All the enduring spiritual traditions of the world acknowledge that suffering is an inevitable part of human life. No matter what we do, no matter how we live our lives, suffering cannot be escaped. Certainly, not everyone shares in suffering equally. Some people must endure much more severe suffering than others. Yet, we don’t usually get very far by trying to compare our suffering to someone else’s. Our suffering is our suffering, and we must decide how to use it in our lives.
For Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus is the symbol of suffering par excellence. The intersection of the cross of Christ is the intersection of suffering and injustice, as Jesus became the victim NOT of the Jewish people but of the Roman Empire, who responded to any challenge to its imperial authority with violence that was swift and sure. But the crucifixion is more than a symbol of suffering and injustice: it also becomes for us a gateway into understanding how we are invited by God to respond to suffering.
For the cross of Christ opens on to the mystery of the resurrection. Out of the cross arises a life that is new, that is transformed, that is deeper and so enduring that we can call it eternal. Whatever else the mysteries of the cross and resurrection may be, they show us a God who in Christ embraces suffering and by doing so brings forth this new and deeper life. And so the cross and the resurrection invite us to do the same.
When we encounter suffering in our lives, we have basically two choices: we can either embrace our suffering and use it skillfully to go deeper into our lives or we can hide from it in some way, harden ourselves against it and thereby fail to find its transformative power. Most of us, most of the time, make the second choice. We regard suffering as unfair, as essentially alien to the life we think we are supposed to have, and so we refuse to take it into ourselves. The last place we want to be is on the cross, because to be there confronts us with our own mortality; it confronts us with the impermanence of so much that we value; it threatens our ego. And so we do everything we can to avoid it.
If, however, we accepted the invitation of Jesus to take up our crosses and follow the pattern that we see in his death and resurrection, we would handle our suffering in a much more skillful way, spiritually speaking. Rather than regarding suffering as an alien intruder into the idyllic life we think we are supposed to have, we would acknowledge that suffering is a fact of our lives and we would begin to explore its landscape in order to discover what it has to teach us. If we allow ourselves to move beyond the instinct for self-protection and beyond the desire to run from the cross, we will discover that suffering has the potential to lead us deeper into ourselves, to lead us beyond the false self to which the ego clings and into our true selves, where God is constantly present and which no kind of suffering can ultimately take away from us. We will have learned something of what Jesus means when he says that those who lose their lives will find their lives.
I am convinced that the failure to deal with suffering in a spiritually skillful way is responsible for the perpetuation of suffering for ourselves and others. When we do not use our suffering to go deeper, then we often find ourselves overtaken by depression, anger, fear, anxiety. And having been overtaken by those negative emotions, some among us are motivated to lash out at others with violent speech and violent action. This results in more suffering which, if not handled skillfully, leads to more negative emotion and negative action, which in turn leads to more suffering and on and on.
Reflection on all of this helps me to realize that Jesus’ teaching to take up our crosses and follow him into new life is a very basic, practical teaching for our lives. He knows that our lives include crosses – every human life does. We can pretend they’re not there, or devote ourselves to wondering why they are there, in which case they begin to crowd us. Or we can seize them and try to throw them out of our lives – in which case they can destroy our surroundings and injure others. Or, we can embrace them, as Jesus did, and use their energy to find a new, deeper, resurrected life. All of this is much harder to do than to say. But the truth is that the spiritual path is like anything else in life: if it is to be truly fruitful, it will require some work.