Aimee Patterson / Between Two Extremes

[The following essay is excerpted from Aimee Patterson’s Suffering Well and Suffering With: Reclaiming Marks of Christian Identity (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]

See how they love one another;

and how ready they are to die for each other.


I am writing in a strange position, or, I should say, positions.

I am on the other side of brain surgery, radiation, and chemo­therapy. I did that. I made it through! And I have the enduring wounds to prove it. My body is now easily bruised. The bruises I received over the year of chemo have remained. It’s a little embarrassing to wear a skirt above the knees. I’m sure people wonder if I’ve had a recent tumble down the stairs. There’s another reason I don’t like to wear skirts: I can’t get my feet into formal shoes. Many parts of my body are sensitive to slight pressure. My toes, feet, and calves suffer periodic cramping. This limits not only what shoes I wear but what I do with my body. I can take my child—an aspiring goalie—to hockey lessons, but we can’t skate together. When my kids rush into me with a hug, I have to bite back the pain in exchange for their love.

Over years of consults, experts in chronic pain have been confound­ed by my condition. Oral medications, occupational therapy, physiother­apy, massage, acupuncture, balms, creams, and dietary adjustments have offered no relief. But doctors and patients like to name things. It gives us the impression of power and control. I am unofficially diagnosed with neuropathy—unofficially because my symptoms do not fully conform to its criteria.

I have trained myself to manage and endure my pain. I sit in posi­tions that minimize the chances of cramping. And when pain wakes me up at night, I get up and work it out. Gingerly, I put pressure on one foot, then the other, until I can take a few steps. It’s a mind game too. “I’ve suffered worse,” I tell myself. “It will only be a few minutes before the cramping subsides. With any luck, I’ll sleep through the rest of the night.”

Strange positions. I’m in the middle of walking off the cramps in the arches of my feet.

Now, my days are not constantly laden with pain, and I am grateful for it. Still, these symptoms remind me that I live with a ticking time bomb. I have been treated, made well for now, but not cured. I bear re­sidual cancer cells the surgeon didn’t remove because of their proximity to my speech center. They may be triggered again. I live in between a period of intense treatment and the end of my life. And to be honest, sometimes I wish I could forget all of this.

The Identity of Early Christians

But Christians have not always wanted to forget about their pain or their impending death. When we compare how Western Christians today inter­pret the meaning and value of suffering with how suffering was considered in the earliest days of Christian community, we see stark differences in the marks of identity. An examination of both can help us uncover what it looks like (and what it does not look like) to suffer well in this in-between time.

In the seminal days of the Christian faith, believers were recognized by their willingness to undergo suffering for the sake of Christ. The Eng­lish word martyr comes from the Greek martys, a word simply meaning “witness” (see Acts 1:8). Today, however, martyrdom carries a quite dif­ferent connotation. To be a martyr is to suffer and die for something—often one’s faith. Of course, the earliest Christians who suffered and died for their faith were not the first people to do this. We only need look to Abraham, the father of a nation, whose obedience to God was defined in his willingness to sacrifice his only son born to Sarah in their old age (Gen 22:1–19). Then there were the exiled Israelites. Daniel was sent to (and delivered from) the lion’s den on account of his religious beliefs (Dan 6). When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were sentenced to death by fire, they accepted their punishment without resistance. They believed that God had the power to deliver them. But they also had faith enough to believe in God even if they were not delivered (see Dan 3:17–18a). Don’t forget the dying words of Eleazar, tortured and murdered at the will of Antiochus IV when he refused to eat swine. They give us a pointed expression of faith in suffering:

It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him. (2 Macc 6:30b)

The climax of the story comes when the sons of Eleazar, each sub­jected to calculated means of torture and death, speak up with boldness:

Put us to the test; and if you take our lives because of our re­ligion, do not suppose that you can injure us by torturing us. For we, through this severe suffering and endurance, shall have the prize of virtue and shall be with God, on whose account we suffer; but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire. (4 Macc 9:7–9)

Such pluck!

I make light of statements like these because I am so far removed from the kind of suffering that produced them. But they’re worth a sec­ond look. They come very close to what the early Christian martyrs ac­complished for the community of believers. They forged a link between being a witness to God and making faith-filled sacrifice. These martyrs, both women and men, were not outliers in the Christian community as martyrs are today. They played a vital role in a minority population of the Roman Empire. It was the martyr who defined what it meant to follow Christ.

