The Christian meaning of human suffering

January 4, 2007 | Prayer, Struggles | 26 comments

While reading the comments to the last post, I was trying to come up with a good explanation of how I’ve come to understand suffering from the Catholic perspective. But I couldn’t quite put together a non-rambling summary of my thoughts. Steve G. said well what I was trying to say:

Putting aside the issues of persecution for a moment, and agreeing wholeheartedly that ‘seeking’ suffering is basically perverse, I think something is being badly missed here.

Regardless of whether we seek it out or not, suffering will find us. We all encounter it to differing extents. That’s a fact.

The question then becomes how will we handle it? What shall we do with it? Shall we ’embrace’ it; offer it up as our sacrifice…as a prayer, try at least to bring something good out of it even as we struggle to rid ourselves of it? Or shall we become embittered by it, angry, resentful?

Mr. Teresa is taking some hits here, but to understand what she was saying, one must understand what the Church says. That God does not bring about evil, but that he can bring good even out of evil.

While Jesus’ mission surely was about alleviating suffering, about healing, restoring, etc., to miss that the most essential part of the gospel revolves around a profoundly evil act, and immense suffering is to miss the point. The point that out of and despite that evil and suffering, something profoundly beautiful is revealed…the resurrection.

Jesus most certainly embraces, offers up, or whatever catch phrase we choose, his suffering. There is no way around it. But he did so that the greater good might be accomplished. That death might be conquered and our fear and cowardice at giving up our selfishness (sacrificing our selfish desires) might be overcome.

One of the horrible things about pain and suffering is that the natural reaction is to allow it to consume us, to turn ourselves inward and become self-centered. And that’s normal, and from a purely human perspective it’s even something that one can hardly be faulted for.

But if we can but lift our gaze from our pain, we might see the path forward. That it need not consume us, that even poverty need not make us bitter, angry or resentful. That was what Mr. Teresa preached. That is what the Church does and always has proclaimed. That even in a fallen, seemingly irredeemable world, that redemption does exist, that redemption is possible.

Back when the subject of God and suffering first came up on this blog, a reader recommended that I check out John Paul II’s letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris. It took me about a month to get through the whole thing and absorb it all. Especially that I was still struggling to understand very basic Christian and Catholic concepts, there were many paragraphs that I had to read about five times before it sunk in. (That said, it’s an excellent read. Really worth the effort.)

After I finally got through it, I kept coming back to one simple line the late pope quoted that summed the whole thing up. Of all the 15, 000+ words JPII devoted to the subject, the countless discussions that have been had on this subject throughout the ages, one quote from Jesus in the book of John summarizes with simple elegance the Christian view on suffering: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

26 Comments

  1. Professor Chaos

    How do we handle suffering? That’s the questio?

    Ask the baby who was microwaved to death by her mother.

    Ask Manar Maged, the 2-year old Egyptian girl who was born with two heads, and died nearly a year after surgery successfully removed the first one caused too much brain damage.

    For that matter, ask the second head, which had a brain, would blink, drool, and cry, yet had no body or heart. Did it have a “soul?”

  2. Martin

    SteveG’s notes are always good. He’s right about suffering. We all suffer to varying degrees. Some people suffering can seem so overwhelming that I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy, while others’ suffering might seem trivial. It could be some painful tragedy or it could be something like some daily headaches. But in the face of these varying degrees of suffering, I stand in awe of how some people persevere through it.

    Whatever our cross, as the Pope points out “to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.”

    If you’ve had a chance to read about Padre Pio’s life, you can see how his life of suffering helped bring others to Christ.

  3. Anonymous

    PC
    If this life is all we have I’d say you are right and there is no way to reconcile such things. IF we are wrong, then the universe is a cold, cruel place and there is nothing to be said of that situation other than ‘S$%T’!

    But IF there is something more, then the temporary suffering endured here is just that, temporary. It’s very real, and it sucks, but it’s not the end of the story for those babes.

    That *might* intellectually answers the question about their suffering, but only in an unsatisfingly abstract way. The atheist can rightly point out the babies you mention and ask ‘What is the meaning for them you schmuck!’, and I’d have little to say in response that could satisfy them. But I can still say that IF we are right, that is not the end of the story for them.

    As unsatisfying as it might be, it offers hope, redemption, meaning for those children. Can non-belief offer anything in response beyond cursing the cold dead universe?

  4. Professor Chaos

    Can non-belief offer anything in response beyond cursing the cold dead universe?

    No. Nor does it need to. I can accept that not every question about life, existence, and the universe has an answer.

  5. SteveK

    As unsatisfying as it might be, it offers hope, redemption, meaning for those children. Can non-belief offer anything in response beyond cursing the cold dead universe?

    Good summary SteveG. There is no easy answer, but the answer we have been given is one that gives us hope. The alternative gives us no hope at all – zero, zilch, nada.

    BTW, what about the human suffering I feel every time I’m reminded that I’ll never be a gifted communicator like you?

  6. Anonymous


    No. Nor does it need to. I can accept that not every question about life, existence, and the universe has an answer.

