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The role of suffering in human flourishing: contributions from positive psychology, theology, and philosophy.

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.


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. Their goal in the session seems to be to get rid of that feeling as soon as possible, and they want my help in doing so. After listening for signs that the experienced emotions are in fact not depression or paralyzing anxiety, I ask why they are so quick to want to rid themselves of these hard feelings. They are often surprised. It seems such an obvious thing, that our goal must be to get rid of sadness, or grief, or fear. But if they are encouraged to embrace these difficult feelings, they often discover that these unpleasant feelings lead them to new insights about their current situation or about themselves. It would appear that we sometimes also assume that the only thing to be done with unpleasant emotions is to get rid of them as soon as possible.

In this article, we would like to explore the concept of suffering from a series of intersecting vantage points: positive psychology, philosophy, and theology. The convergence of these vantage points provides a rich context for thinking about suffering: that of the flourishing life. While at first glance, the concept of flourishing may seem to be the antithesis of the concept of suffering, we propose that they are instead concepts that intersect in important ways. First, the flourishing life presents an alternative to hedonism. It proposes a framework for the "good life" that is different than "the pleasurable life." Secondly, the concept of the flourishing life can help us articulate a role for suffering. In the context of the flourishing life, suffering is not simply something to be gotten rid of, nor is it something that should be pursued for its own sake. Instead, 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 world-view 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.

In this article, we will first review the historical discourse on human flourishing from the fields of philosophy, theology, and positive psychology, and apply these insights to framing the topic of suffering. We then offer some psychological and biblical perspectives on the purposes of suffering. Finally, we will consider some implications of this conceptualization for the practice of therapy.


Over 3000 years of discourse on human flourishing is found in fields now associated with the disciplines of philosophy and theology. By and large, until the modern era, the discussion of human flourishing revolved around a vision of human nature that was assumed to be common to Christian and pagan alike because they shared a common humanity. Christianity certainly made distinctive contributions as we shall shortly see, but these were Christian advancements on a common project rather than a wholesale rejection of the pagan vision.

Philosophical Reflections on Human Flourishing

Classical philosophical discourse on human flourishing is commonly framed under the rubric of virtue ethics, eudaimonism, or eudaimonistic ethics. To greatly condense an expansive discourse, at least three common features emerge from these discussions:

Objectivity of the good. For classical philosophy, the good was an objective notion that attached to the design or function of the object in question. The good knife was the knife that cut well because the function of a knife is to cut. This is not a statement of opinion but a statement of fact; knives are artifacts constructed with a purpose in mind, and that purpose is to cut. Furthermore, the cutting ability of a knife can be objectively assessed. Unlike personal preferences, cutting ability is a piece of public knowledge, not private knowledge (Aristotle, 1985; Pakaluk, 2005).

When it comes to human beings, of course, function or intended design is more difficult to assess. People are different and have different desires. They may even have different self-assessments of "what they were made to do." Classical philosophers were aware of these differences; nonetheless, they saw a bedrock of commonality among all people. Certain things are just part of human life, and certain other things are unique and distinctive of human nature. A good human life will be characterized by successfully doing the things that all human beings must do and fully expressing the most distinctive features of human nature (Nussbaum, 1988). Successfully doing and being was discussed under the rubric of "virtue" (Pakaluk, 2005).

The objectivity of the good guarantees a certain kind of disjunction between subjective states of happiness and human flourishing. In other words, it avoids the conflation of pleasure and flourishing. When flourishing is rooted in human nature, subjective emotions about the situation become less important than congruence with notions of being a "good human." In addition, de-emphasizing emotional evaluations of the good life makes flourishing compatible with suffering. While suffering may not produce happiness directly, it might promote a long-term character change, life re-orientation, or worldview change that would be contributive or constitutive of human flourishing.

Teleological understanding of human action. Classical ethics understood human action as deeply teleological. In fact, it begins with teleology. The first assumption of classical thought was that all human beings seek to be happy. This is neither argued for nor hypothesized--it is taken as an unquestionable given. Ethics is teleological because human action is seen as oriented toward the outcome of human flourishing. We act in order to promote our happiness, with happiness taken in the sense of well-being, not pleasurable sensation. Good action is conducive to flourishing or well-being; bad action is not. Good action, then, is fundamentally positive and self-justifying because it moves one toward the goal of flourishing as a human being.