To be a Christian was, of course, about belief in Jesus as the Christ who ushers in the kingdom of God. This belief, though, had consequences for Christian identity and, consequently, action. Following Christ wasn’t compatible with submitting to external authorities. Martyrs modeled a countercultural way of living—one set apart from Roman power and for Christ. Christians, they revealed, were the kind of people who are ready and willing to suffer and die on Christ’s account.[2] They lived out Paul’s words quite literally: “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22b). From the start of our faith, a readi­ness to suffer shaped the identity of Christian culture and community and thus also of an individual Christian’s character.

The literature of the day confirms this. Consider the writings of Tertullian. In a message directed to a group of imprisoned Christians, he humbly addresses them as “Blessed Martyrs Designate.” Tertullian admires the Christians who, in their adamant refusal to renounce their faith before Roman authorities, have accepted torment. It is a good thing, he insists, that the prisoners are cordoned off from the rest of society:

For, if we reflect that it is the very world that is more truly a prison, we shall realize that you have left a prison rather than entered one. . . . Consider yourselves as having been transferred from prison to what we may call a place of safety. Darkness is there, but you are light.[3]

Tertullian’s letter goes on to reveal more about what he believed about the martyrs. They not only had the power to be light in the dark­ness. They also had special access to God. They could advocate on behalf of those who had fallen away from the believing church. To top it off, they had no need to fear the final judgment of God in the way others—includ­ing other believers—did.

Today, we might consider this the faultiness of martyrdom. Ac­cording to Elizabeth Castelli, “The overprivileging of the self-sacrificial dimension of the ‘martyr’ results in a flattening out, the dangerous eclipsing of the possibility of recognizing the suffering of others.”[4] When martyrdom is about glory, we can forget to tend to those who suffer in­nocently—that is, who suffer not by choice but by accident. Such an ap­proach leaves room only for power and prestige, not compassion.

In another letter, this one written to Roman officials, Tertullian took the opportunity to defend the logic of martyrdom. He observed that even they should be able to see that Christians prefer punishment and death to a stain on their virtuous character.[5] This must have sounded like insanity to his audience! There is evidence that Rome did not have a persecution campaign directly aimed followers of Christ. Rather, it simply didn’t tol­erate any threat to the empire.[6] When Christians resisted acts of loyalty to Rome, their guilt lay not in their beliefs but in their noncompliance. The offence was not found in religion but in politics and power. As Jewish historian Daniel Boyarin describes it:

For the “Romans,” it didn’t matter much whether the lions were eating a robber or a bishop, and it probably didn’t make much of a difference to the lions, either, but the robber’s friends and the bishop’s friends told different stories about those leonine meals. It is in these stories that martyrdom, as opposed to execution or dinner, can be found, not in “what happened.”[7]

As perplexing as Christian martyrs were to Roman officials, they were a source of attraction to many outsiders living under Roman rule. Tertullian concluded his open letter with the observation that the pun­ishments martyrs suffered were actually “an enticement to our religion. We become more numerous every time we are hewn down by you: the blood of Christians is seed.”[8] There were many more survivors than mar­tyrs. But Christians who lived to tell the tale did so because the martyrs had given them a tale to tell.

Tertullian was not alone in his effort to shape the identity of early Christians by venerating the martyrs. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, of­fered a detailed account of the “glorious and invincible” martyrs who lost their lives for their faith.[9] To encourage hope, Cyprian wrote a bolstering narrative of six martyrs who had met their ends through beatings and the severing of tongues and hands. His frank and brutal account constructed a way of thinking and talking about Christian identity: Christianity is suffering, but not merely suffering. Christian suffering is a mark of transformation.

Some ancient accounts of suffering unto death are disputed. Con­sider Bartholomew from the first century, thought to be the apostle Nathanael. There are various legends about how Bartholomew died. The most popular is the grisliest: Bartholomew was hung upside down on a cross after being skinned alive. Today we shudder at the thought, but this description was a powerful rallying cry for the Christians of the time. He would be named the patron saint of butchers.[10]

These stories of martyrs participating in transformative suffering would soon become the stuff of legend. We find martyrs in the centuries of artwork that followed their deaths. Their depicters did not shy away from gory details but used them to create meaning. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting Last Judgment portrays a number of martyrs encircling Jesus Christ, who is judging the living and the dead. Jesus bears clear marks of his physical suffering on his hands, feet, and side. In contrast, each martyr is a picture of health. Their suffering is symbolized by what they hold in their hands: the weapons and torture devices that caused their martyrdom. Sebastian clasps the arrows that pierced him. Andrew braces his X-shaped cross. Catherine cradles a piece of her breaking wheel—now the eponymous “Catherine wheel.”

