What constitutes a full life? In a consumer culture, I would suppose a full life to be one of maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity. We like being happy. Would a full life include suffering? The answer to such questions, for Christians, are found in Christ Himself. Christ alone fulfills what it means to be truly human. So, what does that mean?
Christ does not flee from suffering. We are shown a number of occasions where He works well past the point of exhaustion in serving others. He does not turn away from the enjoyment of his friends. He was called a “drunkard and a wine-bibber” by his detractors. He fasted but understood that, for a time, His disciples could not fast. His life includes the story of His suffering and shameful death, which He bore for our sakes. It also includes the revelation of His unending love for His disciples made known in His resurrection. For Christians, the fullness of human existence can be no different.
There are no lives that meet the standards of modernity. Those lives that are marked by maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity are never free from suffering (though wealth can forestall many things). A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.
The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.
In the Genesis account, the man and woman exist in the Garden. It is an abiding image of an unfallen world prior to sin. There is neither punishment nor death in that place. But at the very heart of the Garden is a Tree that says, “No!” This Tree alone makes possible the self-denial that is synonymous with love. Everything else within the Garden brings enjoyment and satisfaction. As such, the Garden could be the breeding ground of pure self-interest – a colony of hell. Only the Tree whose fruit cannot be eaten makes the Garden into Paradise.
That Tree also represents every other person and thing in our lives. We are not placed into the world to consume one another. There are elements within every person and within every object that are forbidden to us. There are boundaries that must be regarded and respected. Without such boundaries, we would become all-consuming demons, devouring one another and everything around us. We would be transformed into narcissists of infinite proportions.
This is not to say that suffering itself is inherently good. There are terrible and tragic things within our world – wounding, death-dealing enemies of the soul. But terrible and tragic things are many times willingly borne in what can only be described as a sanctifying manner.
Our theological grammar does not permit us to introduce the notion of the passions into the Godhead. But the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit carries this very self-emptying-existing-towards-the-other. The Father delights in the Son; the Son only does those things that He sees the Father doing; the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself; and so on. Everything about the Son is referred to the Father, and everything we would know of the Father is referred to the Son. Though such things are not normally associated with suffering, they have within them the same character as the suffering that is borne voluntarily.
It is possible to think of the Crucifixion as something required by human sin, and thus not somehow inevitable in and of itself. It could be said that had we not fallen, Christ would not have been Crucified. I think this is misleading. Nothing in God is changed in the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed.
Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.
More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.
To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.