“Adjective – considered in relation or in proportion to something else.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say “suffering is relative.” To be honest, in the past I have been guilty of saying it a few times myself. One thing I have learned over the years of my life and the many trials that the Lord has brought me through, is that suffering is anything but relative.
Relative, is a comparison. It is like saying, “compared to you, me” or in the case of suffering and trials “as big as yours is to you, mine is to me.” Let’s flesh this out for a second and consider what is actually happening here. First, this statement is responsive. People say this either in response to another’s suffering or because of social conditioning, often in response to their own. It is meant to make similar what is often an unequal experience for the purposes of normalizing, or at times, minimizing suffering. Often it is a comparative to the worst one has experienced – so if the worst you have experienced was your child breaking their arm and the worst I have experienced is my child getting cancer, because those experiences are our worst and we don’t know what it’s like to suffer more than our worst, our suffering is relatively equal because we have experienced our worst. When we say suffering is relative, what we are essentially saying is “I know you are suffering, but who doesn’t/hasn’t suffer/ed” or “I have suffered as much as you have comparatively.”
While it is true that we all suffer, can we say suffering is truly relative? Can we say that the trials one has gone through, equals the weight of another’s merely because of the joint experience of suffering?
Let’s walk that road for a moment and see if it makes sense in comparison to individual circumstances since that is what we are saying is relative. If we are arguing similar versus dissimilar it is easier to recognize how some experiences don’t equate. For example, someone’s child having cancer is dissimilar to someone’s child not getting into Harvard. Clearly these are not equal. Yet in spite of that, merely because the person is struggling with the fact that their child did not get into Harvard, we say that their suffering is relative, i.e. it is suffering to them. But it clearly isn’t. Can two people both be suffering? Sure. Is their suffering relative? No it is not.
Here is where it gets tricky. Is it true that a person who has suffered the loss of their dog experiences the same thing as a person who has suffered the loss of their child? Can we say that loss is just loss or pain is just pain? Can we say because of the shared nature of suffering, that it is universal in depth and therefore equally relative? Can we say that because an emotional attachment exists between a person and their dog it is the same as when a person loses a child? No we cannot. I would agree both suffer loss but their suffering is not equal in quality and therefore it would be wrong to say it is relative. After a time of mourning, you can go out and buy a new dog, you can not go out and buy a new child. It is not relative because one is irreplaceable. The depth of one in quality cannot be compared to the other. I am not dismissing the genuine nature of the bond a person can have with their pet or the loss that follows after they die, I am merely showing that while both are losses, they are not similar. There is a distinction.
The issue of pain, while universally experienced, deals not with the universal fact of experience but rather with depth and quality. The greater the depth or quality, the larger the pain and suffering. Losing a dog is horrible, losing a child is worse.
The fact that pain and suffering is experienced universally does not make these experiences relative. It is not the fact of pain and suffering but rather its cause coupled with the consequences of the cause that distinguishes them and makes them unequal. In this way, pain and suffering cannot be relative because what happens in the loss of a beloved pet is not the same as what happens in the loss of a child. While one may temporarily stop you in your tracks, one literally changes your whole life. One can be replaced and one can not.
Why does this matter?
Even in Christian circles we speak as if pain and suffering are relative and we need to stop doing so because it is unbiblical. Furthermore, saying suffering is relative is terribly hurtful to a person whose suffering is uniquely significant. Not only does it diminish what is going on but it dehumanizes the person suffering. It is wrong to act as if a child’s broken leg is the same as another child’s cancer. That is not relative. Two people may be hurting jointly but they are not hurting equally. It is not relative. When we make our sufferings equal merely on the fact of universal experience rather than the quality of what is being experienced, we do the person that is suffering greatly an injustice and harm.
I would argue that when saying suffering is relative, what we are actually doing is allowing us the ability to go on with our life, because we can convince ourselves that we have our own stuff going on. Instead of ministering to someone in greater need than our own, we excuse ourselves by looking at our own suffering first and raising it as equal comparatively.
