Faith and Spirituality

[OPINION] Romanticizing suffering

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] Romanticizing suffering

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'There’s a danger that’s worth highlighting here. Romanticizing people’s sufferings unnecessarily deflects the immediate conditions needing attention.'

“It’s okay to be poor as long as you have Jesus.” 

Those were the words of a priest who regularly guests on a morning radio program to pray for its audience. For this episode, he was asked to reflect on the previous segment in which the anchor had just interviewed a PWD, who was both unemployed and rural poor.

I imagine many must have found his statement heartwarming. It was, after all, delivered in the context of a prayer. The priest gently explained that as a minister, his main task was to bring people, especially those who suffered, closer to Jesus.

But while it was a brief statement couched in a long conversation about faith, suffering, and poverty, I wonder if anyone was also taken aback by it.

I’m not sure whether he was even aware of it, but in his attempt to be encouraging, the minister’s statement conveniently evaded imminent questions about the man’s immediate concerns. He was unemployed and poor. Just like that, these basic concerns were rendered irrelevant by the priest’s attempt to encourage his listeners.

In my view, this exemplifies how religious people have a tendency to romanticize suffering. As scholars have pointed out, to do so is to “impose an idealized view of the experience of suffering,” making it look more appealing than it really is.


Romanticizing suffering can be placed on a spectrum.

On the one end is the religious view that one’s suffering cannot be as bad as some might portray it to be. This, for example, is the working assumption of the priest’s statement above: “It’s okay to be poor as long as you have Jesus.” In other words, people’s sufferings would no longer matter if only they had a relationship with Christ. 

This of course is not unique to Catholics. In evangelical circles, it’s common to hear preachers proclaim that “if you have Jesus, you have everything.” But Christians can also go so far as to say that “our suffering is nothing compared to what Jesus went through on the cross.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the view that suffering is a blessing in itself. So many Christians in fact say so. They believe that it’s good to suffer because through it one may find holiness. One just needs to be introspective enough.

Another romanticized take here concerns the poor, who, according to this view, live simple lives, unencumbered by the temptations of life the wealthy have to deal with. That poor families are close-knit and happy must therefore be a blessing.

Reflecting on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Fr. Rolando dela Rosa admits that the story might lead many of us to conclude that “being poor entitles a person to eternal bliss, and being rich consigns him to eternal punishment.”


Something is lacking in these statements.

To be sure, those who make these statements may come from a spiritual concern that people are not giving God enough space in their lives. I also do not deny that there are silver linings to suffering, especially with respect to one’s character, convictions, and resolve. That has been the authentic experience of far too many.

I understand too that there are deep religious convictions that underpin each of these perspectives. For example, Christians who are convinced that Christ is all a suffering person needs say so because they believe that the wealth of the soul far outweighs any difficulty in life. And those who profess that suffering is the path to blessedness will most likely invoke the Beatitudes.

But there’s a danger that’s worth highlighting here. Romanticizing people’s sufferings unnecessarily deflects the immediate conditions needing attention. 

We can revisit the PWD above, for example. His immediate concerns were clear, but the priest’s statement downplayed all of them: his poverty, limited access to public health, and the unwillingness of the labor market to employ someone like him. 

Aren’t these conditions legitimate pastoral concerns too? Or are they too mundane for the spiritual?

This only goes to show how “spiritualizing interpretations of others’ real life dangers,” according to the theologian Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, “camouflages the ugliness of socio-economic injustices and violence that characterizes life on the edge.”

Push back 

Romanticizing poverty and suffering is of course pervasive too in the wider popular culture. But I have thus far paid attention to religious discourse only.

The reason is not only that poverty and different forms of suffering figure prominently across different faith traditions. 

Religious language is what makes romanticizing suffering far more irrefutable. If one thinks about it, it’s rather difficult to push back on someone who tells you that Jesus is all you need in your life. It’s an effective, heartwarming conversation ender. 

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For this reason, the ones who can effectively push back are also the religious among us. And no, the prosperity gospel is not good enough. All it does is to flip the narrative by rendering poverty and suffering as evils that must be eradicated. (For those who are interested, my young colleague Erron Media and I have published an open access scholarly piece on the new prosperity gospel emerging in the Philippines.)

My take here is that simple questions do matter in pushing back whenever we encounter statements that romanticize suffering. What exactly does having Jesus in your life mean? Is it just about the salvation of the soul? If so, how does it speak to people’s harsh realities? And what relevance does this faith have to the human condition? 

There are obviously no easy answers to these questions, but they’re necessary not only to restart conversations that may have otherwise ended. 

They’re necessary because the answers will ultimately reveal if religion has anything relevant and concrete to offer in the here and now. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (TOYM 2021) is Professor of Development Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University where he also holds the Francis E Reilly SJ Professorial Chair. Co-written with Jose Mario Francisco, his latest book is People’s Christianity: Theological Sense and Sociological Significance. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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