The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is God Pleased to See Us Suffer?
STRUGGLING under the weight of a large wooden cross, a man stumbles through the crowds as blood trickles from a crown of thorns on his head. Once at the “execution” site, he is stretched out on the cross; large nails are pounded into his hands. He wrenches with pain as the nails pierce flesh. When the cross is swung upright, the pain becomes excruciating. According to Panorama, a Philippine magazine, such painful rituals are regularly featured during Holy Week celebrations in the Philippines.
What was just described is a modern-day interpretation of Jesus’ sufferings. But this man is not just acting out a scene from a play. The nails, the blood, the pain—they are all very real.
Elsewhere, Roman Catholic devotees can be seen publicly flogging themselves in their desire to experience the sufferings of Christ. Why? Some do this in the belief that their sufferings will produce miracles, such as the healing of their sick loved ones. Others do it to atone for sins for which, they fear, there is no forgiveness unless their own blood is shed. The book The Filipinos explains: “Pain is a good cleanser of the mind and soul. . . . The sinner is supposed to emerge from the pain cleansed of sins and eased of burdens.”
Self-inflicted pain, however, is by no means confined to the Catholics of the Philippines. People from various religions and in different lands believe that self-imposed sufferings hold some merit with God.
For instance, in his search for truth, the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, left his wife and son and fled to the desert, where for six years he lived the life of an ascetic. He assumed awkward and painful positions for hours and later claimed to have lived for long spells on a grain of rice a day, growing so thin that he said: “The skin of my belly came to be cleaving to my back-bone.” But no amount of self-inflicted torture was able to bring the enlightenment he sought.
Likewise, the Hindu fakirs of India underwent various penances that were sometimes severe in the extreme—lying between fires, staring at the sun until they went blind, standing on one leg or in other awkward postures for great lengths of time. The virtue of certain ascetics was thought to be so great that it could protect a city from enemy attack.
Similarly, the Bible speaks of the worshipers of Baal who cut themselves “according to their custom with daggers and with lances, until they caused blood to flow out upon them” in a vain attempt to get the attention of their god.—1 Kings 18:28.
“You Must Afflict Your Souls”
While it is true that Jehovah commanded his chosen nation: “you must afflict your souls,” this is generally understood to mean fasting. (Leviticus 16:31) Such fasting was an expression of sorrow and repentance for sins or was done when under distressing conditions. Thus, fasting was not a self-inflicted form of punishment but represented a humbling of oneself before God.—Ezra 8:21.
There were some Jews, however, who mistakenly thought that the very discomfort involved in afflicting the soul had merit and that it put God under obligation to give them something in return. When no such reward was forthcoming, they presumptuously asked God about the payment they thought they deserved: “For what reason did we fast and you did not see, and did we afflict our soul and you would take no note?”—Isaiah 58:3.
But they were wrong. Proper religious fasting did not involve asceticism, afflicting the body with hunger as though bodily pain or discomfort in itself had any merit. Strong emotion could have diminished their hunger. If the mind is gripped by pressing problems, the body may not crave food. This indicates to God the intense feelings of the one fasting.
Is God Pleased With Self-Inflicted Pain?
Does the loving Creator derive any happiness from watching people torture themselves? While it is true that at times Christians may be forced to become “sharers in the sufferings of the Christ,” this does not mean that they go looking for trouble or for a martyr’s crown.—1 Peter 4:13.
Certainly, Jesus was far from being an ascetic. The religious leaders complained because his disciples did not fast, and they even accused him of being “a man gluttonous and given to drinking wine.” (Matthew 9:14; 11:19) Jesus exhibited moderation in everything and did not demand of himself or of others more than what was reasonable.—Mark 6:31; John 4:6.
Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any basis for asceticism, as though denying ourselves the necessities or even the comforts of life would bring favor with God. Note the apostle Paul’s words concerning such painful practices: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Colossians 2:23.
Martin Luther, when a monk, literally tortured himself. Later, though, he turned against such practices, saying that they encouraged the idea of two roads to God, a higher and a lower, whereas the Scriptures taught only one way to salvation—through the exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Father, Jehovah. (John 17:3) Painful rituals, on the other hand, were viewed by some as a form of self-salvation.
The book Church History in Plain Language comments on asceticism: “Supporting the whole endeavor was an erroneous view of man. The soul, said the monk, is chained to the flesh as a prisoner to a corpse. That is not the biblical view of human life.” Yes, the very idea that self-inflicted pain can please God is foreign to the Scriptures. It finds its basis in the Gnostic fallacy that everything connected with the flesh is evil and should be abused as much as possible in order for one to gain salvation.
Since Jehovah wants us to be happy, serving such a delightful God is not a matter of becoming an ascetic. (Ecclesiastes 7:16) Thus, nowhere in the Scriptures are we told that such self-imposed sufferings are the way to salvation. On the contrary, God’s Word makes it clear that it is the blood of Christ, together with our faith in it, that cleanses us from all sins.—Romans 5:1; 1 John 1:7.