But the most graphic image, in my mind, is that of Bartholomew. Apart from Jesus’s mother, Mary, he is placed closest to the transformed Savior. Lounging on a cloud and in fine physique, Bartholomew holds a flaying knife in one hand and his flayed skin in the other. And while my eyes are led to the weapons held by other martyrs, when it comes to Bar­tholomew, it is his face that draws me in. In the midst of humbler martyrs and of Mary, whose head is bowed under a scarf and whose gaze is softly lowered, Bartholomew stares fiercely at Jesus, gesturing to him with what looks less like a knife and more like a sculpting file.

It is said that Michelangelo inserted his own head on the figure of Bartholomew. The artist would have been aware of the traditional belief that the act of martyrdom had given Bartholomew power and favor with God—things Michelangelo may have thought he deserved. You see, in his thirties, he had been compelled by Pope Julius II to spend nearly five years painting the Sistine ceiling. Later, in his senior years, another pope asked him to paint the altar wall. In a satirical poem written while tack­ling the ceiling, he laments he would much rather be sculpting.[11] Perhaps in Last Judgment, Michelangelo/Bartholomew is using his commission to remind Jesus of his own words: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39).

The Identity of Christians Today

The Last Judgment may be centuries old, but the art world remains trans­fixed by suffering martyrs. I found a more recent iteration of Saint Bar­tholomew in Chatsworth House. A gilded statue, created by artist Damien Hirst, stands tall on a stool scattered with an artist’s implements. This is no muscular hero but a replication of the muscular system. It could be any body but for what it holds. Skin and knife are positioned on the left arm and hand. The knife held high is a surgeon’s scalpel. In the right hand is an addition: a disturbingly large pair of scissors inspired, says Hirst, by the tragic fictional character Edward Scissorhands. The saint betrays no hint of distress despite his grotesque wounds. Calling the figure Ex­quisite Pain, Hirst aims to inspire the “feel of a rape of the innocents.”[12] This description comes close to how the Roman authorities deemed early Christian martyrs: They had a foolish loyalty to a useless belief.

With the decline of the Roman Empire the church rose to power. But conforming secular culture to the church did not mean Christ was shaping culture. Some positive outcomes did result from a willingness to suffer, which I will discuss later. But with power came prestige. As mar­tyrdom became unnecessary, the Christian identity no longer relied on suffering for the sake of faith.

Today, we Western Christians tend to regard martyrdom in a mark­edly different way. It seems incredulous that descriptions and depictions of carnage would rally Christians or attract converts. We may be emo­tionally moved by reports and stories of rising persecution of Christians in areas like the Middle East or South Asia. But we don’t celebrate their suffering. We pray for their safety. This is not to say that you and I are not challenged for having faith. Rather, few of us suffer—or expect to suffer, or long to suffer—physically for it. To die to oneself and be born anew in Christ has become a metaphor for a change that is fundamentally spiri­tual, perhaps moral, but not physical. Instead, we casually throw around the label “martyr complex” as a metaphor for attention-seeking behavior. It is safe to say that we no longer see the individual bodily suffering of Christians as a primary identity marker of our faith.

This response to martyrdom suits our current cultural context, which is not only death-denying but also suffering-denying. Suffering is viewed as something we don’t need. If we don’t need it, why tolerate it? And if we don’t tolerate it, why learn to suffer well? Like a “painkiller” for headaches, it’s best to simply get rid of it.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we stop easing pain and discom­fort or let people die from preventable causes. Curing, healing, and caring are important parts of practicing compassion. Today, babies can be born under precarious circumstances. Following an emergency Caesarian sec­tion, and with a definite whiff of smugness, my seasoned doctor told me, “You’re lucky you didn’t have to give birth a couple of hundred years ago. There’s no way you or the baby would have survived.” (Good news?) A greater awareness of germs and diseases has helped us develop sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics, and screening and surgical techniques. We take better care of our teeth, ears, and eyes. Our lifespans are longer because we have clean water and our choice of healthy foods. Attempting to sur­mount the challenges of illness and injury is not unethical. And resisting the evil of suffering is important.

