What is Suffering?
Suffering is more than just physical pain. In Dopesick, Purdue Pharma executives claim that pain has been chronically undertreated, so they push the prescription of their drug in order to “cure the world of pain.” But this view of pain misunderstands the nature of suffering. When Dr. Samuel Finnix, a main character in Dopesick, begins prescribing OxyContin to his patients, many of them experience near-miraculous relief from chronic physical pain. Yet the price paid for the relief from their suffering is a different, greater kind of suffering. One by one, Dr. Finnix’s patients become addicted to OxyContin and suffer from crippling and unwanted addiction. For some of his patients, the price for the relief promised by OxyContin is death. Eventually, even Dr. Finnix becomes addicted, taking too much of the drug while trusting Purdue Pharma’s claim that the substance is non-addictive.
Suffering is compounded by human sin, greed, and lies. Motivated by greed, Purdue Pharma makes false claims about the addictive properties of their drug. Because of this, many people became addicted to the drug by accident, believing it to be non-addictive, and Purdue responded by claiming that anyone who became addicted “must have been addicts already.” When Dr. Finnix becomes addicted to the drug himself, it is not only his own addiction he has to suffer—he has to face the fact that he unwittingly prescribed a drug that harmed his patients, destroying their lives in some cases. He has to suffer knowing that he caused irreversible damage to people he cared for and meant to help.
The Bible attests to various types of suffering. In Lamentations, Jeremiah expresses his suffering at seeing the desolation of Israel. In Psalm 51, David relates the suffering he brought upon himself and upon others through his sin. In the book of Job, Job suffers from the loss of loved ones, health, and prosperity. In Exodus, the Israelites suffer from injustice and humiliation as slaves in Egypt. Suffering is more than physical pain. Throughout the Old Testament, we see that we should care about all sorts of pain. As Dopesick implies, if we understand suffering as nothing more than physical pain, we may end up causing more suffering than we cure.
What Should We Do about Suffering?
No one likes to suffer. It seems self-evident that pain is bad and should be avoided. Yet, suffering seems to be an inescapable fact of life. As Dopesick shows, the problem of suffering is not easy, because in our attempts to alleviate suffering we may create more suffering. What we should do about suffering, then, cannot be as simple as trying to avoid as much suffering as possible.
In one episode of Dopesick, the executives of Purdue Pharma want to get OxyContin on the market in Germany. The employee tasked with getting this job done, however, claims that doing so would be impossible. A reason he cites is the cultural difference in how pain is thought of: in the United States, pain is avoided. In Germany, pain is thought of as part of the process of maturing. Although people in Germany doubtlessly don’t enjoy suffering any more than anyone else, they see some positive benefit that makes pain avoidance a lower priority. Pain avoidance might be American, it may even be human, but is it Christian? Is there a place for suffering in the Christian life? If so, how should Christians think about suffering?
While suffering is not a good thing in and of itself that Christians should seek out, the New Testament does not make pain-avoidance a high priority. Rather, many passages assume that Christians will suffer, and admonish them to “rejoice in suffering” (Romans 5:3) because suffering produces endurance, character, and hope. Christians are admonished to stand strong in their suffering because of the suffering of Christ (1 Peter 4:1), and we are told that, in some circumstances, those who suffer are blessed (1 Peter 3:14).
The problem of how we should think about suffering, and what we should do when we are suffering, is difficult. In the situation when we are the ones suffering, understanding what we should do can become even more difficult, and pain-avoidance can too easily seem like our highest priority. Despite the challenge of responding to suffering, there are a few basic insights we can rely on as to how Christians should think about and respond to suffering.
First, pain avoidance should not be our highest priority. The Bible takes suffering seriously and promises that one day, all suffering will be taken away (Revelation 21:4). However, here and now, avoiding pain is not our highest good. Knowing this does not make accepting suffering easy. Even Jesus, in deep distress at the coming suffering of the cross, prayed that his suffering might pass from him (Matthew 26:39). Yet, had his highest priority been to avoid pain, humanity would be without a Savior. Rather, Christ’s highest goal was to do the will of his Father, as ours should be also.
Second, we can avoid creating more suffering by living with moral integrity. Of course, living with integrity does not equate to avoiding all suffering. Sometimes we can compound suffering even with the best intentions, as Dr. Finnix does. In some cases, living with integrity can create more suffering, particularly for ourselves. As Christians, however, living with integrity and according to God’s will is a higher priority than avoiding suffering. As 1 Peter 3:17 states, “it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Even when living with integrity leads to suffering, the root cause is always someone’s sin or the brokenness of the world.
Dopesick shows how sin compounds suffering. Examples of the same are strewn throughout the Bible beginning with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Gen 4:1-16). When God prefers Abel’s offering over Cain’s, Cain is taken by his anger and he allows sin to “rule over him.” God warns Cain not to be overcome by the sin “crouching at his door,” but Cain does not heed the warning and kills his brother. This is the first murder in history, and by it, Cain multiplied the suffering for all humankind after him. Living with integrity will not eradicate suffering, but it will keep us from needlessly creating more suffering—for ourselves and for others—through our own sin.
Finally, we have to remember that suffering is not forever. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Though our suffering may feel unending, Paul says that compared to eternity, it is momentary. This may not “feel” helpful in our pain, but it does remind us that the here and now are not all we have. As C.S. Lewis said to a dying woman, “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” 3
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