Round Table: Suffering
“Why does God permit human beings to suffer and die?” There is no simple or easy answer to this question. Perhaps the best response is to pray, with Jesus Christ: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Our Lord experienced the groaning of creation (Rom 8:22). He shed immortality and impassibility to take the form of a servant (Phil 2:7), to identify with humanity in every way except sin (Heb 2:17). Six Conciliar Post authors have written about the question of human suffering. Let us ask the Father to guide our meditations, and bring us closer to Christ through these thoughts. Let us never waver in our resolve to “fill up in [our] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).
-Ben Winter, for the Conciliar Post Masthead
Moses Benjamin Cabe
Suffering can take many forms: the death of a loved one, the news of a terminal illness, the internal anguish of a weary soul, the destruction of a natural disaster, or even the pain associated with a stubbed toe or broken bone. In every case, suffering is a cross for us to bear and on which we must choose to die. This is a bitter medicine, a bitter cup. But just as the wood thrown in the bitter water of Marah turned it sweet, the bitterness of the cross is turned sweet with its humble acceptance. When we are able to see Christ in all things, even in the little deaths that force themselves upon us each day, we bring the death of Christ, now our death, too, into our daily lives—and so, too, His resurrection, now also our resurrection. But we must first choose to die.
In the Orthodox Church, we experience voluntary suffering in fasting and self-discipline, which we call asceticism, as well as involuntary sufferings that come with living in a fallen world. How we understand involuntary suffering is greatly connected to how we understand voluntary suffering—both are asceticism, both can cleanse our souls if we let them. When we voluntarily choose to accept the suffering brought upon us by any circumstance, we destroy its power—and we are raised up with Christ, who defeated the power of death by his voluntary death.
We should seek to transform, through the life of Christ, what suffering and pain comes upon us into a means for Spiritual progress. For through Christ’s Incarnation, he transformed all of human life, including human suffering, into a mode of communion with the Holy Trinity. We are reminded that Jesus wept and, by so doing, turned human tears into Divine tears.1 We may ask the cup to pass from us, if God is willing. But we must be prepared to drink it if he so wills. Ultimately we seek to respond as Jesus did in the garden. Thy will be done. When we do this, we will see God mystically present in all circumstances.
God always works in our lives for our salvation; often this is neither convenient nor comfortable nor easy. Suffering is an opportunity to actualize the call to take up our cross and follow Christ—quite practically this is done in thanksgiving: “Glory to Thee, O God, I thank Thee for all things.” When this is our response, we make great strides in the spiritual life. In fact, suffering enables us to progress much further and quicker than a life without it. I am reminded of something Saint Paisios said in one of his four volumes of Spiritual Counsels: If a man appears to have an easy life, and no suffering comes to him, it is a sure sign that God has abandoned him. If you feel alone in your suffering, take heart, the Lord is with you! If you feel you can bear it no longer, take heart, salvation is near!
Too some, suffering will be salvation; to others, it will be damnation. It is up to you how to respond and whether or not you benefit from it. May God help us.
Anglican Church in North America
In his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, responded to the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 by asking:
Will you say: “This is the result of eternal laws; Directing the acts of a free and good God!” Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims: “God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?” What crime, what error did these children, Crushed and bloody on their mothers’ breasts commit?
Fortunately, the robust tradition of the Church has an answer for these accusatory questions. While there isn’t space to explore all of the nuances, a few important points should be emphasized in response to the question.
First, God is ultimately not the cause of pain. Pain is a natural consequence humans suffer on account of sin. The condition for love is free choice. The story of Adam and Eve illustrates that our free choice has been misused and something about our world is broken because of it.
Second, while God does not cause pain, he does use it for good (Rom. 8:28). C.S. Lewis affirms this point in The Problem of Pain, where he states, “Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad [person] can have for amendment. It removes the veil, it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”1 It can also function as a force which perpetuates the Christian’s process of sanctification. While a Christian worldview can properly answer the problem of pain, a secular worldview does not provide the same explanatory power. To the secularist, there is no real stable ground or objective metric to categorize an event as “good” or “evil,” it is ultimately an exercise in phenomenology.
