The Uses of Adversity: George Herbert and the Christian Experience of Affliction

It has been interesting to observe the emotional fluctuations of opinion pieces written during covid lockdowns. At the start of the Melbourne lockdown in 2020, news outlets like the ABC and the Guardian featured upbeat commentary on how to get the most out of lockdown. The lockdown was presented as an opportunity for creativity, self-expression, and growth.

But as the weeks and months wore on, this rhetoric increasingly gave way to a mood of weariness, perplexity, and even despair. This fluctuation between creative self-expression and despair marked out the limits of the contemporary western imagination when it comes to dealing with suffering. Part of the legacy of Christianity in western societies is a profound conviction of individual agency and an essentially activist conception of society. Social ills are to be rectified; evil is to be resisted; suffering is to be overcome. To live responsibly is to struggle. There is no doubt that narratives of struggle are one of the ways that we make sense of otherwise apparently meaningless experiences of suffering. But the activist conception – where I respond to suffering with freedom, creativity, and resistance – is only one strand of Christian teaching.

This paper will explore another strand, in which the believer seeks to make ‘use’ of suffering without any expectation that it will be alleviated or overcome. This account has something in common with Stoic conceptions of resignation and consent. But a Christian account conceives of such consent not as passivity in the face of suffering but as a particular way of exercising agency in circumstances that cannot be changed. I will suggest that this strand of Christian teaching not only complements the activist account but underpins it. The will to change the world for the better depends on a prior moment of acceptance of the reality of the world as it is, including the reality of the limitations of human life and agency. Simone Weil suggested that ‘the greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it’.

This paper explores a Christian understanding of the uses of suffering through a close reading of George Herbert’s poems of affliction, in which the believer undergoes affliction as a form of participation in Christ.

Speaker