Theology of Suffering

I’m preparing for my spring theology lecture—its theme is the theology of suffering—and it occurs to me that I should see how the Bible uses the word “suffer.” In the King James (Authorized) Version, you get 38 uses in the Gospels. But in the English Standard Version, there are only 16. There seem to be more than twice as much suffering in the King James. What gives?
    The language changes. “Suffer” used to mean “allow it to happen.” To take the canonically first instance, Jesus says to John the Baptist, who has protested that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus: “Suffer it to be so now.” That becomes “Let it be so now.” Many of the changes are of this sort.
    It’s interesting: to suffer used to be a more inclusive concept. One could suffer things that were not unpleasant, but perhaps merely irregular or a stretching of our preconceptions. John the Baptist suffers no pain when he baptizes Jesus, but he does set aside his preconceptions of authority and rank in allowing himself to be the one—in suffering himself to be the one—who pours the water over the savior of the world.
    There’s another famous utterance of Jesus’: “Suffer little children to come unto me” (Luke 18:16). This has become “Let the children come to me.” Here the disciples’ view is being expanded: Jesus wants the children to come to him, despite societal views of propriety, or the disciples’ view of his proper audience. Jesus has a point to make. For us to understand what Jesus is about, we have to “suffer”—change our views, and allow—children to come unto him.
    By contrast, there is one instance where the modern translation introduces the word “suffering” when it was not there earlier. It’s the centurion who has a sick servant (Matt. 8:6), who says in the KJV, “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented,” but in the modern translation, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” To be tormented is now, simply, to suffer.
    It’s important, I think, for us to allow the older breadth of the meaning of suffering to reenter our consciousness. We think of suffering as pain, as painful harm that may be physical or mental. We are tempted by our society to think of suffering as something that has no purpose. The older language sees suffering as a broader conception, embracing not only pain and affliction and injustice, but also a patience, a receptivity to something new, a stretching of ourselves into such new possibilities as Jesus brings to us.
    What are the possibilities in suffering? Allow a child to speak.
    As I was writing this very column (in a restaurant), there was a boy nearby in a high chair. He came over to me as his family was leaving. Beautifully verbal, he wanted to say hi. He asked me how I was doing. I looked up from my computer and greeted him, and said I was fine. I added that I liked his bright green fleece, that it was very bright. He said something I couldn’t get, and then, “Have you had a bad day?”
    This little boy! I smiled: no, I said, it’s been a very good day. And I’m delighted to see you.
    This made him happy. His parents came and explained that through their dinner he had seen me working seriously at my computer and he was concerned. I looked so serious, I must have had a bad day!
    His name was Jack. I said Jack, I’m very glad you came to speak to me. Because, if I had had a bad day, you would have just make it all better!
    He left, happy, waving at me as they went out the door, yet saying something serious about having a good day tomorrow also.
    Here I am, writing on suffering. “Suffer little children”—indeed! That intuition of the child. That desire for connection. That unmediated openness to possibility.
    Suffering embraces that too. Suffering embraces all.

    Out & About. Wednesday, March 20, I am speaking at the lenten program of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. Details:
    Sunday, March 24, is the spring theology lecture, on what good is suffering: 6 p.m. at Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. In the church, with reception following.

    Sunday, April 7, will be the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar. Our text: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation at 6 p.m.
    And here’s an article about the building in which took place the Christmas dinner of Joyce’s “The Dead.” The link was sent to me by someone who attended a reconstruction of that party (called a “dead dinner”) and then spent the night in the rooms above! A very interesting piece of recent history: James Joyce’s ‘Dead’ house on Usher’s Island goes on sale



The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."