But science, and the ways we apply it through technology, is a dou­ble-edged sword. As knowledge about ourselves and the world around us grows, we develop methods to reshape our lives according to how we want them to look. Our strong appetite for progress—moving forward and improving our condition—encourages a readiness to accept new means of reshaping. But the rate at which technology is developed today far outpaces our ability to have thoughtful and rigorous deliberations on whether or how to use it. Too often our appetite is fed before taking the time we need to identify whether the food is good for us. Some risks are tangible and immediate. Others can change our system of value.

Medicine is a prime example. The desire to prevent children from being born with “life-limiting” conditions is increasingly being met through genetic research and screening. Having such technology brings to mind questions like, “Why would anyone want their child to be born with a life-limiting condition?” But this is morally different from some­thing else technology can accomplish: eliminating life-limiting condi­tions by eliminating so-called life-limited people. This also happens at the other end of life when health care systems are shaped to offer medicalized euthanasia and assisted suicide to adults in decline, rather than invest­ing in patients through whole person or palliative care.[13] The practice of medicine seems to have changed its aim from caring where cure is not possible. It has been coopted into a larger effort to move humanity out of a state of vulnerability and into a state of empowerment.

In striving to eradicate pain and suffering, we have developed what Ivan Illich calls an “anesthetic society,” one that numbs itself to suffering by placing suffering people out of our field of vision.[14] ­There is irony in the fact that having greater and more immediate access to information about the suffering going on around the world causes us to turn our heads away. Of course, there are limits to what we can take in, limits to what we can do to care for suffering people. But I suspect that the principal reason we turn away from suffering people is that turning toward them reminds us that we are subject to suffering too.

We have curated a culture whose efforts to remove suffering have extended to diminishing the value of the lives of suffering people. On a visit to Lampedusa, grieving the loss of migrants whose boats of deliver­ance became boats of death, Pope Francis claimed that every headline he had read about the migration crisis pricked his heart like a thorn. But what he observed of others was indifference. As Koyama sees Jesus as a stumbling block to those in power, so Francis sees the suffering person as a disturbance to people like you and me. We have “forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion—‘suffering with’ others.”[15]

The failure most concerning to me is Christianity’s adoption of an anesthetic culture. No one need suffer pain, let alone martyrdom, to live a faithful Christian life. Suffering, we try to convince ourselves, is not insurmountable. We know that God loves us, is always there for us, and wants to do kingdom-building work through us. To be clear, we haven’t stopped singing about the suffering of Jesus. But we are keen to be quickly lifted from places of pain, grief, and isolation and up to a loving God who will make it better. If suffering is unnecessary for defining what it means to follow Christ, there is no pressing need to learn to suffer well.

Reconstructing Our Identity

Consider how ancient and modern Christians have responded differently to culture. There are, of course, some shared contextual aspects. Both groups are parts of societies where multiple religions are present; some are dominant influencers and others are minority expressions. And both groups negotiate with secular power. But the difference between these groups lies in how they respond to that power. Early Christians lived as subcultures in a larger culture that opposed their practices. They lived as one body in Christ trusting that he also lived in them (see Rom 8:10; 12:5). Choosing to hope in the eschatological transformation of suffer­ing through resurrection, they opened themselves to suffering (see Phil 3:10–11). But with time, the Christian church—along with its trappings of custom and culture—became more populated and influential. It can be said that, even with the recent decline of the church’s moral influence over culture, Western society remains affected by the legacy of Christian power in church and government. It continues to tolerate Christianity. On a day-to-day basis, we do not live in dire straits because of our faith. So, suffering is no longer necessary either for defining what it means to follow Christ or attracting outsiders to Jesus.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Christians of different times and contexts can interpret and respond to suffering in radically different, even extreme, ways. Imagine a line. At each end is an extreme response to suffering. One is the glorification of suffering or, put better, the glorification of the suffering person. This was the temptation of the early Christians: to attempt to transform evil into good by suffering evil. The other extreme response is the eradication of suffering and, in turn, the eradication of the suffering person. This temptation is present today as we attempt to transform evil into good by extinguishing pain.

There are lessons to be learned. What government authorities saw as a sign of weakness among the early Christians was a demonstration of subversive power—a “power under,” if you will. They knew their al­legiance to God was no guarantee of individual comfort or flourishing. Faithful following was not an escape plan. Christians were willing to suf­fer because they hoped in the fullness of the good news of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:26–31; 15). They were living (and dying) witnesses of something greater than suffering and death: a transformative kingdom of God al­ready in their midst.

