The Gospel is a strange thing sometimes. Often, it challenges our most fundamental conceptions of truth. It forces us to question our basic assumptions about humanity. This is no more clear instance than in the value and valorization of suffering in the scriptures. For example, the Lukan Beatitutes offer a vision of salvation for those who suffer the most in this world. This overall theme is difficult to miss in Jesus’s ministry. The model of discipleship is suffering. Jesus’s instructions to departing missionaries are to take minimal provisions. The culmination of this is in Jesus’s command “If any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23 and par). The suffering of the cross is not imposed by an outside power, but commanded by Jesus himself. Similarly, 1 Peter 2:21-25, 2 Cor 10-12, the list goes on and on.
Our own scriptures contain similar instructions to embrace suffering and pain as the essence of our discipleship. Yes, man is that he he might have joy (2 Ne 2:25), but we also say that we are made partakers of misery and woe (Mos 6:48). What if the misery and woe is the joy? What if the lone and dreary wilderness is the same thing as the Promised Land? We are not commanded to find joy in tithing, fasting, sexual abstinence, etc, but that these things are the joy.
The foundations of humanism are based on the exact opposite assumptions about the nature of the goals for humanity. Humanism was founded on the idea of the height of humanity as a state in which there is no suffering. The individual is autonomous, free from restrictions, and is able to enjoy a certain economic quality of life. Asceticism, submission, obedience, and denial are the vices of humanism. This has been the driving political ideology of the West for the past 300 years. Contemporary Christianity, including Mormonism, often shares this ideology of human potential, but this is often held in tension with the scriptural and historical root of these traditions as fundamentally anti-humanistic. The ideal of human suffering, especially one in which God is pleased by human suffering always lurks in the background, troubling in interesting ways the ability to fully adopt the core ideology of liberalism.
So what is the relationship between the role of suffering in the process of salvation and the humanistic goal of the absence of suffering? Aren’t the vices of humanism the virtues of Christianity, and Mormonism in particular? Our most crucial story of salvation, the NT drama, is one where suffering is essential. Indeed, it is God’s will that his own son suffer. Is God not the author of our suffering? But the human condition is not the only one which suffers. Isn’t the divine condition one which suffers as well (D&C 19 and the weeping God in Moses)?
In the gospel, can suffering really be joy? Is this simply a pre-modern idea, or worse, a tool of power to justify and enforce the suffering of others? If there are good and bad kinds of suffering, how do we tell the difference? Is there something truly important about suffering as constitutive of our subjectivity? Doesn’t Christianity teach us that the humanistic ideal of a subject who is not subjected is simply an illusion?