Redemptive Suffering and the University Experience
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
By Laura Price
Suck it up.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Take up your cross and follow Me.
One of these phrases is not like the others. The first demands the curtailing, shutting down, and negating of the emotional response to suffering. It tells you to move on because your suffering isn’t productive, it’s only a hindrance. The second offers a (slightly) more hopeful view, one that points towards growth through suffering, granted you can survive that suffering. However, it constrains the suffering still to the isolated individual, and offers no perspective on the beyond building a self-centered reliance on your own strength. The third is a life-savingly different approach to suffering. Yet, in all my time as a student--from high school, through college, and certainly into graduate school--I was only really ever told the first two.
As Christians, we love to talk about formation through education, and we love to talk about suffering; but these two conversations seldom happen at the same time. In the one conversation, Saint John Henry Newman speaks and writes eloquently and extensively about the role of the university in Christian formation. He is keen to show how all pursuits of knowledge undertaken by students in university ought to culminate in deeper understandings of theological truths. In the other conversation, Pope Saint John Paul II demonstrates how suffering is both redemptive and redeemed through its union with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. By bringing these two conversations into dialogue with each other, we are offered the opportunity to see our university experience from a more holistic perspective, one that takes into account the whole person: the person who learns, who suffers, and who is transformed by the union of those two processes.
The suffering of students is particular, because we are in a particular stage in our lives. It can be difficult to manage the physical exhaustion, mental stress, and spiritual desolation that often accompanies the student experience, in addition to the heartaches of loss, illness, and distance from loved ones that don’t take a hiatus from our lives while we are in school. While these threatening elements may be present in any stage of a person’s life, they can be uniquely acute in the university setting. The university experience is often marked by intense competition, devastating isolation, and relentless fears of failure, as well as a nagging suspicion that it might all be pointless afterall. In my own time as a student, I have struggled to not simply write off my struggles in these areas as unimportant compared to what I deemed to be the “real suffering” of the “real world;” I have also struggled to not allow them to become all-consuming. When the grades, the career outcomes, and the social pressure to “live your best life” become the only goods worth obtaining from university, it is easy to lose sight of the true purpose of higher education as human formation and to dismiss any opportunity for the suffering we experience along the way to be likewise formaitive. It’s easy to slip into the “Suck it up” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am coming to understand that acknowledging the reality of my own suffering--whether it is relatively great or relatively small--is the first step in allowing the Lord to transform that suffering (and me) for His glory.
Jesus’ command to “Take up your cross and follow Me” offers a radically different approach to understanding the relationship between our vocations as students and the kinds of suffering we experience in this stage of our life. The “Take up your cross” models shows us that we are not alone in our suffering, that we have Someone to follow; it shows us that suffering is part of the Christian’s vocation, in all stages of life; and it shows that our suffering, through its union with Christ’s suffering, is also redemptive. These three truths, when applied to the student’s experience of suffering in university, have the power to transform that suffering from an evil that seems isolating, arbitrary, and soul-crushing, into a dolor dulcis that is unifying, purposeful, and salvific. Through this lens, we can come to see this suffering as part of the ways that God is forming us in harmony with our studies, and we can move toward a unified understanding of how our faith and our pursuits of knowledge connect not just in this stage of life, but indeed for the rest of our lives and into eternity.
Christ doesn’t call us and command that we take up our crosses without also promising to be with us in our suffering. He doesn’t abandon us to wander in the midst of our suffering without giving us a perfect companion and model to follow: Himself. Christ’s promise to lead speaks to our need to follow and our need for community in that following. Isolation is one of the most profound and universal kinds of suffering we experience in university. Whether it’s born from academic competition, anxiety and depression, or the demands on our time that stretch us too thin to be able to invest deeply in friendships, this isolation often intensifies suffering in other areas of our lives. Imposter Syndrome--the sense that we must pretend to be better, smarter, or more “with it” than we really are in an academic context--is perhaps the chief way I have experienced isolation in my academic life, because it forces a mentality of the self as both utterly distinct from and inferior to the other, which negates any opportunity for community. Yet, Christ does not address his command to “Take up your cross and follow Me” only to one or some of the disciples, nor does He command them each in isolation from the others. While speaking to each individual heart, He addresses them as a group. In doing so, He establishes them as a community of cross-bearers, who are united, not only in their suffering but also in their following of Christ. This idea of community is vital to the way we understand our suffering in university. We are not alone. We are united with Christ and with each other in and through our suffering. Perhaps this plays out in very practical, academically-oriented ways, like studying in community; but it must also play out in the more profound way of being faithfully present with each other in the midst of suffering. When we have the courage to be vulnerable about the ways we are suffering--whether it is with mental health concerns, academic challenges, or spiritual desolation--we build the kind of community that supports and forms the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.
