The Role of Suffering in Human Flourishing: Contributions from Positive Psychology, Theology, and Philosophy

By Hall, M. Elizabeth Lewis; Langer, Richard et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Role of Suffering in Human Flourishing: Contributions from Positive Psychology, Theology, and Philosophy


Hall, M. Elizabeth Lewis, Langer, Richard, McMartin, Jason, Journal of Psychology and Theology


Should alleviating suffering always be the primary goal in treatment? This paper proposes that suffering can best be understood in the context of the flourishing life, from the intersecting vantage points of positive psychology, philosophy of theology. We further argue that in this context, we can articulate a role for suffering. Suffering can be understood as a marker of disordered living, a means of cultivating characteristics that are essential to the flourishing life, or an opportunity for worldview orientation. In sum, the role of suffering is not to endure it for its own sake, but for the sake of cultivating the flourishing life. Finally, we will consider some implications of this conceptualization for the practice of therapy.

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The concept of suffering is problematic. It presents problems to the theologian, who struggles with the question of theodicy: How can an all-good, all-powerful God permit suffering? It also presents problems to therapists. We are in a profession that is aimed at alleviating suffering. The question we must face is whether it is always good to alleviate suffering. Should that always be our treatment goal?

Mark McMinn (2004) writes in his book, Why Sin Matters, about his use of cognitive-behavioral therapy with a client suffering from depression. Several months after the end of treatment, he learned that the man had sexually abused his niece for several years when she was a child--an issue that had never come up in therapy. His therapeutic efforts had probably contributed to alleviation of the guilt and shame caused by the client's actions, but, because of the client's failure to admit his actions, did not address his need for repentance and restitution. In this case, alleviation of suffering led to a problematic outcome: the alleviation of suffering that was a natural consequence for his past actions, without the appropriate repentance for those actions. Sometimes we are too quick to reassure and comfort, without considering that sometimes suffering can be a beneficial marker of sin.

If alleviating suffering can sometimes lead to bad results, it is also true that enduring suffering can lead to good results. In some traditions, suffering is something to be sought, rather than something to be avoided. Adherents of several religious traditions practice self-inflicted suffering in order to achieve some spiritual end (for documentation, see Glucklich, 2003). In fact, our own Christian tradition has both historical and contemporary examples of groups who employ suffering for spiritual purposes. At the mild end of the spectrum, spiritual disciplines such as fasting (which involves some degree of pain for most people) are widely endorsed. And more extreme examples, such as self-flagellation, have also characterized the pursuit of spiritual goals like identifying with the suffering of Christ.

Even when suffering is not intentionally sought, which might strike some of us as masochistic, there are times when our clients are called to endure suffering that they did not seek out, for some greater good. In fact, when we look at Scripture, it is relatively easy to find this perspective. For example, James 1:2 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trails of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (New International Version). So another question that must be asked is whether suffering should always be avoided and eliminated, or whether it can sometimes be a good thing.

If our profession sometimes suffers from a pragmatic hedonism that sees pleasure as good and pain as bad, it is even more true that our clients are saturated by a culture that is hedonistic. I (Elizabeth) have had a certain conversation with several of my clients. As they are recovering from experiences of depression or anxiety, they come to session after a sad, disappointing, or fearful experience. …

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