Magazines 2024 May - Jun Suffering Well and Suffering With: Reclaiming Marks of Christian Identity

Suffering Well and Suffering With: Reclaiming Marks of Christian Identity

19 April 2024 By R. Wayne Hagerman

An extended review of a 2023 book by Aimee Patterson

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Book by Aimee Patterson. Cascade Books, 2023. 154 pages. $29 (e-book $10)

Suffering is not everyone’s favourite topic, and in most social and church settings may not be the most promising subject to begin a nice conversation with. Nonetheless, as Aimee Patterson so bravely and honestly shares, “Christianity is a faith of and for suffering people.” I concur. Aimee’s book is a short monograph submitted in the series “New Studies in Theology and Trauma,” a timely and necessary field of study, research and sharing for the Christian Community. This series showcases work at the intersection of trauma and theology from emerging scholars in this new discipline. I anticipate that it will be a much-welcomed asset for theologians, pastors and practitioners of the faith. This series seeks to fill a deep need to engage a double witness to laments and losses involved in surviving trauma and a witness to God’s ongoing presence and activity in the aftermath of violence.

Aimee Patterson’s qualifications for writing this book become immediately evident in the introduction. She is a sufferer of incurable cancer and holds a PhD in religious ethics. She is a frontline hands-on participant, not an armchair theoretician. She holds nothing back and reveals her “thorn” that “reminds me to suffer well.” 

She is adamant that suffering well and suffering with others are true marks of our Christian identity, marks that we seem to have forgotten over the centuries. In our era of decline in social influence and membership in the Western Church, she is convinced we must rediscover what it is to be known as people who suffer well and are compassionate. This is done best when we place our hope not in our own power but in a God we cannot fully understand and whose power we cannot master.

The book is divided in two. Section one is dedicated to an investigation of what it means for Christians to suffer well, which Patterson believes is a mark of our identity. She first defines suffering as both profound and innocent, and she proceeds to offer that the Christian Church has developed a warped sense of identity because we tend to avoid suffering instead of being known as a compassionate community that suffers well.

Reflecting on her own journey through suffering, she cites the book/story of Job and suggests that both the isolation of suffering and the place of suffering in our lives are not only valid, but through his example we can learn to suffer well. She qualifies this by examining suffering in the life and ministry of Jesus.

In section two she shifts her focus to compassion, or “suffering with,” a crucial second mark of Christian identity. She makes the case that post-Christendom communities of believers ought to engage in training to develop virtues including that of compassion.

We live in koinonia, and therefore the bond of suffering is distinct to suffering people, of whom we are descendants. She calls this an “epistemic privilege: that of knowing what it is to be mortal.”

She includes lament as a key component in this section on “suffering with.” But even more intriguing is the concept of hospitality as an essential practice for both sufferer and host which bridges a gap between the two, making for a fluid, healing relationship.

The concluding chapter focuses on compassionate solidarity, the practice of standing with people who suffer, and claiming a shared identity with them. We who are witnesses of God’s transformative power must extend in solidarity our own community and turn to the needs of all whose lives are affected by unjust suffering. The current wars raging on in the Middle East and Ukraine are prime examples of how this must be made real.

She concludes where she began, that Christianity is a faith of and for suffering people, and the post-Christian Church must reclaim this dual identity, of suffering well like Job and Jesus, and by choosing to suffer with by being compassionate toward suffering people – friends and strangers alike.

This book is an essential read, a study manual for the Christian Church today. It is not “ten easy steps to overcome suffering.” It is real and raw by virtue of the author’s ongoing suffering with cancer, a lived theology of suffering. The bibliography deserves careful attention. For a book of just 126 pages, it is extensive and considerable. I highly recommend this book, and the series mentioned at the beginning of this review.

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