Christ’s words, “Take up your cross and follow me,” are a direct command to His disciples: He calls them. That calling is present in each of our lives, too, and it is what has brought us to the university. Perhaps it is easy to see how our academic and/or professional pursuits are part of that calling, because they are often the most evident way we are being formed through our work and studies. However, the suffering that accompanies those studies and pursuits is also part of that calling. Jesus doesn’t invite His disciples to take up their crosses if it is convenient for them; He doesn’t say it is an optional part of following Him; He doesn’t say that it’s necessary for some but not for everyone. He lays it out plainly for them: “If anyone would follow after me, let him take up his cross” (Strongs). To follow Christ means to take up our crosses. To answer His call--in any area of life, and especially in our education--means to take up our crosses. And yet, this taking up is not the same as sucking it up. It is not the same as accepting suffering as an inevitable but extraneous part of our calling. Rather, it is at the heart of that calling and reveals the very purpose of that calling, because, as Jesus explains to the disciples, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life” (Matthew 16:25). In this glorious contradiction, Christ sets out the whole blueprint of the Christian life, and shows that our suffering has a purpose that extends far beyond the moment of the suffering itself. This perspective places our suffering in relation to our whole lives, both in time and in eternity. Within this eternal and apparently paradoxical framework, the purpose of suffering is to be life-giving.
This paradox of life-giving suffering is at the core of the Christian faith, and we need to look no further than the cross of Christ to see its truth. Through Christ’s passion and death comes the resurrection to eternal life. And the salvific nature of suffering doesn’t stop there: Pope Saint John Paul II argues that in “bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris §19). Christ’s suffering is not simply a model to follow, it is the whole that our suffering is a part of. But our suffering doesn’t just share in Christ’s suffering, it also shares in its redemptive work. God, in His infinite wisdom and power, chose to redeem the world through suffering, “to make [H]is power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self” (Salvifici Doloris §23). The crucial aspect of this redemptive suffering is that, through its union with Christ’s suffering, “human suffering itself has been redeemed” (Salvifici Doloris §18). This means that our exhaustion, our anxiety and depression, our struggles with performance and expectations, even our failures are redeemed through Christ’s suffering.
Crucially, this redemption of suffering is not just for the individual: it is for the university community and for the very fields of knowledge that we pursue through our suffering-laced study. By suffering through my studies in English for the sake of the Lord, I am called to bring His redemption to the English department and to the very study of English itself. The same calling applies for Biology, or Music, or Business, or any other academic pursuit you take up in the Lord’s name. By bringing our whole selves to bear on our studies--the self who both studies and suffers--we bring both our studies and our sufferings to the cross of Christ, where they cannot help but be redeemed.
Saint Paul describes the redemptive work as the process by which God is “reconciling the world to himself through Christ Jesus” by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:19). This reconciling power is at work in and through our studies at the university. Through our academic work, we are coming to understand the intricacies of God’s creation and the human experience in it. In that pursuit, God is shaping us through our relationships, through our knowledge, and through our struggles.
The suffering I have experienced in this refining process has invited me into a deeper reliance on God and into deeper community with fellow Christians within the context of academia. I have come to see the ways that God is lovingly forming me through the most chaotic storms and the most desolate wildernesses that have marked my time as a student. And I am beginning--just beginning--to see how God is using both my academic work and my suffering, in beautiful union, to His glory. There is an end in sight, both the end of the degree and the telos of it all: as surely as the Israelites’ wandering in the desert ends in the Promised Land, as surely as our mourning turns to dancing, and as surely as Passiontide brings us to Easter, I know that this dual formation--through study and suffering--is shaping me ever more into the image of Christ. To share in Christ’s suffering as we take up our crosses and follow Him through our studies at the university also means to share in His strength and His glory. In the midst of Paul’s utmost suffering, the Lord reminds him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is this assurance of grace that allows Saint Paul to exclaim time and again, “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Colossians 1:24, see also Romans 5:3, 2 Corintians 12:10, Colossians 1:24, Hebrews 10:34, James 1:2, 1 Peter 4:13). Remembering this joy in the midst of our loneliness as students, especially when our studies seem pointless and our labors fruitless, is the invitation of grace. It is what allows up to embrace suffering as formation, and to unite that formation with our academic pursuits.
Both suffering and schooling are, by the grace of God, opportunities to come to know, love, and serve Him. Newman reminds us that the point of our academic labors, in all the various fields of study, is to know God. What better way to know Him than to accept the invitation of grace to suffer with Him, to be redeemed by Him, and to share that joyous redemption with the university community?