Internal Suffering and Christianity


Richard T. Nolan, Ph.D.


            In his classic The Psychology of Religion (Macmillan, 1958), Dr. Walter H. Clark* included within the chapter entitled “Two Roads to Religious Growth – Healthy-mindedness and Suffering” the following section “Suffering From Internal Sources.”



Temperament. Some people suffer because of their temperament. They seem to have been born that way. Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield was always complaining of being a "lone lorn creetur," and "everythink went contrairy" with her, particularly when everyone else was having a rousing good time. Religion for this type of person is apt to be a very mournful affair, and the subjects of death, sin, sacrifice, and the high cost of church collections are just the things to fit in with the mood. The cause here is in a sense internal, but it is pretty much a matter of glands, chronic dyspepsia, and low blood pressure, clearly physical in nature, for which the individual has little personal responsibility. Temperament in this case may affect one's outlook on life as well as one's theology. Carlyle's dyspepsia was noted for the influence it was supposed to have had on his preoccu­pation with the sins of his contemporaries. Though there were other roots as well, no doubt his temperamental cast was one of the sources of the sufferings about which Carlyle groaned so eloquently during most of his existence.


Neurosis. The most obvious type of religious suffering, the sources of which are intimate and internal, is that which is neurotic. Strictly speaking, this is not religious suffering at all but neurotic suffering. Yet neurotic suffering with a religious reference is in part religious suffering, and we cannot close our eyes to the fact that in the teach­ings of such people as Jeremiah, John Bunyan, and George Fox, reli­gion owes not a little to teachers who have been neurotics.


Religious neurotic suffering may be of various kinds, too numerous to be reviewed here. The most frequent is recognized by the common man under the term "martyr complex." This has elements of para­noid thinking - the tendency to feel that one is being singled out for persecution - and also of masochism, the enjoyment of pain. Like Elijah languishing under the juniper bush, 1 the prophet who feels he is preaching God's word is under the necessity of justifying his opposition, and convenient justification involves the feeling that one is the special object of other people's animus.

* It was a privilege to study the psychology of religion with Dr. Clark at The Hartford Seminary during the 1961 spring semester; a psychologist, he was also well read in theology. During the summer of the same year, Earl A. Loomis, M.D., Director of the Program in Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.), offered a course at Hartford which, for me, naturally followed Dr. Clark’s. Dr. Loomis’ The Self In Pilgrimage had  been published the previous year. For three summer months of the next year at the Connecticut Valley Hospital, Middletown, CT, Chaplain Harold Yarrington was my mentor during what was then called “clinical pastoral training” under the auspices of the Institute of Pastoral Care. This experience took to the field, under the Chaplain’s supervision, many insights gained from Drs. Clark and Loomis. The 1964-5 academic year at New York University afforded a full year’s study of “Religious Counseling” with Dr. Lee A. Belford, which complemented well a concurrent year of private and group therapy at the then American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry. (The topic of this essay was not among my concerns.)  A “Seminar in Growth in Religion” at Yale with Dr. Randolph Crump Miller further expanded the benefits of the earlier courses. Also at Hartford Seminary in the early 1960s, sociologist Dr. Peter Berger was my advisor and instructor in courses in sociology of religion. My education (including my N.Y.U. doctoral thesis), in fact my daily life, has been very enriched by the integration of explorations in psychology and sociology with my focus in Christian theology and religious/philosophical studies.  




1Cf. I Kings 19:10: “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”


But paranoid thinking usually spurs one to action, and provided it is not too marked, it may be a tonic to a wholesome activity that will bring an end to miseries. Elijah did not enjoy his mood of splendid despair very long, but soon was up and doing the Lord's work, with happy results, as every good Bible student knows. Much less creative is suffering in the form of masochism. Since the maso­chist, for various complicated reasons, unconsciously enjoys his suf­fering, this is a particularly harmful expression of the religious sentiment and may even be subtly very dangerous in its effects on personality. 2


