Perseverance or Complacency?

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By Greg Forster; part two of a series.

How do we help people suffer without helping them suffer? That is, how can we help people persevere through suffering, and even “rejoice in our sufferings,” without becoming complacent about their suffering or even – God forbid! – contributing to social conditions that increase suffering?

This is a paradox the faith and work movement has to face. As we saw in the first part of this series, suffering is a ubiquitous aspect of work. We need to be aware of both horns of this dilemma if we are to help people suffer without helping perpetuate, or even create, suffering.

On the one hand, none of the Christian virtues that we want people to practice – honesty, diligence, self-control, generosity – can in fact be practiced without perseverance through suffering. There’s an old saying that courage is the first virtue because all the others depend on it. That’s a modern-day adaptation of an older wisdom about one of the four traditional “cardinal” virtues: fortitude. And fortitude was classically held to include not only courage in our modern sense but also perseverance. (C.S. Lewis identified it with having what is known in common parlance as “guts”).

But the Christian virtues are not ends in themselves. Perseverance is necessary for virtue because virtue is a means to taking comfort in, trusting in and rejoicing in the Lord. In Romans 5:3-5, Paul says we “rejoice in our sufferings” not only because “endurance produces character” (that’s the virtue part) but also because “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Probably my favorite faith and work book (other than my own, of course, and I guess the Bible, too) revolves around perseverance through suffering. Lester DeKoster wrote his little masterpiece Work: The Meaning of Your Life in tribute to the Grand Rapids factory workers to whom he taught night classes. In the book he impressionistically records their stories of suffering and dehumanization, then helps show how their work is nonetheless service to God and neighbor of which they can be profoundly proud. His appreciation of the factory workers’ perseverance through suffering has the character of Plato’s appreciation of Socrates or Harold Bloom’s appreciation of Shakespeare.

Not everyone, though, admires this book as much as I do, and I can see why. I shared this book with a friend and was chagrined to discover my friend disliked it. That response made me re-read the book with fresh eyes, and I see some of its deficiencies better now than I did at first.

DeKoster is so impressed with both the spiritual necessity and the beauty of those workers’ perseverance that he neglects to offer much hope that their situation might be bettered. That means missed opportunities to do real good for them, removing their suffering. Worse, if we become seriously hardened in complacency about suffering, our teaching workers to persevere may at some level facilitate the suffering itself.

DeKoster can defend his emphasis on perseverance over reform. In Work, he rightly exposes the cheapness and implausibility of the stories that we often hear about how social progress through market-driven economic development inevitably removes the sufferings of life. And he is even more skeptical – again, rightly – of pie-in-the-sky plans to substitute something else in the place of economic markets. In this vale of tears, suffering will always be with us; neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx will remove it.

Nonetheless, DeKoster’s neglect of real opportunities to improve the lot of the worker is an important flaw. While neither markets by themselves nor substitutes for markets will remove suffering, there are many opportunities within the operation of market systems to remove human suffering. We can support and reform moral norms of acceptable market behavior, and invent new ways of doing business that treat people better while also watching the bottom line. It’s important not to expect too much of such efforts, but it’s also important not to expect too little!

I think Tom Nelson speaks to this kind of challenge when he talks about “hopeful realism.” We do need to be realistic – live in the real world and not indulge in the magical thinking encouraged by worldly ideologies. But hopefulness about the prospects for Spirit-driven change in cultural systems is also “realism.” After all, the power of the Spirit is a real thing! Cynical complacency, thinking that the world will never change, is itself a kind of unrealism. In light of the great changes the church has led in the past, to deny the possibility of change is the most magical thinking of all.

With apologies to Tom – and to Paul – hopeful realism will not put us to shame.

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