Timothy Dalrymple writes on Patheos about the value of suffering – or at least of some suffering in the lives of some people. He starts by talking about his own experience of pain since breaking his neck 15 years ago. He then says:
[Christopher Hitchins] has complained that many Christians, knowing his plight, have communicated to him that “Surely now would be the perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.”
The complaint is understandable. Christians have a standard stock of counterfeit sympathies they send into circulation around the suffering and bereaved. It can seem coldly opportunistic when Christians respond to the suffering of a non-believer with: “Perhaps it will turn him to God.”
But Hitchens shows that he has not understood Christianity well. Christians, in this case, are standing squarely in the richness of their tradition. That tradition does not teach that sufferers are so wearied and weakened that they will abandon their moral and intellectual scruples. Rather, it teaches that suffering makes certain things plain to us. Suffering has the power to penetrate our illusions, shatter our masks, and unveil the fundamental realities of who we are and who God is. Like pain in the body, the lamp of suffering illuminates the architecture of the spirit.
I can imagine the concerned cries of the professoriate that I am “valorizing” suffering. So let it be said: sometimes suffering is simply devastating and destructive. Countless many have suffered far worse than I, and there may be suffering so severe that it effectively extinguishes the human spirit and any power it might have possessed to find something redemptive within the experience. And suffering sought for its own sake, or wielded against oneself as a tool of self-hatred, is foolish and sinful. There is nothing redemptive in suffering itself, and each person over the course of a lifetime will have abundant opportunity to endure and learn from suffering without having to court its company. And I am bracketing the question of why there is suffering in the first place; I am not asking why there is evil, or why there is suffering (which are not the same), but what good can be drawn from suffering by those who are willing.
I know for certain that some suffering can be valuable instrumentally—in its consequences within and around us. And I know in faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which always seeks us and seeks through our joys and sorrows to draw us unto him. Certain truths, certain essential truths, are only learned by a willing student in the school of suffering.