Suffering and character
Suffering shapes our character, in line with the three responses outlined in the post on hard-heartedness. Suffering may make us hard, as a result of our hardness on ourselves. When we choose this option, we become like the Pharisees, rigid in the face of suffering, and the elder brother, lacking compassion on those who fall; like both, there is a tendency to self-satisfaction in our own righteousness. Or suffering may make us humble, as we battle between destructive self-soothing mechanisms and the recognition that what we are doing is not right. But this battle can absorb all our energies, leaving us outwardly appearing selfish even as in our hearts we find ourselves doing what we do not want to do, and failing to do the acts of love and kindness we still long to do.
In contrast, the Christian has hope. The Christian understands that she cannot save herself. She recognises that what looks like self-salvation is nothing more than a trap of self-righteousness. It is a con, tricking those who have escaped from material suffering into believing it was through their own efforts, and tricking those who haven’t escaped into believing that hard-hearted denial of suffering is a virtue. She recognises that the self-soothing mechanisms are self-destructive, but that she cannot escape them on her own without falling into the trap of self-righteousness. She recognises her need for an external saviour, and gladly accepts him.
Jesus makes all the difference. We move from a world with no god, in which suffering is the brute luck of an uncaring world, to one with a God who sees and knows all things, including the reasons for suffering. We move from a world in which our only resources for coping have to be found within ourselves, to one where the death and resurrection of Jesus means a promise of redemption for all of our suffering. Instead of being meaningless, suffering can have a purpose and a reason. It is still suffering and it is still wholly bad and to be ameliorated or alleviated wherever and whenever possible. But in this broken world with fallen humanity, there will always be suffering that has no end in sight. And in that suffering, we know that our God will redeem all things in a manner glorious beyond our current understanding. This knowledge, this acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, is what enables us to have patient endurance. This patient endurance does not become hard but remains soft, ready and able to minister to the suffering of others.