Finally, Reformed/Calvinistic answers to this question are woefully insufficient. To theologically contextualize the problem of pain, we must have a clear understanding of God’s nature because he wholly informs our understanding of goodness. Like pantheism and panentheism, Calvinist theodicy has to redefine “good” and “evil,” warping things to the point that Calvin was forced to admit, “What Satan does, Scripture affirms to be from another point of view the work of God.”2 John Stuart Mill provides an apt warning against this sort of thinking, “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?”3Show Sources
2 Calvin, John, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1982), 174.
3 Mill, John Stuart, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (London: Longman’s Green, 1865), 131.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.1
These poignant lines come from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Carrion Comfort. As the poem unfolds, the reader experiences with Hopkins the anguish of personal suffering and realizing who is behind the suffering. As one of the poems I have turned to in my own dark nights, Carrion Comfort, comes readily to mind when asking the question, “Why does God allow human suffering to continue, and what is its use or purpose?” On the one hand, it posits a rather serious theological conundrum: why would a good God allow suffering? On the other hand, it also strikes deep emotional chords in us. These two facets are cries for very different types of answers. The theological questions want reasoned responses, while emotional pain looks for hope of comfort. I would like to suggest that both of these issues find their answer in Jesus Christ. As the God-Man, in his life we find both comfort in our suffering and an explanation for why suffering still takes place.
Hebrews gives us perhaps the best starting point for our comfort: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).2 Key to the thoughts in this passage is Jesus’ humanity. The Incarnation dispels any suggestion that Jesus wasn’t affected by life’s pains like we are. Instead, our Lord walked through the valleys of suffering. The implications for our own pains are twofold. First, Christ does not sympathize through an intellectual-based imagining of what we are going through. He has been through it. He has experienced what we are experiencing. Second, because he has been through it, we know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We might not reach an end of our suffering in this life, but there is an end nonetheless. The impact for both of these points strikes home when we remember that the author of Hebrews also says that Christ “ . . . will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Just as God walked through the flames with Daniel’s three friends,3 so he walks through our suffering with us. His grace is not dispensed at a distance, nor is the light something we have to struggle towards on our own. Our comfort and aid is present here and now.
The Incarnation is also a starting point for resolving the theological question of Evil. The book of Job helps to set the stage. As the book winds down, Job’s desire to clear his name and receive justice is found inadequate because he “justified himself rather than God” (Job 32:2). It is inadequate because Job and his friends tackle the suffering from the perspective of Job (“why am I suffering” or, “Here’s why you’re suffering”). God’s questions to Job reframe the question. Instead of focusing on himself, Job’s focus turns to God’s power and authority. Job is left understanding that God has a good reason for allowing the pain and suffering, even if Job can’t see it. Perhaps more powerfully, though, when we go back to Christ, we discover that God decided suffering and pain were important enough to go through them himself. If suffering were pointless, Christ would have provided our propitiation a different way. Instead, though, we find Christ begging the Father for a less painful road and then still going to the Cross. If we are to take up our cross,4 then it would appear that suffering is part of a well lived life.
In Christ, then, we at least find the proper start to our wrestlings with suffering. For the hurting, he brings comforting grace that grows from personal experience and immediate aid and support. For those seeking understanding, we are reminded that when God decided to take action on suffering, he chose to walk through it. While neither is a complete answer to our questions, both center our focus back on Christ. From there, we will be better equipped to continue navigating the situations and questions that come our way.Show Sources
2 Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 Daniel 3:19-25
4 Luke 9:23
Often the words pain, sorrow, and suffering, are used interchangeably. However, each word has a specific meaning and is not replaceable by either of the other two. Pain is defined as “punishment,” especially for a crime [cause-and-effect]; also the “condition one feels when hurt, opposite of pleasure…” Sorrow is defined as, “grief, regret, trouble, care, pain, anxiety…” While suffering is patient endurance of hardship or “undergoing of punishment, affliction, etc.”1
Pain, in a physical sense, must have been present before the Fall as a warning mechanism; but it became injurious, a punishment for a crime, after the Fall. Thorns. Thistles. Intense labour. Emotional pain. These things are listed in Genesis three as a result of the Fall. And though Jesus came to reverse the Fall and to bring redemption, the process is not finished yet, so the punishment still remains on the earth and on humans.
Sorrow is a reaction to pain. We grieve over the death of a loved one, over destruction and genocide in our world, even at the loss of a pet. Grief is emotional pain (often extreme). Or we are sorrowed over something we have done that we now regret or that has wounded someone else. We are anxious not to feel pain, not to inflict pain, not to die, not to disappoint; all stem from a desire not to experience or give pain.
Suffering is enduring pain. The verb suffer means “allow to occur” or “to be made to undergo, endure, be subjected to.” Now come our questions, Why does God allow pain to occur? Why does he subject us to pain? Why do people suffer prolongedly when they haven’t done anything wrong? As a result of the Fall, we will all die. As a result of the Fall, there is pain. It is not dealt out in proportion to one’s sin or goodness. Pain does not glance over Christians and land upon those who delight in evil. Yet God gives Christians the grace to walk the road of suffering, and he walks it with us. He himself is the God who suffered for us, and the God who suffers with us. He aids us when we face suffering (Heb 2:18).
