But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:22-25)
St. Paul tells us that he repeatedly begged God to relieve him of some persistent source of torment:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”… For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10)
The lives not only of the martyrs, but of the saints more generally from the time of the early Church to the present, witness to suffering’s being the norm in the Christian life. Pope St. John Paul II a “Gospel of suffering” (a phrase also used ), the message of which is that suffering redeems us and makes possible a particularly intimate union with Christ.
Take up your cross
In the Christian understanding, then, suffering is, to borrow the software programmer’s phrase, a feature, not a bug. It is not an inexplicable fact about the human condition, nor an embarrassment to Christian theology that the tradition would prefer to distract us from. On the contrary, the tradition puts the reality of suffering front and center, and insists that it is an inevitable consequence of original and actual sin. In , I developed this theme, and argued that modern bafflement at the suffering that exists in the world is more a consequence of apostasy from Christianity than a cause of it. It is largely an artifact of the softness and decadence of modern Western affluence.
That contemporary Christians have themselves been corrupted by this softness and decadence is evident from the way they deal with resistance to the Church’s hard teachings, especially on matters of sex. They are keen to reassure our sex-obsessed society that sexual sins are not the worst sins. This is like reassuring Bernie Madoff that fraud is not the worst of sins, or Watergate conspirators that perjury is not the worst of sins – it is true, but not exactly where the emphasis needs to be. Sexual sins, while not the most serious, are still serious, for they are uniquely destructive of rationality and social order. They are also very easy to fall into and can be very difficult to get out of, and as a result are extremely common (much more so than fraud and perjury, for example). Their prevalence and intractability, and the widespread irrationality and social disorder that are their sequel, are on vivid display all around us. Yet even most conservative churchmen and theologians would prefer to talk about almost anything else. Why?
Naturally, cowardice is a factor. But it is not just a matter of failing to do one’s duty on this or that particular uncomfortable occasion. It is, I would argue, a more general unwillingness to face up to the unavoidability of suffering, or to require others to face up to it. The litany of complaints about Christian sexual morality is familiar: But I’m in an unhappy marriage. But I’m in love with someone else. But it’s a habit I can’t break. But I can’t help feeling this attraction. But I was born this way. But I’m frustrated and can’t find anyone to marry. But I feel like I’m in the wrong body. But I can’t handle a baby right now. But, but, but. You mean I cannot fulfill my desires? You mean I have to suffer with these feelings, possibly for the rest of my life?
The traditional Christian answer would be: “Yes, that’s exactly right. Take up your cross.” But the modern Christian gets weak in the knees, changes the subject, and perhaps even feels guilty for having raised it in the first place.
Note that I am not saying that “Take up your cross” is all that need be said. By no means should that be the last word. But it must be the first word. Modern Christians suppose otherwise because they confuse mercy with feeling sorry for someone. These are not the same thing. More precisely, though mercy typically does involve feeling sorry for someone, not everything that is done out of feeling sorry for someone amounts to mercy.
The quality of mercy
Mercy, as Aquinas teaches in Summa Theologiae II-II.30.3, is a virtue. Now, a virtue is a mean between extremes, falling between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. The vice of deficiency in this case would, of course, be mercilessness. What would be the vice of excess where mercy is concerned?
Aquinas notes that “mercy signifies grief for another's distress. Now, this grief may denote, in one way, a movement of the sensitive appetite, in which case mercy is not a virtue but a passion.” What he means is that sometimes what we have in mind when we speak of “mercy” is a kind of passion or feeling, namely a feeling of grief over the distress another person is experiencing. This feeling is not itself the virtue of mercy. Rather, it is typically associated with the virtue. (Many feelings are like this. For example, love is typically associated with feelings, but it is not itself a feeling. Rather, it is the willing of what is good for someone. That can exist even when the feelings are absent, and the feelings can exist when genuine love is absent. There is a rough-and-ready correlation between a given virtue and certain feelings, but they must not be confused.)
When the feelings in question are governed by reason, then we have genuine mercy. But Aquinas distinguishes genuine mercy from “the mercy which is a passion unregulated by reason: for thus it impedes the counselling of reason, by making it wander from justice” (emphasis added). An example would be feeling so sorry for Bernie Madoff that one advocates letting him off scot-free, even if he is unrepentant.
This would be what we might call a vice of sentimentality, which involves putting feelings in the driver’s seat where reason should be. To be sure, because we are rational animals rather than angelic intellects, we need feelings to give us rough-and-ready everyday guidance. When all goes well, they prompt us to do the right thing when reason is weak, or when there is no time to think through a problem. Still, they are only ever a highly fallible assistant to reason, and, like all things human, can become distorted. This is what happens when the feelings associated with mercy for a sinner become so strong that they lead us to ignore the fact that he is a sinner. To be sure, genuine mercy does more than merely call for repentance and penance. But it does not do less than that. And it helps the sinner (as gently as possible) to accept the inevitability of the suffering that results, rather than pretending that it is avoidable, or simply changing the subject.
From Christ to antichrist and back again
That the acceptance of suffering is necessary to perfecting us is basic Christian moral wisdom, but at least to some extent it is even part of the natural law. That is clear from the example of someone who in other respects couldn’t be further from the Christian view of things, namely Friedrich Nietzsche.
Like Aquinas, Nietzsche distinguishes between two kinds of pity, and favors one while rejecting the other. There is, Nietzsche says, a kind of pity which sees man in his lowly condition and seeks to ennoble him. But there is another kind of pity which makes man smaller, and is born of sympathy with “those addicted to vice” and with the “grumbling” and “rebellious” elements of society more generally (Beyond Good and Evil 225, Kaufmann translation). Under the influence of this false pity, Nietzsche says:
Everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil; and… the mediocrity of desires attains moral designations and honors. Eventually, under very peaceful conditions, the opportunity and necessity for educating one’s feelings to severity and hardness is lacking more and more; and every severity, even in justice, begins to disturb the conscience. (201)
The inevitable result, Nietzsche argues, is collapse into a general licentiousness:
There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (201)
The hard truth, Nietzsche teaches, is that to achieve what is truly good for individuals and society requires the discipline of suffering, and that those who blind themselves to this are not the friends of mankind, but its enemies:
You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable.
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (225)
Similarly, in The Will to Power, he writes:
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures. (910, Kaufmann and Hollingdale translation)
It is ironic that a man who characterized himself as an “antichrist” should ape Christ’s call to take up the cross. But it is not entirely surprising, for the enemies of the Faith typically mimic it in some respects, even as they reject it. And Nietzsche’s embrace of suffering is certainly not identical with that of the Christian. Nietzsche is an elitist who neither calls all men to excellence nor thinks all capable of it; Christ teaches that all are made in God’s image, calls all to repentance and holiness, and sacrifices his life for all (even if not all will accept this sacrifice). For the strength needed to bear up under suffering, Nietzsche would look within; the Christian knows that it is possible only through grace. The Nietzschean superman glorifies himself; the Christian glorifies God.
But if Christians can love their enemies, they can learn from them too. It is a sign of the diabolical disorder of our times that they need from one of their greatest enemies a reminder of the difference between true and false mercy, and of the suffering entailed by the former.