Contemplating different views of suffering

My mother once had lunch with a lady who ordered a club sandwich with extra mayonnaise. Since it was a small-town diner, the young man who took their order was also one of the cooks, so he went back to the kitchen to help prepare the food and then delivered it to the table. When the lady bit into her sandwich, she thought it seemed dry. Upon examination, she discovered there was no mayo on the sandwich at all. My mother suggested she flag down the waiter and ask for mayo, but the lady declined. With a look of martyrdom, she told my mother she would eat the dry sandwich and “offer it up to the Lord.” At the end of the meal, the lady refused to leave a tip for the waiter claiming that he did not deserve one. My mother casually related this incident to me when I was a child, but it has always stuck in my head. I wondered what joy God could possibly get out of someone suffering through a dry club sandwich.

I have never figured out the answer to that question, but over the years, I’ve noticed that there seems to be two main streams of Christian-thought in regards to suffering: There are Christians who think that suffering appeases God, and there are Christians who think that there should be a whole lot less of it. The first group of Christians prefers quoting the Old Testament and all its rules. They especially love quoting the passages where people break the rules and God punishes them. The second group of Christians prefers quoting the New Testament where Jesus goes around trying to alleviate suffering whenever He encounters it. They especially love quoting the passages where Jesus breaks the rules, forgives everyone and punishes no one.

The first group has always been the loudest and scariest bunch and one can certainly understand why. After all, if it turns out that they are right, they get to watch all the rule-breakers be punished. St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that the saints in heaven will derive great pleasure from watching all the suffering souls in hell. Apparently, he was convinced that heaven has some kind of viewing window where the good guys get to gloat over the bad guys for all eternity. It’s just one of the perks.

The second group of Christians is much quieter than the first group for obvious reasons. After all, if it turns out they are right, then what is going to happen to the Christians who got it wrong? Absolutely nothing; that’s what. When they die, they will realize they were wrong; Jesus will forgive them and let them into heaven, and that’s that. They don’t get punished at all – they just finally see, kind of like those blind men that Jesus healed.

So, if you are in the first group, then you go to heaven if you’re right and you go to heaven if you’re wrong. But if you are in the second group, you go to heaven if you’re right and to hell if you’re wrong.

There are just no perks to being in the second group. You can’t threaten others with the fiery wrath of God because for you, it either never existed or it has been eternally quenched by the out-pouring love of Jesus. You can’t even look forward to watching any rule-breakers writhing around in eternal agony.

Now let’s get back to the woman who choked down the dry club sandwich for the Lord. She obviously believed that God was happy with her sacrifice of a tablespoon of mayo and that it was her duty to punish the waiter for his error. And who am I to say that she was wrong? When it comes to suffering and punishment, there are priests, bishops, popes and even saints in both camps.

Christianity can be complicated; so when I’m feeling confused, I nearly always end up asking myself that trite old question, “What would Jesus do?”