Worthy of Our Sufferings

Worthy of Our Sufferings October 25, 2023

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A stained glass window depicting the addiction recovery journey of someone who was addicted to Oxycontin. Generated by DALL-E 3.

There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.

~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Divine Suffering

Recently, in another location, I held forth on struggle and suffering. I mostly considered things from a secular perspective; accordingly, in this space, I aim to approach them from a religious perspective. 

I think most Christians, but particularly members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe that suffering is an important part of our earthly existence.

Overcoming it makes us stronger.

Helping others with their suffering enlarges our charity.

Continuing to make the right choices in spite of suffering is the true test of morality. 

Understanding these processes allows us to unpack the meaning of Dostoevsky’s quote. Whatever suffering we’re experiencing it’s suffering God felt we were capable of handling. 

In 1 Corinthians 10:13, we find the same idea.

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

Dostoevsky’s dread was that he would fail to live up to God’s expectations; that when his virtue was tested through suffering it would be found wanting. 

Dostoevsky was not alone in this worry; Victor Frankl spent three years in Nazi concentration camps undergoing some of the most extreme suffering imaginable. While he was there, he often recalled Dostevsky’s words:

These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner free­dom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

Mortal Failure

Despite Paul’ s words, people often succumb to temptations and prove unworthy of their sufferings. 

We understand that we can call on Christ’s atonement to help us deal with the former. We can repent, make amends, and resolve to do better. Also, we know that Christ’s infinite grace is always working for our salvation behind the scenes in ways we cannot fully comprehend. This leads us to ask: we understand the consequences and remediation of sin, what are the consequences when we fail to be worthy of our sufferings?

The answer here is less clear; perhaps that’s why Dostoevsky dreaded it so. Certainly we don’t imagine divine punishment for those who cracked under the pressure of the concentration camps. I suspect I would have cracked, though it’s hard to say since I have difficulty even imagining such suffering. Does this difficulty of imagination get at something special about suffering? Is suffering more difficult to identify with than sin? Is every person’s suffering unique?

We have all lied or lusted at one time or another, and our lies and lusts have some commonality with those committed by the rest of the world. But it feels like there’s something particular, even unique, about each person’s sufferings, even if we all do suffer. What does all of this say about those times when we’ve been unworthy of our sufferings? How should we seek to atone for that? 

Frankly, I’m not sure. I think we can safely say that it’s better to be worthy than not. Also that there is plenty of suffering to be had, and if we were unworthy in one instance there will always be another chance to prove our worth. Unless our suffering is unto death, which is its own form of divine judgment. 

Technological Solutions

To properly explore this subject, we must consider the many modern ways we’ve developed to mitigate suffering. Most of these can be labeled as technology of one form or another. There are pills which grant us relief from pain, shots which immunize us against diseases, surgeries to remove cancerous growths, and countless other medical procedures.

Beyond that, our daily existence is full of various material comforts: soft beds, climate-controlled houses, cars which transform the walk of hours into the drive of minutes. When we take advantage of these many conveniences are we showing ourselves as unworthy, or are we just being wise? I assume it’s the latter, but being wise is always harder than it seems. It’s one thing to mitigate suffering and another to seek out pleasure. 

Cars are nice, but some amount of walking is necessary. 

Soft beds and climate controlled houses are luxurious, but they are also part of what some have called the comfort crisis

Surgeries and shots can be used to cure and prevent diseases, but they can also be used for cosmetic purposes, chasing after superficial standards of beauty. Out of all of the things mentioned above pain pills have had the worst effect. In an attempt to mitigate suffering through opioids millions of people have become addicted and hundreds of thousands have died. 

We see that the need to be worthy of our sufferings has not gone away, though the nature of our sufferings has changed. In some ways it has gotten easier, in others much harder. There was a time when physical suffering was common, but spiritual suffering was more rare. I would argue that now we have the opposite problem, and being worthy of our spiritual sufferings is even more difficult. 

Our lives are full of pitfalls and opportunities, and it will take wisdom to navigate them. More wisdom than I can dispense in this simple post, and perhaps more wisdom than I have.

That said, I feel comfortable offering one piece of advice: Don’t immediately flee from your suffering, or attempt to bury it under pills. Sit with it for a while. It doesn’t even have to be very long. But spend just a moment considering why God gave it to you, and how you might be worthy of it. 

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