The teleological understanding of human action clarifies the nature of suffering: suffering is not the telos of human action. No normal human being would choose to pursue suffering as a life project. Consequently, the goods to which suffering might contribute need to form a narrative bridge between suffering and one's life pursuits. In other words, suffering must be incorporated into one's life story--a point on which we will elaborate in discussing implications for therapy.

Importance of virtue and character. The classical philosophers viewed the attainment of virtuous character as being at the center of human moral growth. Virtues are stable dispositions toward skilled execution of certain good activities; virtues become characteristic of a person (Mattison, 2008). In effect, the virtuous person consistently does the right thing well, across a broad range of human activity, even in challenging circumstances (Lewis, 1952). A virtue becomes a reliable resource for future obstacles, enabling a person to overcome new challenges based on previous patterns of successful living (Mattison, 2008). Finally, the possession of virtue includes performing good actions with the right motives, intentions, and attitudes (Lewis, 1952; Mattison, 2008).

This emphasis on virtue also has implications for our conceptualization of suffering. The connection of flourishing with character immediately creates a place for suffering. While not all suffering is generative of good character, it is often the case that it does make a positive contribution to character formation in the cultivation of virtues such as perseverance and compassion, as we will discuss below.

Theological Reflections on Human Flourishing

Theological contributions to human flourishing share many common elements with pagan thought. When considering biblical discussions of human flourishing, the most striking feature one notices is the amount of common ground between Israel and its ancient near eastern neighbors (Curtis, 1986). Within the biblical framework, this first becomes apparent when one reads the book of Proverbs and other wisdom literature. One finds entire sections of Proverbs adopted wholesale from people outside the covenant community. The entire book of Job describes "a man from the east" and presumably not a member of the nation of Israel. The focus of the wisdom literature is on living well--in fact, wisdom is often defined in the biblical context as the skill of successful living. The scope of successful living includes work, and war, and wives, and wine, and women, and worship. It includes hospitality, and money management, and business planning. It guides one in relationships with friends, enemies, kings, fools, and sages. In essence, it is a treatise on human flourishing.

The New Testament continues many of these themes. Though it is not uncommon to contrast Old Testament emphases on material concerns with New Testament concerns for spiritual matters, this is easily overstated. The New Testament most commonly sees spirituality reflected in the way we relate to the ordinary human tasks of managing a home, fidelity in relationships, integrity in speech and conduct, generosity and justice. In short, New Testament moral exhortations do not read that differently than the book of Proverbs.

This commonality becomes explicit when early church fathers take up the matter of human flourishing. There is a fundamental agreement that human action seeks the good or happy life. It seems as impossible to argue against this as to argue that people are not rational bipeds. It is a truth obvious enough to form a common ground between pagan and Christian. To cite the example of Augustine (1969):

All philosophers in common have sought to grasp the happy life by studying, by engaging in discussion and by living. This has been the one and only reason for philosophizing. Now I consider that philosophers are no different from us in this respect. For, if I ask you why you have believed in Christ and why you have become Christians, every man gives this true answer: "To achieve the happy life." Therefore the appetite for the happy life is common to philosophers and Christians alike, (pp. 86-87)

However, Christian accounts of human flourishing also include some unique features. At least three differences between classical and Christian thought on human flourishing are particularly relevant to this discussion:

God as the highest good. Classical philosophers debated the nature of the highest good, and whether or not there was a single notion of the good in all cases or whether there were different sorts of good according to different natures. Christian thought is strongly committed to understanding God as the supreme good:

The highest good, than which there is no higher, is God, and consequently He is unchangeable good, hence truly eternal and truly immortal. All other good things are only from Him ... He is able to make good things both great and small, both celestial and terrestrial, both spiritual and corporeal ... no good things whether great or small, through whatever gradations of things, can exist except from God. (Augustine, 2010, n.p.)

