I don’t read enough theology books to be a ‘proper’ theologian but I also believe that we all do theology daily without thinking about it and so we may as well be intentional. I know that I write in order to figure out what I think. I am aware that what we learn changes over time and I am positive that I will regularly disagree with my past self and I hope that I can become more confortable with that. I also know that I have been thinking about suffering for a while and would like to get a greater handle on it while at the same time realizing that I’m not sure we can ever truly ‘get a handle’ on it. So, for now, these are some unreferenced and unrefined thoughts:
How do we think about suffering? Is suffering something that God instigates or allows? It comes back to our understanding of God’s relationship with the world. Is God a creator/dictator or creator/participant? If God is creator/dictator then his allowance of evil and suffering is vindictive. If God is creator/participant then God participates with humanity in the experience of suffering. We talk about this in relation to the cross but this isn’t actually enough. Christ’s suffering wasn’t a one-time experience, no matter how extraordinarily devastating that suffering was. If God is a creator/participant then God also daily, hourly, minute by minute, experiences the suffering of the world from within us.
It is not simply that God is sitting alongside us in our suffering, witnessing it as we do with friends. Rather God is experiencing the suffering with us in the moment through God’s residing within us, through God’s creation of us, and through God’s identification with and love for us.
God is in relationship with us and hopefully, as adults, we learn that relationship is about encouraging someone else to be fully themselves. Sometimes that might include ‘punishment’ in some form as with parents and children, but I don’t think God is out to deliberately cause suffering through punishment. Rather, I think we have been given the possibility of learning and developing through the natural consequences of what living in the world means; a process of living, being aware, reflecting, learning. Not simply our own consequences but the consequence of humanity at large. This isn’t vindictive but a result of the freedom we have been given. Without suffering, without relationship, there is no freedom, no ability to choose relationship, no ability to live as ourselves and to live the fullest lives which we can live. God hopes, therefore, that our ability to live the fullest lives is not defined by our achievements but in our relationship with God.
To suffer, therefore, is to identify: with others, with Christ, with ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier, or make us any more stoic, or even any more successful at suffering – we may indeed still suck at suffering, we may fail at it, and we may find ourselves in deeper depths than we ever thought possible. It doesn’t save us from the consequences of suffering. But suffering proves that we are participants in creation, in humanity and also, in the possibility of relationship with a God who is creator/ participant.
I think therefore, that the ability or attempt at willingness to be thankful for suffering is at least partly due to the recognition of what the suffering means – relationship.
That doesn't mean that any of this is, unfortunately, easy.