This article was originally written for 1517.
You may or may not know much about singer/songwriter Nick Cave. To be quite honest with you, I possess zero inclinations as to his musical prowess, other than the fact that he (along with frequent collaborator Warren Ellis) provided the score for the 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.1 This understated-western-film-score constitutes the limit of my Nick Cave musical knowledge. According to the Internet, he’s infamous for much more verbose styles of music, with Old and New Testament allusions, and a smattering of the American Deep South, being seen in an array of his “garage rock” style songs.
Nevertheless, another way in which I am familiar with Cave is through his sometimes-blog, The Red Hand Files, in which he answers user-submitted questions covering a veritable smorgasbord of topics, from songwriting, to food, to inspiration, to life, and even religion. His answers are, occasionally, more curt and tongue-in-cheek than the inquirer is likely expecting. But that, no doubt, is consistent with his enigmatic persona. Recently, however, a user asked a question that might just be the universal inquiry of humanity. “My question,” asks anonymous, “is about how you perceive the utility of suffering. What is the value of suffering to us as individuals, and to us as a species as we go through our life carrying suffering around, like some mind-numbing, soul crushing weight?”
“Making sense of suffering” has survived as the prevailing conundrum that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time. Whether your spirituality begins with the Judeo-Christian God or not, how to cope with the sorrow and loss that life brings remains a mystery. Not only that, why do such grievous, tortuous happenings happen at all? How one answers such an inquiry, then, reveals a lot about what one believes. Much like the “friends” who surround Job as he sits in the ash of his former life, one’s method of “solving” the enigma of suffering speaks volumes for how one perceives the universe. Therefore, how does Nick Cave “perceive the utility of suffering”?
What do we do with suffering? As far as I can see, we have two choices — we either transform our suffering into something else, or we hold on to it, and eventually pass it on.
In order to transform our pain, we must acknowledge that all people suffer. By understanding that suffering is the universal unifying force, we can see people more compassionately, and this goes some way toward helping us forgive the world and ourselves. By acting compassionately we reduce the world’s net suffering, and defiantly rehabilitate the world. It is an alchemical act that transforms pain into beauty. This is good. This is beautiful.
To not transform our suffering and instead transmit our pain to others, in the form of abuse, torture, hatred, misanthropy, cynicism, blaming and victimhood, compounds the world’s suffering. Most sin is simply one person’s suffering passed on to another. This is not good. This is not beautiful.
The utility of suffering, then, is the opportunity it affords us to become better human beings. It is the engine of our redemption.
I find this answer deeply profound and insightful. Cave would, perhaps, be averse to make the same sort of definitive tethers to the gospel of God that I’m about to make — but, nonetheless, there is scriptural truth oozing out of Cave’s response. It is the sort of upside-down-logic that permeates the gospel itself. Finding suffering as the means, “the engine of our redemption,” is contra-logic. Our colloquial senses rebuff the notion of grief and sorrow and loss, et al, and mark those as ensigns of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. And if not entirely avoided, at least masked. But more lethal than any amount of tangible suffering is the existential suffering the persists behind our masks of put-together-ness. Everyone is living as a naked sufferer who’s been duped into believing that the nakedness of suffering has to be covered up. We hasten, then, to our fig leaves of enough-ness, hoping to forge coverings believable enough to convince others that we’re “making it.” That we’re “all right.” And, more than that, we’re the consummate overcomers.
The crucible of suffering, however, is not humanity’s naked shame. It is the ground on which God himself is revealed. “The story of grace has not only been told in words, but embodied in a person,” Horatius Bonar affirms2 — to which I might add, “a person who suffers.” Such is what makes the evangel of the Word of Christ so otherworldly. Namely, its announcement that the God of all things is known and seen chiefly in his Son’s death on the cross. “To know Christ,” writes the reformer Martin Luther, “is to know the cross, and to understand God in the midst of the crucifixion of the flesh: this is the design of God, this is the will of God, yea, this is God.”3 The crucifixion is more than just an affair of divine determination in which salvation is accomplished — it is the stage on which a Saving God is revealed in all the fullness of his glory and majesty and grace.
The blood which flows from Jesus’s gaping side offers the clearest rendering of what God is like, what’s in his heart.4 He is a God who suffers. He is the “God of all comfort” precisely because he was discomforted. (2 Cor 1:3–7; Ps 69:20) We are, then, made to see in Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection the redemption of our own suffering. And not just ours, but the whole world’s. (Is 43:18–19; 65:17; Rv 21:5)
Which I’ve never seen, by the way. Glancing at the cast, this movie has Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell! Holy mackerel, how have I not seen this movie?!
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 101.
Martin Luther, Complete Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms, translated by Henry Cole, Vol. 1 (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1826), 148.
“We are drawn to God by the beauty of the heart of Jesus . . . It is a heart of perfect balance and proportion, never overreacting, never excusing, never lashing out. It is a heart that throbs with desired for the destitute. It is a heart that floods the suffering with the deep solace of shared solidarity in that suffering. It is a heart that is gentle and lowly.” (Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020], 98–99)