This commitment to God as the highest good made the notion of good personal and active rather than non-personal and abstract. The Good was, therefore, an object of worship and veneration, not merely something that was pursued for the sake of personal benefit. Ultimately, all virtues dropped anchor in the harbor of the divine nature, rather than merely the flourishing human nature. It was God who had ordered the universe and given it its form and beauty. As we come in line with the cosmic order, we are really aligning ourselves with the character of God.

If we take seriously the notion of God as the highest good, then the worship of God becomes a key contributive factor to human flourishing. A quick survey of the biblical data immediately reveals that the soil of suffering is an excellent place to sow seeds for a harvest of worship. Countless Psalms, narratives, and prophetic stories revolve around meeting God in the context of one's suffering or despair. Furthermore, the worship of God (whom we cannot see) is intimately connected in Christian thought with the very personal task of loving our neighbor (whom we can see). Suffering often affords opportunities to love and be loved that translate into an enriched opportunity to worship God.

Personalizing of human function and design. In much the same way that the notion of the Good was personalized by God, the notion of human nature underwent a parallel transformation. Instead of answering to a non-personal design or nature instantiated within a particular human body, Christians understood themselves as answering to a personal designer-the Creator himself. The notion of design relative to human beings was not limited to the generic and universal features that all human beings held in common, but rather the notion of design was expanded to include distinctive features of individual human beings that were divinely ordained. Gifts were "apportioned to each one individually as He [God's Spirit] wills" (1 Corinthians 12:11). Good deeds were ordained before the foundation of the earth that we might walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). In a sense, for Greeks, a human life involved possessing a nature that all human beings held in common. For Christians, human life was not possessing a nature but rather receiving a stewardship. Life was a gift from God for which He would demand an accounting. Living according to design, therefore, is not merely a matter of practical wisdom, it is also a matter of fealty to the Lord of life. Human flourishing takes on a deeply personal aspect. Greek notions of fate also undergo a similar transformation. At a broad social level, fate is displaced by the doctrine of providence--a personal God who appoints authority and assigns the times and places for all the people of the earth. At an individual level, fate is displaced by the doctrine of calling. God calls and appoints individual human beings to particular tasks that serve his sovereign purposes.

The personalizing of notions of human design and the replacing of notions of fate with notions of calling also provide rich resources for narrating our suffering. Events are ordained for God's purposes, and we understand them by attaching them to the divine calling upon our life. Suffering is made meaningful, though it does remain suffering. The joy and meaning are found through attaching suffering to a larger narrative or life project--a project which is in some sense moved forward by patient endurance of suffering.

Sanctification and human flourishing. For contemporary Christian thought, human flourishing is commonly displaced from theological discourse by the doctrine of sanctification. What Christians are called to pursue is their "sanctification" rather than a flourishing human lifestyle. Before leaving our background discussion, it seems necessary to discuss the relationship between notions of human flourishing and sanctification.

New Testament thought on sanctification seems to flow along two lines. On the one hand is a fairly familiar pattern of virtues for the conduct of ordinary human affairs, exhibiting integrity in work, family, and social relationships. On the other hand, there is substantial emphasis on our "spiritual" life expressed most commonly by phrases like "abiding in Christ" or "walking in Christ" or "[being] filled with Christ" or simply "living in Christ." This latter line of thought may seem distant from the language of human flourishing, but it can be argued that this difference masks an underlying unity with classical notions of human flourishing.

Classical notions of human flourishing depend strongly on excellence in distinctively human attributes. The abilities and activities that most distinguish humans from all other animals are the abilities and activities that are most constitutive of human flourishing. Interestingly enough, when reading the creation narratives, one quickly discovers that what is unique to human beings is that human life is "life in the image of God." This is our species marker. As Berkhof (1941) notes, "According to Scripture the essence of man consists in this, that he is the image of God. As such he is distinguished from all other creatures and stands supreme as the head and crown of the entire creation" (p. 205). Though the exact nature of the image of God is debated, it is commonly thought to include some set of distinctively human qualities, particularly including our rational and moral capacities.

