False Idol #1: An End to Suffering

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : May 31, 2006

No one enjoys suffering. However, suffering used to be seen as having meaning. As Christians, we must believe that suffering can have meaning, otherwise our faith in our Suffering God is misplaced. The early church developed a cruciformed imagination that gave meaning to the suffering and death of martyrs. They even developed different forms of martyrdom–the red martyrdom of the persecuted and the white martyrdom of astheticism.

None of this is to say that suffering is good. However, in modern times suffering has increasingly been regarded as meaningless–as an irredeemable evil. This rejection of suffering has led to the increased rejection of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. I am, by the way, not a fan of this view of the atonement. However, I recognize that the growing marginalization of the view among my peers may be, in part, fueled by the growing rejection of suffering as something having any value or meaning.

In this emerging world where suffering has no meaning, it is increasingly becoming the case that the end of suffering becomes the primary good. Suffering and death are seen as the worst things that can happen. In contrast, earlier in Christendom, people were actually afraid of a swift, painless death. They were afraid of dying poorly; their desire for virtue outweighed their avoidance of suffering. And religion has become merely a tool by which suffering may be ended. Religious groups have lost their interpretive power–once offering the meaningful interpretation for our suffering, now they have become mere charities that can alleviate suffering.

Not that suffering shouldn’t be alleviated. But instead of offering meaning as we also extend our care, we have been relegated to simply offering the care. Our churches offer therapeutic theism–where God is a tool to alleviate suffering. Instead of procliaming a God that is worthy of worship, worship becomes an experience that makes our lives a bit better. Instead of embracing the long Christian tradition that finds meaning in suffering, we seek not only to end suffering (which is a good thing to do), but also rob it of its meaning. End of Suffering is one of our new gods.

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