The temptation associated with embracing suffering is that we will do so not only willingly but also enthusiastically. Enthusiastic suffering can lead us to believe that suffering is a prerequisite for earning God’s favor. We can become prideful about our ability to endure. Christians who find this path appealing must temper their response to suffering. Suffering is inevitable and at times it is justifiable, even required of us. But it is not a competition, and it doesn’t make us more Christian. To place hope in suffering and suffering Christians rather than in God’s universal deliverance from suffering is not good. It is idolatry.

On the other hand, for early believers, defining their faith through suffering seemed to suit the times. They constructed a community that was prepared to suffer for two reasons. First, they had a very different notion of what it means to be human. Theirs was a life in which suffering and the threat of suffering were common and close. They did not see themselves as radically autonomous or independent individuals with the power to make their own choices and direct their lives. They were fragile beings in a world that preyed on the vulnerable. Second, they trusted that undergoing suffering by way of torment and execution was not really the end for them. They hoped for a new order in which there would be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering. Hope meant standing apart from Roman power. It gave them the courage and stamina to not give in but to endure suffering. They chose to be witnesses to God’s power even when it didn’t overturn pres­ent suffering. And this witness spread.

Today, we practice our own idolatry. We are tempted to use the remnants of our power to eradicate suffering. Why? I’d like to think it’s because we recognize profound, innocent suffering as evil: depriving us of what is good. If I am honest, I think the eradication of evil is tempting because we find suffering undesirable. Yet it is altogether foolish to think we can escape suffering in an in-between time. There are voices groaning in the wilderness that ought to bring our attention back to the suffering going on in the world around us and within us. Their cries tell us that, despite our best efforts, we can’t solve the problem of suffering.

Our moral calling is to shape communities capable of holding two truths together. First, suffering is an inevitable evil to which all of creation is subject. Like the cramping and sensitivities that limit my body, we can­not rid ourselves of it. This is part of what it means to be human in an in-between time. Second, refusing to dismiss or ignore suffering doesn’t mean we must embrace it like a friend. It only requires us to admit that we do not have the power to rid the world of evil.

But there is one who does.

[1] Tertullian, “Apology,” in Tertullian, Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix Octavius, trans. Emily Joseph Daly. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 10 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 99.

[2] Fuller treatments of this are provided by Michael P. Jensen, Martyrdom and Identity: The Self on Trial (London: T. & T. Clark, 2010), Judith Per­kins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (London: Routledge, 1995), and Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[3] Tertullian, “To the Martyrs,” in Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann et al. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 40 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1959), 20–21.

[4] Castelli, 203.

[5] Tertullian, “Apology,” 125.

[6] Paul Middleton, Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (London: T. & T. Clark, 2006), 40–70.

[7] Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 94–95.

[8] Tertullian, “Apology,” 125.

[9] Cyprian, “Exhortation to Martyrdom, to Fortunatus,” in Treatises, trans. Roy J. Deferrari. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 36 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 335.

[10] Saint Lawrence (225–58 CE), patron saint of cooks, deserves at least a mention. He is alleged to have been roasted to death, saying with dark, defiant humor, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.”

[11] Paul Murray, God’s Spies: Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Other Poets of Vision (London: T. & T. Clark, 2019), 84–85.

[12] Damien Hirst, Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain. Chatsworth House Trust. The figures of Bartholomew created by Michelangelo and Hirst have each been modified, either temporarily or permanently, to appease disquieted audiences. Genitals have been covered.

[13] Whole person care considers the patient as a whole person, integrating care in terms of her biological, psychological, social, spiritual, and ecological aspects. It is typically offered by medical personnel working in collaboration. See Hayley Thomas et al., “Definition of Whole Person Care in General Practice in the English Language Literature: A Systematic Review.” British Medical Journal 8 (2018). Palliative care includes whole person care and is offered when a person faces serious illness, whether curable, chronic, or life-threatening. It aims to relieve suffering and improve quality of life at any age or stage of illness. See World Health Assembly, “Strengthening of Palliative Care as a Component of Comprehensive Care throughout the Life Course.” World Health Assembly 67 (May 24, 2014).

[14] Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (London: Random House, 1976), 54.

[15] Francis. “Visit to Lampedusa: Homily of the Holy Father Francis.” Vatican website. July 8, 2013.

Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethicist at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre and adjunct faculty at Booth University College. Patterson holds a PhD in religious ethics from McGill University and wrote her dissertation on the ethics of care at the end of life. She is a repeat award winner with the Canadian Christian Communicators Association. This book is an outcome of Patterson’s personal experiences with suffering and compassion.


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