More important for the present discussion is the transformation of the reference of "image of God" which takes place in the New Testament. For New Testament writers, the image of God still contains the echoes of the Old Testament notion (see James 3:9), but Christ himself subsumes the role of the quintessential image bearer. He himself is the image of the invisible God. He takes on within his person and accomplishes for the first time in human history the divinely ordained role of being God's regent to the created order. What is interesting is how this brings the language of human flourishing together with the language of sanctification. If "image bearing" is that which is distinctively human, and Christ is the quintessential image bearer, then he is also the quintessential human. And therefore, all of the "in Christ" language of sanctification is actually at one and the same time a call to "life in the image" or truly and fully human life. It is a Christ-centered vision of human flourishing. As Ireneaus put it, "the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of the human person is the vision of God" (2010, n.p.).

Suffering is also relevant to the project of sanctification. Clearly, the formation of godly character is essential to sanctification and the connection between suffering and character formation has already been identified. However, sanctification is also marked by union with Christ--becoming not only like him in terms of character qualities but also intimately connected with him--a life of "abiding" in Christ. It seems that suffering can also be a point of personal connection with Christ--at least Paul makes this connection quite explicitly. Apparently, both suffering itself (Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24) and also the attendant comfort one might receive in the context of suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, 7:4-7) contribute to one's union and intimacy with Christ.

Virtues of Positive Psychology and Flourishing

As noted above, the eudaimonistic model views virtuous character as essential to the flourishing life. Character has also become of increasing interest to psychologists in the new area of positive psychology. Work in this area has developed a descriptive classification of 24 strengths of character organized under six core virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Research has indicated that these character strengths are endorsed (seen as "most like me") in similar ways around the world, despite the cultural, ethnic, religious and economic differences in the samples (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006). The most commonly endorsed strengths are kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude, and open-minded-ness. Research has also shown that certain character strengths--specifically, zest, gratitude, hope, curiosity, and love--are more associated with life satisfaction than others (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). In our terms, certain character virtues are more central to the flourishing life than others.

These findings from psychology connect with both the eudaimonistic tradition, and with biblical teachings, in interesting ways. First, they confirm the universality of notions of character, and the centrality of character to the flourishing life, held by eudaimonism. Secondly, the character strengths most central to the flourishing life have an astonishing similarity to the virtues elevated above others by Paul in scripture (I Corinthians 13:13) and proposed by the eudaimonistic theologian Thomas Aquinas (2008) as the three "supernatural" virtues: faith, hope and love. Of course, secular research on the virtues can only be considered analogues--rough equivalents--of these supernatural virtues, given the spiritual motivation and content of the latter. A third point worth making is that these virtues that are most central to the flourishing life are not the most widely endorsed (with the exception of gratitude, which figures in both lists). This suggests that, while valued, these virtues are not easily attainable. Perhaps Aquinas (and Paul, for that matter) were on to something in suggesting that these virtues arc "supernatural," requiring assistance from God in their cultivation--often through the venue of suffering.


According to the biblical worldview, most or all suffering is the result of the entrance of sin into the world. While it is possible that some adversity accompanied the pre-Fall state, it is clear from Scripture that the curse amplified the difficulties faced by human persons (Genesis 3:16-19). Nevertheless, God does have ways of using the evil of the fallen world. The Bible never confuses evil with good, nor does it attempt to bleach pain from the fabric of suffering. What it does do, and do consistently, is set suffering in a broader and higher context: the context of the providence and purposes of God. In spite of its origins in the Fall, suffering is bent to the purposes of the stronger will and higher purposes of a benevolent God. The Bible states this in global terms in Romans 8:28, reminding us that God works all things together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. But it also states this in more personal terms reminding us of the benefits of suffering both in the building of virtuous character (Romans 5:1-3; James 1:3-5) and also in the benefit that our suffering brings to others (for example, the suffering of Joseph paving the way for provision for all of the rest of his family during a famine, Genesis 50:20). Lest we think this is unfair, Scripture also reminds us that suffering works in exactly this two-fold pattern in the life of the Lord Jesus. It both contributed to his character in that he learned obedience from the things he suffered, and it also contributed to the good of others because "having been made perfect, he became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:7-9).

