Christianity has about the worst sales pitch: follow your Maker not in His glory or power or wisdom or wealth, but in His sufferings. Which is probably why we tend to dress the gospel up a little bit—because who wants asceticism? But until we abolish the cross and find a more amenable symbol, suffering remains at the heart of Christianity.
I’m not talking about persecution, although that discussion exists. I’m talking about the personal religious experience rather than the corporate.
W. H. Auden wrote about Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” musing on the poem that:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Auden’s poem—as well as Bruegel’s original work—illustrates well both the significance and the ordinariness of human suffering. But what both artists depict is the suffering that arises from the accident of being human, the suffering of a fallen world.
Christianity’s suffering—sharing in the sufferings of Christ, as Paul put it (in a strangely seductive phrase)—is not an accident. It’s the choice to sorrow, to sacrifice something.
So can you follow Christ without suffering? It seems like it: very few people choose the ascetic life anymore, and I assume that kind of self-denial isn’t a prerequisite for Christianity. Of course we still experience suffering, but that could be attributed to being human. We could suffer perhaps by tithing or using time or energy to serve others. But that is awfully abstract.
There remains a streak of masochism in Christianity, but I’m not interested in the enjoyment of suffering. The point of suffering, to me, is that it hurts. Job never thrilled over his compounding losses. Nor is Christianity meant to be sadistic: we have no right to make others suffer in Christ’s name. Suffering largely hurts because it’s beyond our control. It’s the sacrifice of both agency and pleasure.
And despite the many good things I believe do arise from following Christ, it wouldn’t mean much if we sought God simply through programming. We are driven to seek pleasure and control, and Christ did the exact opposite. And suggests we do likewise.
I believe in God in part because He doesn’t make sense as a human invention: He’s the opposite of everything we are. Christ’s suffering opposes everything He is.
Keep the cross in Christianity. To suffer is human, but choosing to suffer is divine.