As writer Simone Weil says, “There are only two things that pierce the human heart. One is beauty. The other is affliction.”2 Suffering is often what leads us to God. We must rely on him to endure. God takes a negative result of the Fall and redeems even suffering, using it to draw us near to himself. “It is not that he is dilatory about keeping his own promise as some men seem to think; the fact is that he is very patient towards you. He has no wish that any man should be destroyed. He wishes that all men should come to repent.”3Show Sources
2 Weil, Simone, as quoted in The Ransomed Heart by John Eldridge (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2005), 179.
3 II Peter 3:9 (PHILLIPS), The New Testament in Modern English by J.B Phillips copyright © 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips.
“Why does God allow human suffering to continue, and what is its use or purpose?”
This is a difficult question, because our answers often tend towards the analytical rather than the empathetic, and those who suffer and cry out for answers require not logic, but a shoulder on which to weep. Still, there are two books I’d recommend on this topic: The Gift of Pain, by Paul Brand, which explores the nature and purpose of pain from the perspective of a missionary surgeon who revolutionized leprosy treatment; and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, which is a philosophical apologetic on the problem of suffering.
As usual (with endless apologies to the editors), I’d like to poke at the question itself, rather attempt to answer it. According to Charles Taylor (or at least James K.A. Smith’s interpretation of Taylor), our fascination with “theodicy”—that is, the problem of evil and suffering—is idiosyncratic to our modern era. The very idea that one would demand a philosophically satisfying explanation in response to suffering is a historical oddity. Whereas before, humans would beat their breast and wail in lament as response to tragedy, we now beat our keyboards and wail at Christians for not having thorough accounts of God’s actions. So now we have this question about the question: Why do we even ask why? The answer Taylor gives is that the modern individual is so thoroughly confident in mankind’s ability to answer all questions about existence, that they believe evil and suffering can be put under a microscope and studied methodically. The old commandment was “weep with those who weep.” The new commandment is “explain to those who lack an explanation.”
With that in mind, I think it’s okay to simply say, “I don’t know why.” We can trust in God, and we can trust in his long campaign to restore the world to something good, beautiful, and true. Let modernity tire itself out. We’ll stick with the old commandment and weep with those who weep.
Why does suffering exist? This question is one of the primary mysteries of human life, and one which all religions must address. Both as mystery and as proper subject of religious experience, the problem of suffering belies full or complete rational explanation. That said, I believe it can be approached or outlined by searching out the origin of evil on three levels of existence: God, humanity, and the universe.
1) God. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). There can be no evil or inclination toward evil in God. As the Book of James teaches: “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow” (1 Ja 1:17). The cause or origin of evil (and therefore, of suffering) cannot be attributed to God.
2) Humanity. At minimum, there is an inclination toward evil in humanity. We are all aware of the atrocities human beings can commit—one need look no further than the mirror to recall the multitude of ways humans are capable of hurting one another and our world. As the Book of Jeremiah proclaims: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (Jer 17:9-10). In the Christian origin story, it is the willful choice of Adam and Eve that has subjected human beings, and earthly creation, to suffering and death. Their sin was the choice to turn away from God and value earthly goods higher than heavenly goods. Roman Catholics teach that this original sin has created a “stain” or blot upon human nature, revealed by our irrational desire for power, in our vaunting pride, and through our weakness before temptation (cf. 1 Jn 2:16).
3) The Universe. Can the original sin of human beings really account for all of the evil and suffering in the entire universe? Here we can only speculate; it is impossible for the limited mind of a human to search out the cosmos. As the Apostle Paul writes: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Human beings must recognize that we are not, and cannot be, responsible for evil as a whole. There was a snake in the garden before Adam and Eve made the choice to sin. Hence, there are many things that occur on earth—such as natural disasters, diseases, etc.—that may be caused not by direct human agency, but by “forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The question of why God allows these forces to exercise dominion over creation resonates with the following one: “Why did God allow human beings to sin in the first place?” The answer is creaturely freedom. While it is not a complete or fully-satisfying answer, it is what we have. God has given rational creatures the freedom to exercise the power of choice—even if it means turning away from God’s goodness.
As stated above, suffering is a mystery. We don’t know why some live and some die, why the wind blows where it will, and why God seems so absent. Perhaps God is using the mystery of suffering to teach us patience, and to impress upon us the true consequence of love in the face of evil. In the end, what we do know is what we choose: Brutality, or Beatitude.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.