Is Suffering Always a Bad Thing?


The first three of the Four Noble Truths state that just being alive means that a person will endure suffering, that the beginning of suffering is found in attachment and desire, and that avoiding suffering is attainable. These statements imply that suffering is always bad, and is to be avoided if at all possible.
  1. Life means suffering.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.[1]
But, is suffering always a bad thing? In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote about suffering as something to glory in, because it results in the development of perseverance, character and hope.
    Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.[2]
And James, the brother of Jesus, wrote,
    Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.[3]
James was saying we can be happy and see the benefit of trials that come our way, because trials and sufferings come into our lives to produce perseverance and maturity in us. In the Buddha's Dhammapada proverbs, suffering is described in terms of karma, as the consequence of evil action, and freedom from it is only obtainable by casting off all attachment and desire.
    He who inflicts pain on innocent and harmless persons, will soon come to one of these ten states: He will have cruel suffering, loss, injury of the body, heavy affliction, or loss of mind, or a misfortune coming from the king, or a fearful accusation, or loss of relations, or destruction of treasures, or lightning-fire will burn his houses; and when his body is destroyed, the fool will go to hell. Not nakedness, not platted hair, not dirt, not fasting, or lying on the earth, not rubbing with dust, not sitting motionless, can purify a mortal who has not overcome desires.[4]
The next proverb describes desire as a fierce thirst resulting in suffering.
    Whomsoever this fierce thirst overcomes, full of poison, in this world, his sufferings increase like the abounding Birana grass. He who overcomes this fierce thirst, difficult to be conquered in this world, sufferings fall off from him, like water-drops from a lotus leaf.[5]
The following proverbs describe making an end to suffering by being perfect, forsaking pride, and being freed from anger and attachment to people or things, and by being completely unschackled by this life.
    Let him live in charity, let him be perfect in his duties; then in the fulness of delight he will make an end of suffering.[6]

    Let a man leave anger, let him forsake pride, let him overcome all bondage! No sufferings befall the man who is not attached to name and form, and who calls nothing his own.[7]

    There is no suffering for him who has finished his journey, and abandoned grief, who has freed himself on all sides, and thrown off all fetters.[8]

    Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled.[9]
In Romans, the Apostle Paul describes how if we are children of God, we share in both the sufferings and glory of Jesus.
    Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.[10]
He further writes that when we are suffering and we don't even know what or how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf.
    In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.[11]
In the letters to the Corinthians, Paul talks about enduring persecution and suffering to the point of being viewed as the "scum of the earth." His solution to being treated this way was to endure, to treat all with kindness, and not to lose heart.
    We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.[12]

    And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.[13]

    Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.[14]
So we see that the Buddhist mindset is one of wanting to avoid suffering, because suffering is our own fault (karma), whereas the Christian point of view is that suffering comes to all, deserved or not, and should be seen as an opportunity to develop perseverance, character, maturity, and hope, and is a calling to endure suffering and remain kind and loving to others.




[1] "The Four Noble Truths," TheBigView.com, www.thebigview.com/buddhism/fourtruths.html, retrieved June 13, 2013 (emphasis mine).

[2] Romans 5:1-5 (NIV).

[3] James 1:2-4 (NIV).

[4] Dhammapada 137-141.

[5] Dhammapada 335-336.

[6] Dhammapada 376.

[7] Dhammapada 221.

[8] Dhammapada 90.

[9] Dhammapada 402.

[10] Romans 8:17-23 (NIV).

[11] Romans 8:26 (NIV).

[12] 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 (NIV).

[13] 2 Corinthians 1:7 (NIV).

[14] 2 Corinthians 4:1 (NIV).
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