The Power and Audacity of Suffering


I was reading an interesting essay today which has helped me form some thoughts about what is needed to hold the darkness at bay. I've been writing an essay for the upcoming spring issue about what motherhood has meant to me, because it has shocked me how many young women declare their intention never to have children. While some of this is just hot air, it is true that not only is the fertility rate falling, but that the younger the generation of women, the more childlessness is evident. There is, in fact, a trend here.

So what's going on? I've tackled that large question before in other writings, but tonight I'd like to reflect on a reason I did not mention in that piece. By and large, we have lost the understanding that there is an incredible power in suffering, especially freely-chosen suffering.

The author of the above-mentioned essay asks how the citizens of Rome were converted to Christianity. They were converted because of the incredible suffering of the Saints. The Romans fed them to the lions, had them crucified, had them tortured in unimaginable ways, etc. And yet the Christians endured the suffering and did not waver. The power showed in this was unparalleled. It gave others the strength to change (in the case of non-Christians), and the power to stay the course (in the case of other Christians).

Here's Dreher's and other's comments on this:

"The willingness to suffer, even to die, for one's beliefs is a form of power. The late Catholic activist Vaclav Benda went to jail for years for standing up to Communist tyranny. At one point, the state offered to free him, if he agreed to leave Czechoslovakia with his family for the West, to get out of their hair. He asked his wife Kamila what she thought of it. Nobody would have blamed them for taking the offer. Kamila was trying to raise their big family alone, with a husband in prison, and the family under constant government surveillance. But she told her husband that if they left, they would in some sense betray all their suffering fellow citizens who did not have the liberty to leave. The Bendas chose to stay, and to continue sacrificing themselves for the life of their country. The thing is, the Bendas certainly wanted a more just political order! That was the point of their struggle. But they did not suffer and struggle so that Christians could replace Communists as the masters of an unjust system.

"A patriarch, a priest, and an ordinary believer must cultivate within himself at all times a willingness to die rather than compromise when the compromise offered would amount to apostasy. It doesn't involve life or death, but I think about the courage of those American Episcopal congregations who chose to leave behind their beautiful church buildings to worship in storefronts rather than compromise with the anti-Gospel within the Episcopal Church. Those who chose to stay within the Episcopal Church on the grounds that they may be able to do more good within it than otherwise might be right about that -- who am I to say? -- but in the end, they must have some point beyond which they cannot be pushed, and at which they are willing to give all of their worldly goods up for the sake of Christ. All of us Christians do. If we are not willing to be poor and outcast for the sake of the Gospel, then we are not worthy of Christ."

To me, this is very reminiscent of the power of motherhood. To suffer in pregnancy and childbirth and postpartum is to become endowed with a deep form of power. Indeed, probably the strongest power known in the fallen world--motherlove. I thought it quite right that JK Rowling's hero Harry Potter was protected by the motherlove spell created when his mother Lily gave her life to protect him. That spell could not be broken.

I did not understand the complete, molecular-level transformation that would come upon me by going through the physical experience of motherhood. My first labor was 38 hours of back labor in which I felt, at times, my spirit begin to leave my body. Yes, it did feel like I was being tortured, I will not lie. But I was changed by this suffering. My eyes were clear, and I saw with clarity what was important and what was not important. I received immense spiritual strength to change my life around. I received the temporal strength to take care of this precious child. I gained my firm and unshakeable testimony of the necessity and beauty of the Great Plan of Happiness from that suffering.

Lest someone think I am a masochist, that is not my nature at all. Though I underwent pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum five more times, the suffering was not sweet, and it was certainly not desired. What was desired was the product of that suffering--my children. I think the old midwife's saying, "The greater the pain, the greater the love for the child" is based in truth. My pre-suffering heart could not love as my post-suffering heart could. There was no other way.

I feel that was the experience of the Savior. The only way to the power to effect the Atonement lay through incalculable physical suffering. There was no other way. Only Gethsemane and the Cross could give Christ the power and the right to save us. He freely chose this suffering for the sake of the precious children.

Can you imagine Heaven sending down a team of angels to administer an anesthetic to Christ so that the suffering would not have to be endured? Of course not. If Christ had been anesthetized, there would have been no Atonement. We understand that intuitively, but most of us have not tried to articulate why we understand that. We know from our own experiences that only suffering is transformational. Ease and comfort are not.

It is very sad, then, to realize that we have a young generation that is allergic to suffering of any kind. We see this in the culture of "offense," where words are taken as literal violence that cannot be endured. We see this in the need for "safe spaces," where no one will hear any opposing opinions. We see this in the decision by women that they'd rather not give birth than endure any physical suffering.

As God's children, we were meant to be endowed with power, and one of the most important sources is suffering that is not desired, but is freely chosen to bring about a greater good for others. Like the Romans thrown to the lions. Like the women who choose to give birth.

Part of the weakening of spiritual strength we see in the world around us, I fear, comes from this wholesale rejection of suffering. We are too weak to stand for our principles. We are too weak to stand for our children. We are too weak to stand for our beliefs. We are too weak to stand up for what is right. We are even too weak to stand up for truth. This can only end in sorrow.