According to Scripture, there are at least three kinds of goods that can result from suffering. First, some of the pain we experience in our fallen world is the direct result of our own wrongdoing. In these cases, God's punishment for our waywardness is intended to serve a corrective function. However, much of the suffering we face is the result of the sins of others or comes from the general disorder of our world, leading to two further kinds of goods: the nurture of enduring traits of character and a reorientation toward relationship with God and others.

We see a great deal of congruence between the theological and psychological perspectives on the role that suffering can play. First, although the source of correction remains absent from the perspective of psychological research, self-inflicted suffering can serve as the marker or signpost of disordered living. Pain can show that one is failing to live according to design. Theology amplifies the psychological account by identifying the source of the human design plan and hence the personal source behind the corrective function of the pain that results when persons deviate from their design.

Second, both positive psychology and theology recognize the constructive potential of adversity in providing a context for the cultivation of enduring, virtuous traits of character. Practitioners from both disciplines discuss the kinds of traits that can result by undergoing difficult circumstances. The biblical framework includes the end purpose assigned to these enduring traits: the survival of the person and his or her character through death and beyond (II Peter 3:11-14). In other words, the timeframe for the endurance extends to eternity, showing that the ultimate goods are those that are indestructible.

Third, both positive psychology and theology agree that suffering can serve to redirect people toward the goods associated with relationship and can reorient deeply held worldviews and beliefs. Psychology has a placeholder in the form of a general affirmation of religious belief as that in which a person may find solace in times of difficulty. As Christians, we affirm the need for a personal relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the universe as satisfying the deepest need of the human person. In the following paragraphs, the three purposes of suffering emerging from the theological and psychological perspectives will be reviewed.

Suffering as a Marker for Sin

As noted above, sometimes suffering is a marker for the presence of sin. The first kind of suffering that can lead to positive outcomes results from the corrective process of punishment and judgment. For those within the covenant, God's punishment is the result of the breach of covenant requirements. Leviticus describes the escalating levels of punishment and travail that will result should the covenant partners refuse to turn back to the Lord in fidelity at each level of discipline (Leviticus 26:14-39). Each set of circumstances from the Lord's hand provides a new opportunity to "listen," to heed the Lord. The provision of multiple opportunities for correction extends not only to members of the covenant partnership, but also to those outside it, with varying results. Pharaoh, for example, experienced brief changes of heart in the midst of the plagues; he recognized that the suffering of his nation was the result of his own sin and that of his people (Exodus 9:27-28; 10:16). Unfortunately, Pharaoh reversed his position yet again, subjecting his people to further suffering and tragedy. In such instances, suffering and hardship is the self-caused result of sin. Yet, suffering possesses potential to bring about good results by being a signpost that indicates the presence of disorder. Just as physical pain provides a marker that something is awry, so other kinds of suffering can direct one away from damaging behavior.

Suffering as Character Formation

The second kind of good resulting from suffering is that of virtuous character formation. As in the tradition of eudaimonism, the biblical writers affirm that the best goods for the human person are those that endure. While many such goods are unique to the Christian vision, such as those pertaining to the afterlife, others are shared in common with eudaimonism. In particular, Scripture describes various character traits that can result through suffering. The virtues become stable and enduring features of the character of the person who obtains them. James, echoing the themes of Old Testament wisdom, encourages believers to rejoice because suffering can result in maturity (perfection, completion) of character (James 1:2-4). He contrasts the instability of the good of riches (1:10-11) with the enduring good that comes to those who withstand trial and difficulty (1:12). In various Old Testament wisdom texts, the righteous person's suffering is compared to the affluence and apparent flourishing of the wicked. The goods and pleasures of the wicked ought not be envied because they are fleeting. Riches and wealth, for instance, can be lost in an instant through death or disaster (Psalms 73:18-20; 37:2, 20, 36, 38). The contented wicked are placed "in slippery places" (73:18). The righteous person endures through disaster and ultimately through death.

There are also certain character traits that are virtuous but which only appear in the context of pain and suffering. Forgiveness is pointless if there is no sin. Wisdom is the skill of living well, and living well requires no skill in paradise. Maturity is often marked by the ability to overcome increasingly difficult challenges (Nash, 1988). Evils and dangers make the cultivation and employment of wisdom more necessary than it would be without them (Lactantius, n.d.). Paul explains that the suffering he underwent from his "thorn" was given to help him learn humility and dependence on Christ (II Corinthians 12:6-10). The author of Hebrews describes the result of hardship as "the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12:11).

