known what true love is. That is why when we are looking for a defi nition of love, we should look not in a dictionary, but at Calvary.”  Billy Graham points out: “The fi rst law is that God loves you!” He focusses on the sacrifi cial death of Jesus on the cross: “Here, in the cross is the suffering love of God bearing the guilt of man’s sin. This love alone is able to melt the sinner’s heart and bring him to repentance into Salvation. As we stand at the cross, we see a glorious exhibition of God’s love.” He considers that it is God’s love that provided humanity the cross of Jesus, by which man can have forgiveness and cleansing. “It was the love of God that sent Jesus Christ to the Cross.”

John Stott explains at length the love of the beloved in his book, Essential Fellowship. He explains: “Love is to be the soil in which one has to be rooted.” He takes the husband – wife relationship and explains how this helps one to experience proper self-love as well as genuine neighbor love. “Love is essentially self-giving. And since our most valuable possession in our life, the greatest
love is seen in laying it down for others. Just as the essence of hate is murder, so the essence of love is self-sacrifice.” It involves genuine suffering where one’s life goes through strain and risks for the sake of others.

To Billy Graham, “Marriage is selfless. True love is never selfish,  and love is never selfish, and love will die if it is not fed by thoughtfulness, courtesy, kindness and work.” If you use the other person for  the gratification of your desires and the fulfillment of your own demands, that is not love. The secret satisfaction in love is giving. You love another person for his or her own sake. You are committed to the enrichment and fulfi llment of the other person’s life. Happiness comes through giving not getting.

Christian Love and Worldly Love Explaining Galatians 5:14, John Stott says, “Paul does not support others who say that ‘if there is no love for one another we can safely break the law in the interests of love.’ On the contrary, if we love one another we shall fulfill the law, because the whole law is summed up in this one command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love is faithful, dependable, reliable and trustworthy. When one loves one’s neighbour truly, he bears another’s burdens and sufferings. For Billy Graham “Men are to be loved, cared for, helped and given opportunities. Any concept of ethic which disregards the dignity of man is wrong. When an individual allows Christ to have full control of his or her life, Christ increases the capacity to love and He begins loving through us. It is no longer I doing the loving, but Christ loving through me. And this is a wonderful thing.”

“God did not say that we are to totally disregard ourselves, but we have to put God first, others second, and ourselves last. Only when God is put in the proper context, we can best serve ourselves. “When we love someone with all soul, mind and strength it is never hard to obey that person.” When one has eternity in perspective, the command to love makes it a duty to love despite failures and suffering. When such failures and suffering go beyond the capacity of the individual to bear, one may give up. For Kierkegaard, only from God man can get help in times of need.

John Stott challenges the Christian community, “It is the responsibility of the Christians to establish a new community of Jesus through neighbor love. Like Kierkegaard, he also mentions that, “Suffering is the one and only path to glory. It was so for Christ; it is so for Christians. Suffering leads to maturity and suffering is the best context in which one is assured of God’s love. Kierkegaard points out that the unique feature of Christian love is to desire for the good of others who would not be loved by preference. Thus Christian love undergoes a transformation. A genuine Christian can desire the good of the neighbor in an  unselfi sh way. In mitating God’s love, one can value whom God values. Thus the Christian obeys the command in love. This involves suffering and a deliberate moving away from the values of the world. It means that we have to love others as God loves – not for the beauty or value to self but the love is commanded by God who is beloved.

Books Referred
Soren Kierkegaard,Works of Love, ed. And trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H.Hong (Princeton University Press, 1995)

John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, (InterVarsity Press: Leicester, 1992) John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1989)

John Stott, Essential Fellowship, (InterVarsity Press: Leicester, 1993)

illy Graham, Peace with God, (New York: Simson and Schuster, Inc. 1974)

Billy Graham, The Christ Centered Home, (BGEA, Minneapolis, 1970)


GS  About the Author

S. Arul Manohar

The author is the General Secretary of UESI based in New Delhi. He and his wife Angel have been blessed with two  children Agita and Andrew.

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