To be worthy of our sufferings

May 16, 2013

Suffering will be a necessary theme of this Sunday’s sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, in which Paul talks about the “thorn in his flesh”—whatever that was—and the Lord’s refusal to remove it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

On this topic, a friend thought that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning might prove useful. Frankl’s book reflects, in part, psychological insights that he gained as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. One of these insights is that no matter how horrifying, or painful, or dehumanizing our external circumstances, they cannot rob us of the freedom to choose how we respond to them. What’s especially reassuring about this insight is the place where Frankl tested and proved it: suffering simply doesn’t get worse than what Frankl and his fellow prisoners endured at Auschwitz and Dachau, names synonymous with the fullest extent of human depravity.

Not that Frankl would ever appeal to this, but no one’s moral high ground is higher than his. No one can say, “Yes, but he didn’t experience…” No. Even when facing the worst suffering, we have the freedom to choose our attitude toward it. I could only hope that’s true. I’m glad someone like Frankl says that it is.

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[†]

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: