Christian Counseling and how one deals with suffering has unique ideals. The idea of suffering and happiness differs from culture to culture and religion to religion. The Hindu tradition speaks of escape via deification, and the Buddhist tradition speaks of escape via annihilation.The old philosophy of Manichaeism claims a dualistic godhead—one of evil and one of good who battle throughout the ages. Other explanations dismiss the religious and approach suffering as a reality without any theological significance—it merely is.They claim that the materialistic world evolves without any spiritual meaning and the classic struggle for survival of the fittest is the key drama that unfolds with happiness for some and suffering for those defeated.
Christian Counseling and the Theistic Tradition
The theistic tradition stemming from Abraham, however, offers a solution to suffering—sin and reparation. It denies that suffering is something to escape but to be endured and accepted. God originally created a perfect world, but via the sin of Adam, death and suffering entered into the world. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all accept this universally and pray for the coming of an eschatological figure that will bring judgment to a fallen world.
Hence the theistic tradition accepts suffering as a reality but with this acceptance, many find criticism. How can the evil of suffering co-exist with a good God? The other traditions dismiss a personal God or treat suffering as illusion or something of a negation, but the Theistic tradition accepts death and suffering as concrete realities of a fallen state. Hence why would a good God allow this? In answering the agnostic and atheistic challenge, the theistic tradition has emphasized the sin of man as the reason for suffering and death, but it does not answer enough. Why would a good God who can foresee man’s fall, still permit such a tragedy and why would a good God punish humanity so intensely? Again, the theistic tradition answers the challenge. St. Augustine teaches that free will was the cause of sin and hence suffering. Evil was not the creation of a good God, but a deviation from the source, as darkness is to light. This deviation from the “light” was due to free will. Was free will worth it? God in making man in his image and likeness gave man choice- The power to utilize his intellect and make a decision with all the consequences. If that choice was not made available to man, then he could not be made in the image and likeness of God. In being made in the image and likeness of God, a spiritual being must have the ability to think and choose in a rational way unlike the rest of creation. In that man and the angels share a common trait and in that common trait both fell.
The theistic tradition, however, does not leave creation fallen and broken, but promises relief from suffering and pain, but only through death. Death is the irreversible scar of man’s sin that must be embraced. While the three primary creeds of theism all offer hope and redemption, only one of these creeds proceeds beyond a distant dictation from heaven that eventually help will come. While the other two traditions present a loving God who punishes, only one presents a father who is willing to leave his throne and enter into the cold, dark night and find his children at risk to his own health. This unique salvation and understanding of suffering is through Christianity.
The Christian Tradition
Christianity is the only theistic tradition that shows a God who does not merely arbitrarily proclaim death and suffering as a product of man’s bad decisions, but also portrays a God who teaches and via example shows humanity how to accept suffering. The perfect paradigm in this is Jesus Christ. Unlike the other theistic traditions, the Christian tradition has a God who is intimately involved in the salvation of mankind at the expense of falling victim to the same punishment of sin—suffering and death. How could this be? The answer is seen through the unique mystery of the Incarnation, where a loving God who could never suffer, took upon human flesh, and made himself vulnerable to the cold of the fallen world. In this mystery, the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity, while retaining his divine nature, clothed himself in human flesh and offered himself as a victim in complete sacrifice for his fallen children—to not only redeem, but also to be the perfect example in how to live life and to suffer properly.
St. Thomas Moore, in his writings, points out the errors of past Christians or non-believers who did not comprehend the truth of the Incarnation. To some, Jesus seemed only human in his sufferings and the divinity was dismissed due to this, while to others, his humanity was swept away and made incomplete through the various teachings of Arius and the Gnostics. The reality within the Christian tradition is quite clear concerning Christ’s suffering. The 2nd person of the Trinity was a divine being who did not deserve suffering and yet still took upon human flesh and suffered and grieved as any human being does today via Jesus. Christian Counselorsshould make theirsessions emphasize this to the grieving.
