My senior seminar class has been reading a book by Dorothy Allison about a girl growing up in the South under relentless child abuse. We read an article she wrote called “A Question of Class” alongside this text. Allison closes her essay, keying into her own history of abuse, with this statement: “I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us—extraordinary.”
For the Christian, we should read that paragraph with sirens blaring. I wasn’t prompted to write this article as an unfounded, persnickety critique. As I finished reading this essay for class, I felt a deep angst in my heart for people who view life like Allison does.
First, and most significant to her body of work, Allison holds that “suffering does not ennoble. It destroys.” I would be a fool if I didn’t admit suffering destroys. Jesus suffered beyond all imagination in his torture and death on the cross. Evidence of severe, extreme, heart-wrenching suffering is heard in Jesus’ own words before he died, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) And, yet, three days later he arose from the grave. That is ennoblement. It is better stated that suffering destroys, momentarily. For Christians suffering does ennoble. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:3-5) Hebrews 2:10, among other verses, reaffirm this doctrine, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Unlike Allison, believers should stand with Paul and rejoice to share in the sufferings of Christ because far greater joys are promised (Philippians 3:10).
Allison’s essay is capped with the grandiose claim: we should “see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us—extraordinary.” She is right in the first two points, but couches her trust in the “extraordinary” qualities of humanity. The Bible clearly, and repeatedly, declares us to be “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:2-3) The only thing extraordinary about humans is that God saw fit to give us Christ. Allison lays out her own plan of salvation, as it were, salvation by resisting personal destruction. Only a life fully adhering to God’s law will save individuals from destruction, and only Jesus Christ lived that perfect law abiding life. Graciously, God has permitted humanity to claim Christ’s righteousness. On the cross, Jesus took the full wrath of God and allowed those who believe to be reconciled with the Father. In fact we are only inclined to destruction, apart from the transforming power of Christ.
Before I close, let me recommend two captivating sermons for you to check out on suffering. One is simply titled “Suffering” by Matt Chandler (link) and the other is “Why Does a Good God Allow Suffering?” by Don Carson (link). Chandler is a fantastic, Gospel-centered pastor and Don Carson is a world renowned biblical scholar. I challenge you to consider the role of suffering in a Christian life.
Again, my prayer is that we all will continually use a Bible-lens to engage culture. If we don’t have eyes, ears, minds, and hearts for the Gospel in EVERY matter, engaging in anything is futile.