At first glance, it would not seem that positive psychology has much to contribute to an understanding of suffering. After all, its stated aim is to study what goes right in life, not what goes wrong in life. However, research coming out of this tradition has discovered that suffering is connected with the flourishing life. As one positive psychologist put it, "crisis may or may not be the crucible of character, but it certainly allows the display of what virtue ethicists refer to as corrective strengths of character'" (Peterson, 2006, p. 156).

In fact, positive changes have been reported empirically following chronic illness, heart attacks, breast cancer, bone marrow transplants, HIV and AIDS, rape and sexual assault, military combat, maritime disasters, plane crashes, tornadoes, shootings, bereavement, injury, recovery from substance addiction, and in the parents of children with disabilities (Joseph & Linley, 2005). This type of change is known in the psychological literature by a number of labels: posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth, positive adjustment, positive adaptation, and adversarial growth. The idea is that it is through the process of struggling with adversity that changes may arise that propel the individual to a higher level of functioning than that which existed prior to the event.

Several studies on character change and suffering have been conducted within the theoretical orientation of positive psychology. Peterson and Seligman (2003) compared character strengths before and after September 11, 2001. They compared respondents to their on-line measure of character strengths in the two months immediately post-9/11 with those filling it out before 9/11. They found that scores significantly increased for intimacy, kindness, gratitude, citizenship/teamwork, hope and spirituality. Peterson suggested that these fit into the "faith, hope, and love" trilogy of virtues.

Many of us have an intuitive sense that crises can leave a person with a fresh appreciation of what really matters in life and the readiness to act in accordance with this appreciation. Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2006) used their large data set to look at this issue, too. They asked people about physical illnesses, psychological disorders, or traumatic events like assaults. Those recovering from serious physical illness had increased appreciation of beauty, bravery, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, humor, kindness, love of learning, and spirituality. Of these, bravery, kindness, and humor were also related to life satisfaction. A history of psychological disorders showed increases in appreciation of beauty, creativity, curiosity, gratitude, and love of learning. Appreciation of beauty and love of learning were the two in this group that were most connected to life satisfaction. The biblical and psychological data converge in suggesting that suffering can lead to the development of virtues.

Suffering as a Worldview Modifier

The third set of changes engendered by suffering has to do with the reorienting function of difficulties. A consistent theme of Scripture is the redirection of one's thoughts, desires, and attention toward the things of God (Colossians 3:1-4). Suffering and pain can help bring needed perspective. Paul encouraged the Corinthians by insisting that trials can bring about inward renewal. "So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16).

It seems that shifting our attention away from ourselves is a difficult task. We naturally judge all affairs from our own point of view. We try the goodness of God in our own court. It seems, interestingly enough, that God at times can use suffering to accomplish a change in venue. He uses suffering to capture our full attention and once he has our attention, he communicates in no uncertain terms a most unwelcome message: I am God and you are not! There is no better example of this in Scripture than the experience of Job. Job was a righteous man who suffered much. Worse yet, he suffered for no reason--at least no reason that was apparent from his vantage point. His unwelcome counselors ironically maintained the focus on Job himself, prodding and probing his claim of righteous innocence. Throughout the discourse, the focus is on Job, on what has happened to him, on what he has done, and what he has not done. God allows the tension to build for over 30 chapters, until finally God speaks. At this point, the venue of the trial of God's goodness changes dramatically. No longer is the courtroom in Job's jurisdiction. In fact, Job's entire affair is swept aside with a thrilling and frightening thunderclap of God's creative power. The only resolution to the suffering Job has endured is found when Job proves willing to change the focus of his attention from himself to God. He humbly acknowledges, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted ... I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know" (Job 42:2-3). Job has learned to know God better. He has seen his Redeemer with new and fresh eyes--eyes cleansed by the tears of suffering. His suffering has not been explained, but it has been set into context, and thereby it has been substantially diminished. This is a hard and theo-centric sort of theodicy, but it is a theodicy that restores God and humanity back into their proper relationship.