The Lord did not clothe himself in flesh and proclaim himself a king avoiding all sufferings and mishaps of life but accepted the cruelty of the world. Although a king, he denounced the warmth of a palace or the many riches of the world, but embraced the stable, the poverty of a carpenter’s son and eventually the weight of the cross. He became our example on how to accept grief and death in this world.
It is prudent to reflect on the unjust suffering our redeemer endured due to our mistakes. Did he not suffer and grieve as we do? Did not the death of family and friends pierce his heart as it does to us? Did he not grieve the death of his father? –Or His cousin St. John the Baptist? Yet in these deaths and the many sufferings, did he not console those who grieved and suffered? Did he not even console the grieving women while he carried ultimately his own cross to his death? Did he not console the family of Lazarus and ultimately raise him from the dead? Merely reflect on the suffering of Christ throughout scripture, the passion stories, and the Stations of the Cross and how he heroically overcomes these trials as a perfect example. Yet did his perfect nature deserve such a fate?
Reflect also upon the suffering of his mother, who shared her son with the world. Did she deserve the pain of seeing her son cruelly and unjustly scourged, mocked and finally crucified? Merely look at her seven sorrows that are outlined in her life! Not only would she witness Christ’s ultimate suffering and death, but she would be reminded of the prophecy of his eventual death well before Christ’s death. The stinging whisper would haunt her heart throughout her life. Yet in all her suffering, and the suffering of her son, one can see two things. First, one can see a paradigm or model on how Christians are to accept the suffering the world gives to them and second, a gift of hope and love that our God does not distantly and arbitrarily decree suffering as a result of sin, but shares in it. This is the ultimate love and compassion of God. It is a love that accepts an unjust death for another.
Throughout history we see the burning love of the saints for God. We see them triumphantly accept martyrdom or the approach of death. They hope to transform death into victory as Christ utilized his death for our victory. The saints realized that suffering and death are a part of this world but only a temporary element of our overall existence. In that, they accepted the suffering that co-exists with this fallen state and hoped to transform it with love in the model of Christ. While some saints accepted the suffering as it came to them, many heroically with a burning love for Christ accepted many amazing supernatural pains. While some Christians may remain skeptical, there are accounts of stigmata where saints, whose love transcended the planet, embraced the pain of their savior in thanksgiving, reparation and adoration of their Lord. Some saints such as St. Francis of Assisi or in the modern day, Padre Pio, felt the full pain of the stigmata with the five wounds of Christ. Other saints throughout the history of the church suffered individual wounds, such as St. Rita and the mark of the thorn that pierced her forehead. Still despite the dramatic sensationalism of these events, other saints merely accepted the everyday crosses given to them by their savior, most notably, St. Theresa, the Little Flower, whose daily penances involved offering up the little things of daily life.
The saints clearly understood that Christ’s life was subject to unjust suffering—suffering he could have avoided but accepted because He loved mankind so much. In return, as a child hopes to repay his father even in the smallest gift, the saints transformed earthly suffering and elevated it to a supernatural level as Christ did. They used him as their paradigm and model in giving back to Him and their fellow man—serving as fellow examples in how a Christian with dignity accepts suffering and death and transforms it into something beautiful.
Does this remove the sting of suffering or grief? No. It did not for Christ or the saints; it merely gives us direction and guidance in the dark times when we will all suffer. We can suffer as the atheist—who denounces his affliction, or we can embrace our afflictions when they do come and accept them as the will of God. If our savior would be willing to die for us, would he not guide one in these dark times as well? In these dark times of pain and suffering, it will hurt, but at least in the Christian tradition, we know our father is holding us and sharing in every part of our grief. It helps us realize that the reality of this world is not merely a punishment but the only other way things could be—because if there was another way, I am sure our Lord would have looked for it—but in conclusion merely said in the garden, “Thy will be done”. Christian Counseling sessions should emphasize these values. To learn more about Christian Grief, you can also click here
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