But what does God tell us to do? “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) God uniquely considers the widow and the orphan because their suffering is far different than someone who has not experienced that loss. Jesus purposefully took the time to heal people who were physically in pain knowing that many of them were not seeking salvation in His name. He saw the individual’s pain and didn’t diminish it, instead He chose to heal the soul and the body. Even more so, while hanging on the cross, Jesus considered the pain of another person of higher importance than His own. To Him, the thief’s suffering wasn’t relative and neither was our own. It is our eternal suffering, both the cause and the consequences, that Jesus died for. It was the depth and the quality of man’s immense fall and brokenness that drove Him to the cross.
The gospel shows suffering isn’t relative
I have heard people argue the unique suffering merits of the cross. In particular that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was not worse than the suffering others have experienced. The issue here is profoundly over simplistic because it is not merely the cross that Jesus experienced but the depth and quality of the suffering and subsequent consequence He bore, coupled with the infinite value of the person who suffered. While it may be true that others have experienced tremendous physical and emotional pain and even in history others have been crucified, the suffering Jesus experienced is not relative to our own. The sinless, perfect nature of Jesus, the immeasurable value of His person, and the depth and quality of His suffering as facing the full wrath of God for countless sinners, is why Jesus suffered like no other man. There is a mystery to His suffering in that man is incapable of truly knowing what He bore. Even those who face eternal judgement will not understand the suffering Jesus went through. There is no way to measure the debt of eternal punishment, paid for in a finite period of time, for a multitude of people, born by One. It is unquantifiable. Jesus’ suffering can never be relative, it is why the Gospel stands uniquely amongst religion. There is nothing like redemption anywhere.
Why do we do it?
When people say that suffering is relative it is often because of discomfort, foolishness, ignorance or pride…saying those words never considers the person suffering. There are people who need us to realize that their pain is more. They are desperate for people to see past one’s own drowning, to see their drowning more, to see they are in more trouble or pain. When we make suffering relative we dehumanize people who are really suffering. While this may give us an excuse to go on with our lives, it does not remove the guilt of ignoring their plight: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)”
I recognize there are people whose struggles may fall outside of great suffering and yet to them, it very much feels like the world is ending. It can be a particular circumstance that can drive the person to feel this way or maybe it has just been one difficulty after another and they just can’t bear even a small trouble or heartbreak. It is also true that some people have a greater capacity to deal with suffering than others. Recognizing that suffering isn’t relative doesn’t mean there is no place for their pain. This blog was not meant to diminish the reality of anyone’s circumstance but instead to encourage us as believers, to see pain and suffering rightly. It is important for us to see that while it may be the worst experience I’ve gone through, It doesn’t mean it’s in proportion to you. It is also to help those stuck within their own circumstances, to begin to see outside of themselves. It is often by doing so, that we can move forward into healing and find strength to withstand our own pain. Service and ministry are powerful weapons against self pity, indifference, and self centeredness.
It takes humility to realize someone has it harder than we do. It causes us to “count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3b) However in doing so, we can enter in and be the hands and feet of Christ. Acknowledging someone has it harder than we do doesn’t take away from the fact that we may have our own struggles, it just puts them in their proper place by allowing us to step back and look with perspective. Doing so takes the weapons of fear, worry, and despair out of the hands of the enemy and gives us the powerful ministry of service, grace and mercy at our disposal.
Our capacity to face pain is meant to trend up and make us more resilient. As we face greater difficulty, we grow and become stronger and wiser. This is why it is important to see pain rightly. Some waves are meant to feel like we are drowning. Furthermore it helps us to remember that in part, we face pain and suffering for others: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Our pain, no matter how great, never ends with us. It always has a redemptive purpose. In Jesus, no pain is ever wasted. Somehow, someway God gives our pain purpose. Making ashes beautiful is His signature: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecc 3:11