The reason why suffering often produces good outcomes is because it provides a reorientation and reevaluation of one's pursuits. It helps people to recognize their need for God and for other relationships. They realize they need to pursue "what really matters." Suffering is a gift, but not an intrinsic one. It is not to be sought for its own sake, nor should it be tolerated passively. At minimum, it should serve to lead us back into relationship and dependency on God.

Psychological research on the kinds of change that occur after adversity also seems to confirm the reorienting function of suffering (Joseph & Linley, 2005). First, people often report that their relationships are enhanced in some way, for example, that they now value their friends and family more and feel an increased compassion and altruism toward others. Second, people change their views of themselves in some way; for example, they have a greater sense of personal resiliency, wisdom, and strength, perhaps coupled with a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations. Finally, there are often reports of changes in life philosophy; for example, people report finding a fresh appreciation for each new day and renegotiating what really matters to them in the full realization that their life is finite. These positive changes in psychological well-being can underpin a whole new way of living that embraces the central tenets of positive psychology. People report that their awareness guides them to live their lives in an authentic way, interpreting their trauma as a valued learning opportunity and giving back to others through the benefit of their experience.

What is it about suffering that can produce the kinds of changes we have just noted? Research on adult life transitions, such as loss or crisis, and psychological growth suggests the psychological ramifications of these transitions are dependent on both subjective interpretation (cognitive appraisal) and the individual context in which transitions take place. Linley and Joseph (2004) looked at 39 studies that had documented positive change following trauma and adversity, and found a number of variables that were consistently associated with growth.

The cognitive appraisal, or subjective interpretation of the event is of primary importance. The impact of a life transition or event on an individual's belief system is dependent on the previous characteristics of that belief system. A major event may invoke revelation, revaluation, and change, or it may simply reinforce existing beliefs. For example, a client that I (Elizabeth) saw several years ago lost her faith and became bitter and depressed when her sister was murdered. As a Sunday School teacher who taught her students that God always watched over them and took care of them, her framework couldn't accommodate the death of her sister. So she lost her faith in the God who had not protected her sister when he was supposed to.

Cognitive appraisal also influences how the threat is perceived. Greater levels of perceived threat and harm are associated with higher levels of adversarial growth. Controllability of the events also changed outcome. Stressful and traumatic experiences that lead to perceptions of life threat, uncontrollability, and helplessness are more likely to precipitate growth. Interestingly, the more events are perceived as devastating and out of a person's control, the more changes occur.

A confrontation with an adverse event may have a shattering effect on a person's assumptive world, and when this occurs there is a need to integrate the new trauma-related information. The nature of adverse events is that they demonstrate incongruence and conflict between existing models of the world and the trauma-related experience. Adverse events show us that we are fragile, that the future is uncertain, and that what happens to us can be random. Adverse events show us the limits of the human condition and bring into question our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

When the individual does not engage with the significance of the event, but rather attempts to retain the pretrauma worldview, the person will leave his or her worldview fragile to future fragmentation and vulnerable to subsequent traumatization. Ideally, the person will be led to think of what are the implications of this event for the way they lead their lives, for their worldviews, and for their life philosophy. But if they are not able to accommodate the event, these questions will lead to reactions of hopelessness and helplessness (e.g., the world is a bad place where random bad things happen and there is nothing I can do about it).


What are the implications of suffering and the flourishing life for therapy? In the first place, it can guide our decision-making in therapy. Rather than assuming that alleviation of the suffering is the immediate or primary target, the role of the suffering in pointing to sin, in producing character, or in reorienting the client's worldview can be attended to.

Second, a greater understanding of the role of suffering can impact the goal of treatment. A Christian view of the flourishing life sees God as the supreme Good; an understanding of God as the ultimate Good leads to aligning our character with God's and to a life characterized by worship. As noted above, suffering can be used by God in key ways in accomplishing these goals. Suffering can lead to increasing conformity to the character of Christ. It can also re-orient the Christian toward the God who promises to redeem suffering and who suffered with us in the form of the cross. In this way, suffering takes on meaning in the hands of an all-knowing and loving God.

