If grace has been cheapened by the Church, then so too has the idea of Christian suffering. Bonhoeffer moves quickly to dismantle two of the ways that suffering has been watered down within the Christian tradition. The first is by distinguishing between suffering that is celebrated and suffering that is rejected. The former, though it sounds odd at first, is quite common. Suffering is celebrated every time we find the suffering of another to be admirable, something the reflects positively upon their character. The latter is suffering that fills us with shame, suffering that causes us to look away, suffering that makes us want to distance ourselves from the afflicted. Christ suffered and Christ was rejected, therefore, as disciples, we too are called to take part in the same suffering and rejection. Bonhoeffer argues that this is the first scandal of the church, when Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking of his coming suffering and death. It is scandalous because the Church does not actually want a messiah who is rejected; we do not want to follow a savior who fills us with shame and makes us want to look away.
The second assault on suffering is in the equivocation of everyday mishaps and misfortunes with the suffering of the cross. Having a car accident, struggling with raising a child, losing a job, and even dealing with illness, though very real sources of suffering in our lives, are not Christian suffering. In Bonhoeffer’s view, the suffering to which we are called as disciples can come only from the act of following Jesus. Anything less is simply empty comfort.
Bonhoeffer ends the chapter by trying to show that the suffering we experience as disciples is not masochistic—it is a part of bridging the gap between God and the world. He argues that suffering is defined as distance from God. When we suffer on account of our faith, we bear the suffering of others; we bear the burden of estrangement—the distance—between others and God. But paradoxically, in our experience of Christian suffering, that distance is closed, for Christ suffers with us and we are united to Christ.
Think of a time when you were witness to suffering that was celebrated as well as a time when you were witness to suffering that was rejected. How did you feel witnessing each example? What was your visceral, gut reaction?
Since the very beginning, the Church has been scandalized by the suffering and rejection of Jesus. What are ways that we still, to this day, try to transform Jesus’ suffering and rejection into something less objectionable and less troubling?
Bonhoeffer argues that suffering, at its root, is distance from God. Where in our world today do we see that distance most clearly? Find a specific, concrete example. How might we, as disciples, help bear the burden of that distance?