Masochism in its extreme forms may involve deliberately inflicted privations, tortures, or even mutilations for the sake of religion. James quotes from the autobiography of the Blessed Henry Suso, a four­teenth-century German mystic and ascetic, as an example of patho­logical extremes. 3  Suso devised for himself such comforts as an undergarment studded with a hundred and fifty brass nails, sharp­ened and so fixed as to pierce his skin; gloves with sharp tacks in order to discourage him from disturbing the noxious insects with which, by a sort of invitation, his body teemed; a door to sleep on, and to make sure that this should not be too comfortable, a cross with thirty protruding needles and nails just under his body. In winter he slept on the bare floor of his cell and froze, his body cov­ered with scars and his throat parched with thirst. He boasts that over a period of twenty-five years he never took a bath, and strove to "attain such a high degree of purity" that he would neither scratch nor touch any part of his body other than hands and feet. All these torments he endured "out of the greatness of the love which he bore in his heart to the Divine and Eternal Wisdom, our Lord Jesus Christ...."


While we cannot say that the luxury-loving culture of modern Christianity is in every respect a gain over that of the fourteenth century, nevertheless it is hard to see just how the sufferings of Suso were turned to religious advantage. The tone of his autobiography makes it clear that he took a good deal of satisfaction in his exploits, but we suspect that the more wholesome fruits of his undoubted piety had other sources than his masochistic urgings.

Some Characteristics of “Suffering Christianity” and “Healthy-Minded Christianity”


            Some specific notions of spirituality and religious practices are found among those whose religions are indeed characterized by internal suffering, whether by temperament or neurosis. Such anguishing forms of Christianity are usually preoccupied with guilt, sin, death and judgment, Good Friday, martyrdom, certain types of fasting and self-denial, gruesome statues, and other symbols depicting agony and torment. Moreover, uncomfortable in the Creator’s universe, they yearn for an escape from physical existence into ecstatic union with God or “Sacredness” – or an eternally stagnant “beatific vision.” (Ironically, a sense of spiritual superiority creeps into the psyche of many a sufferer.) This is not to suggest an utter absence of healthy-mindedness among all interior sufferers; nonetheless, a lesser place in their own emotional/spiritual lives allows for fully experiencing mercy and forgiveness, their own innate goodness, everlasting life beginning now in this world, Easter/victorious living, self-regard as well as neighborly regard, symbols depicting joy and peace, and a maturing communion with God. 4


Jesus as Healthy-Minded


            The New Testament portraits of Jesus do not depict in him a religion of internal suffering, even when he truly suffered! Additionally, his fasting seemed not to be masochistic. Rather, his sufferings developed when he was victimized by external forces, not from interior dis-ease. Most perceive Jesus as healthy-minded, not as one in existential torment.


2 One will find descriptions of paranoia and masochism in any good text on abnormal psychology. For a particularly thorough treatment of masochism, see Reik’s Masochism in Modern Man.

3 Varieties, p. 301 ff.

4 See Cherbonnier, “Biblical Faith and the Idea of Tragedy” at .


Suffering Christian Clergy and Their Congregations


            One would suspect that internally suffering types of Christian clergy would generally attract similarly disposed congregants, unless their churches have some overriding appeal: outstanding music, a “society” zip code, and/or a lack of regional options. Parishioners who are not cultivated sufferers can simply stay away from observances that accentuate (and celebrate?) suffering, or they can try to tune out clergy negativity. 5


            A psychotherapist-friend recently offered these comments:


            Some Good Friday people are victims of a chemical problem and live in a state of mild depression. They might not even realize that they have a problem – which a low dose of an antidepressant can usually help. However, some are used to living that way and do not want to change.


            Another source can be unconscious guilt, folks who suck the joy out of everything and spend much of their lives frowning. They are unaware of the deep sense of guilt they experience in their unconscious, but which is manifested in self-punishing, self-denying, self-defeating conscious behaviors. These individuals can benefit greatly from psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy. Others, not so psychologically minded, can benefit from work with a skillful cognitive/behavioral therapist.


            The big problem with committed internal sufferers is that they have formed elaborate religious rationalizations to defend and justify this way of functioning psychologically. They usually dismiss psychotherapy as irrelevant to their circumstances. Moreover, they have a deep and abiding faith in their theologically “justified” interior suffering.  Such sufferers reinforce their circumstances with ritualized “I am not worthy” ceremonial along with incorporating “sinner” within their most fundamental personal identity. Rather than accepting the obvious, that no creature is automatically worthy of God’s holy and awesome presence and that we all behave unlovingly/imperfectly, they perceive and focus upon unworthiness and sinfulness as basic to their spirit.