A third implication of considering suffering in light of the flourishing life is the crucial role that narrative assumes in the healing process. The connections must be drawn between suffering and one's life projects in a way that authentically reflects both the suffering one experiences, but also in a way which makes sense of that suffering in light of one's pursuit of a flourishing human life. "Happy is he who suffers and knows why" (Paul Claudel, cited in Hauerwas, 1986, p. 31). Psychologist Dan McAdams has demonstrated in extensive research that we provide our lives with unity and purpose by constructing these narratives of the self, and that the narratives of flourishing individuals are characterized by redemptive themes, in which negative life events are seen as transformative (Bauer, McAdams, & Pals, 2008).

If suffering is not written into our life, it remains a constant interruption or intrusion. The research cited above demonstrates that when individuals do not engage with the significance of the events for their worldview-when they deny the impact of the suffering--they isolate it from their "real story." They refuse to narrate their suffering into their story, thus failing to allow it to contribute in positive ways to their life. Stanley Hauerwas (1986) notes that "one of the problems with suffering is that it alienates us from ourselves--'this thing that is happening to me is not me.' But it is exactly the ability to make the suffering mine that is crucial if I am to be an integral self" (p. 25).

In contrast, finding a place for suffering in our narratives provides the suffering with meaning or, at a minimum, allows us to claim the suffering as ours. Every doctor can testify to the importance of indicating the causes of suffering (even if it is cancer) because the patient, knowing the cause of his or her suffering, is comforted by being able to name the affliction. Somehow it domesticates suffering if we are able to locate it in our world. A Christian perspective on the flourishing life takes this a step further in its emphasis on the teleological goal of flourishing and its understanding of calling. Our suffering can lead us to flourishing in becoming increasingly conformed to the image of God, demonstrated in Christ. Suffering can also be understood as accomplishing God's purposes, as serving the divine calling upon our life.

Scripture is replete with references to suffering accomplishing God's calling in the lives of individuals. Examples are given of suffering which produces God-pleasing character (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:24), which advances the spread of the gospel (Philippians 1:12), which authenticates one's calling (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), or which confirms one's identity as a child of God (Hebrews 12:7). In all these situations, biblical authors narrate their suffering into the context of their calling.

In this article, we have argued for the usefulness of considering suffering in the context of the flourishing life. When life is rightly considered as the pursuit of the objectively good life in which we live as we were intended to live, reflecting God's image, then suffering can be evaluated in light of its contributions to that telos or end. Considering suffering in purely hedonistic ways limits our ability to enable our clients' healing and growth, and may even hinder their ability to flourish. In contrast, facilitating our clients' weaving of their suffering into the tapestry of a meaningful life can aid in healing, growth, and ultimately, pursuit of the highest Good who suffered on the cross to bring us abundant life.


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HALL, ELIZABETH, L. Address: Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, 13800 Biola Ave., La Mirada, CA 90639. Title: Associate Professor of Psychology, Degree: PhD, Clinical Psychology, Biola University. Specializations: Women's issues, missions and mental health integration of psychology and theology.

MCMARTIN, JASON. Address: Rosemead School of Psychology Biola University 13800 Biola Avenue La Mirada, CA 90639. Title: Assistant Professor of Theology. Degrees: BA Biblical Studies, MA Philosophy of Religion, Biola University, MA Philosophy, PhD Religion, Claremont Graduate University. Specializations: Systematic theology, philosophical theology, religious epistemology.

LANGER, RICHARD. Address: Biblical Studies and Theology, Talbot School of Theology 13800 Biola Ave, La Mirada CA 90639. Title: Associate Professor, Biblical Studies and Theology, Talbot School of Psychology. Degree: MA & PhD, Philosophy, University of California, Riverside. MDiv, Talbot Seminary (Biola University), BS, Colorado State University. Specializations: Theological integration, moral philosophy, philosophy of religion.


Biola University

Please address correspondence to Dr. Elizabeth L. Hall, Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, 13800 Biola Ave., La Mirada, CA 90639.
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Author:Hall, M.Elizabeth Lewis; Langer, Richard; McMartin, Jason
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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