Is Suffering Good? an Explorative Study on the Religious Persecution among Chinese Pastors

Article excerpt

Human suffering is a major concern to the fields of psychology and theology; however, the effect of suffering is controversial to many. In this study, nine Chinese pastors, who had experienced religious persecution to the extent of confinement, were interviewed about their experiences during the persecution, the effect related to their suffering, and their ways of coping. The transcripts were coded into major themes by adapting a hermeneutic phenomenology method with a committee approach. Results showed that the suffering in religious persecution involved losses of personal freedom, physical trauma, spiritual isolation, and collapse of social support. Eight themes emerged as unique ways to respond and cope during the suffering--experiencing God's presence, letting go and surrender to God, identification with the passion of the Christ and His disciples, preparing to suffer, normalizing their suffering, worshipping and reciting Scriptures, fellowships and family support, and believing in a greater purpose. The first three of the coping methods significantly predicted positive affect. The pastors also reported transformation after the suffering, which can be categorized into four themes--switching the focus from self to the churches, embracing the humility and limits within oneself, increased trust in God's provision, and redefining their views on suffering. This study sheds light on post-traumatic growth and religious coping. Christian counselors are also encouraged to explore the meaning and emotion of suffering in therapy, as well as to utilize culturally sensitive coping mechanisms.

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Suffering, like death, isolation, and personal responsibility, is an issue of existence that must be confronted by all individuals during the course of life (Frankl, 1963). From daily stressors to trauma, suffering has different meanings to each individual or society. Aside from physical and mental illness, few psychologists have actually looked into the suffering among the religious persecuted. Judith Lewis Herman (1992) is one of the few that tried to understand the suffering of imprisonment. She suggested that experiences of captivity involve prolonged and repeated trauma. The prisoners usually undergo two stages of reaction: First, prisoners shut down their feelings and give up their inner autonomy, worldview, moral principles, or connection with others for the sake of survival. Victims frequently describe alternating between periods of submission and more active resistance. The second stage, which may be irreversible, is found when prisoners lose the will to live and regard themselves as the "living dead." Yet, a turning point can occur when survivors resist entering this terminal state and instead make an active choice to fight for life. Though Herman did acknowledge the transformative power for victims surviving such a trauma, her general impression is that this possibility is small:

... the profound alterations in the self and relationships inevitably
result in the questioning of basic tenets of faith. There are people
with strong and secure belief systems who can endure the ordeals of
imprisonment and emerge with their faith intact or strengthened. But
these are the extraordinary few. (p. 94)

Who are these "extraordinary few"? What are the secrets of a strong belief system? Is suffering all bad? Could it be good for some people? This points to the significance of studying the survivor's faith and belief system in the current field. Religious persecution of Christians in China has produced one such group of individuals who can teach us much about suffering. Those Christians survived harsh religious persecution such as imprisonment and labor camp, yet still held strongly to their faith. They offer an excellent opportunity for us to learn about post-traumatic growth, and the intersection of suffering and religious faith.

Chao (1984) divided the history of the Christian church in China since 1949 into five periods, determined by China's major political developments. …