Original Sin6


            A word about original sin is appropriate. Although original sin, as I understand it, is said to be purged via baptism, many Christian-based views of human nature insist on retaining original sin’s dour effects.  Even after baptism, many assume that human beings are inherently atrocious creatures. “That’s human nature” is said of the post-baptismal miscreant, especially, for example, of the church treasurer who robs the collection plate. According to this line of thinking, after baptism humans are still inclined toward evil. (Interestingly, our most foul expletives are rooted in the bodily functions of human nature.) Christian sufferers are thereby further justified in their negativity, which is partially self-inflicted by means of sustained beliefs in the languishing effects of innate original sin. It has not occurred to them that it is not any genuinely real original sin which plagues them; instead, their very convictions about their own inborn sinfulness is what creates their darkness. 7  



5 I recall being astounded during my one year (1959-60) at the Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven when the professor of preaching enthusiastically advised us, “The first thing you do is to convict them of sin.” There is some truth to his statement, but it was said so harshly that both his words and tone of voice has stayed with me all these years. Moreover, are all sermons designed to “convict them of sin?” Is this the sole function of the Christian pulpit? Isn’t some good news appropriate to all preaching?  

6 See Cherbonner, “Sin Misconceived As Intrinsic to Human Nature” in chapter 7 of  Hardness of Heart at .

7 A different understanding of original sin proposes that all human relationships have become out of alignment with God’s purposes for humanity. Whether in family relationships or business associations, God’s intentions have been thwarted by  human choices to live otherwise. Thus, all individuals are born into societies/cultures with ungodly standards and goals, and from birth, individuals are exposed to the conditioning powers of their respective environments. This is not the same as believing that human nature itself has an inherent inclination toward evil. Instead, individuals (in fellowship with others) can choose, with strengthening power from God, to journey toward the realization of God’s purposes (i.e., the Kingdom of God).   



Some Saints and Leaders Are Not Examples of Christ’s Way of Easter Joy


            If suffering is, as Clark proposes, one of the roads to religious growth, it is not the type of neurotic, inner suffering explored in this essay.  One may wonder how many of the canonized Saints suffered in a constructive way, and how many were quite neurotic, even psychotic. Yet, throughout the ages many severely unwell individuals have been venerated and perceived as models of faithful living. One might suspect that, for fear of being presumptuously critical, most Christians have been reluctant to call attention to the madness of some Saints and, further suggest that they be removed from official lists of exemplars.


            Consider also the personal anguish of intellectual and ecclesiastical giants like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Kierkegaard, various Roman Catholic Popes, particular monks and nuns, etc. It is often difficult to distinguish between neurotic and constructive suffering in such less than joyful lives.   


Just Say No!



Internal religious suffering attributable to temperament and neuroses (and dismal beliefs) will most likely not disappear from this world! However, one can reject this course as praiseworthy or exemplary. We need not respect such paths, just as we do not respect a sickness; nevertheless, we would maintain a genuinely caring (and not condescending) disposition toward the sick person. When clergy provide rituals and homilies that reinforce internal suffering, a more healthy-minded person can firmly and confidently “just say no.” 

            In this regard, Lenten and Holy Week observances ought to be scrutinized carefully. Are they explicitly within the context of Easter – the pivotal event of the New Testament and the Christian life, or are they excuses to act out personal suffering as if inner torment were somehow commendable? The same measure may be applied to the various (allegedly) Christian “spiritualities” made available over the centuries; are they Easter oriented or Good Friday disposed, the latter an illness in the guise of solemn piety. If religious observances or spiritualities are found wanting, perhaps detrimental, one can with a clear conscience decline to participate. Christians are called to healthiness, not sickness; to Light, not darkness.  



“Palm Sunday and Humility” within the title index of the Reflections subsite.

Unit One “Human Nature  in the Catechism subsite.

Cherbonnier, “Humility,” “Idolatry” and “Perfection” in the Cherbonnier subsite.