    I can accept that answer if it satisfies you, but then I have to ask why you offered these examples you did as objections.

    I don’t ask that to be snarky, I just really don’t see what the point was. Perhaps it was to point out that suffering is difficult for the believer to understand in such circumstances?

    But I suspect most of us already are aware of that.

  7. Professor Chaos

    No, my point is that whenever “suffering” or “evil” come up, invariably Christians will point to how one handles suffering, or what can be learned from suffering, etc, etc, as you did in your comments on the front page, starting with:

    The question then becomes how will we handle it? What shall we do with it? Shall we ’embrace’ it; offer it up as our sacrifice…as a prayer, try at least to bring something good out of it even as we struggle to rid ourselves of it? Or shall we become embittered by it, angry, resentful?

    As if it were a noble trait that one should love God more despite his wrath.

    Anyways, my point is that how should an infant who hasn’t even learned to speak yet “handle” his/her suffering? How should a genderless infant human head with a consciousness, but no body “handle” its suffering? How can one “handle” suffering before one learns to “handle” in the first place?

    You then go on to mention Jesus’ oh-so-noble suffering. Thousands if not millions of people since the beginning of time have had it far worse than he supposedly did.

  8. SteveK

    Professor:
    Hope you and your family, especially that cute baby of yours, had a good holiday season.

    Anyways, my point is that how should an infant who hasn’t even learned to speak yet “handle” his/her suffering? How should a genderless infant human head with a consciousness, but no body “handle” its suffering? How can one “handle” suffering before one learns to “handle” in the first place?

    I don’t know how others handle pain/suffering and I can only imagine what I would do in those situations. That being said, the pain/suffering is temporary even if you live with it all your life. Christianity give us hope that the pain/suffering will be replaced with joy. That hope gives us the strength to ‘carry on’ in this life despite our pain/suffering. A person who lives without this hope – by choice or by ignorance – is carrying a burden they shouldn’t be carrying.

    Why did God make the universe this way when he didn’t have to? I suspect this is your real question. I don’t know the full and complete answer to that, but we’ve been told that God will make it right in the end. We’ve seen that promise fulfilled many times here on earth and I trust God will do the same after we die.

  9. Anonymous

    The exchange between Steve and the Prof is very interesting. There really is no answer for horrors such as the ones mentioned by the Prof. From neither side, atheism or Christianity, can I find a satisfactory answer. There is a bit of hope on the Christian side, in that such innocents are thought to have a place in Heaven, where they’ll be free of the horrors.

    There’s another side to this that I perceive. Side 1 = How do we handle our suffering? Side 2 = What about the suffering of innocents? Side 3 = How do we handle/react toward the suffering of others? That last would include our reaction to the babies PC mentioned.

    From a distance there’s nothing we can do about them, save to grieve for them, and perhaps pray. But when we are within reach of others who suffer, then we have a chance to deal with it. What we do then can make all the difference in the world, both to the sufferer and to ourselves.

    Wanna make it uglier? Just walk away; or spout platitudes at them; or freak out; or tell them it’s not so bad; or tell them “God has a purpose for this”; or…

    Wanna take an ugly situation and bring some beauty into it? Hold them; listen to them; grieve with them; do something for them like feed them, change their sheets, mow their lawn, cook for them; etc. Show them that you love and care and would make it all better if only you could.

    Near the end of “Hinds Feet On High Places” (a book I hated 99% of) there’s an exchange between Much Afraid (the main character, who had a fairly miserable life) and the Shepherd, in which the Shepherd asks why Much thinks she had so much misery and suffering. Much says something to the effect of, “I think it gives us all a chance to take something ugly and make out of it something beautiful.”

    I’ve never had an answer to suffering. I never will. And there sure is an awful lot of it. And I can barely try to deal with a tiny bit of it all. But at least I can try to make some beauty out some of that ugliness.

    Is there a purpose to suffering? I don’t think so though I don’t know. But there is a purpose for action in the face of suffering.

  10. Professor Chaos

    I had a wonderful holiday, Steve, and thank you for asking! I hope yours went as well or better.

    Off-topic, but did you see the press-conference today? I nearly cried at my desk. I was only 13 years old when Cowher was hired, but I still remember his first press conference. My how the time flies.

    Anyways, I think that Christianity tends to over-complicate matters when it comes to suffering. Suffering is such an obvious puzzle piece of evidence against the tri-omni God that Christianity needs intelligent, articulate people such as yourself to try to explain it away. I tend to look at it with Occam’s razor in mind.

    If I’m going to make a baked potato, I’m not going to throw it into a pile of feces first and then wash it off before making a glorious treat. I think I’ll skip the sh!t, and go straight for the potato.

    Why did God make the universe this way when he didn’t have to? I suspect this is your real question. I don’t know the full and complete answer to that, but we’ve been told that God will make it right in the end.

    Yeah, the battered houswife has been told that several times before. “I can change. I’ll stop drinking, everything will be alright in the end!”

    It’s better to file for divorce.

    We’ve seen that promise fulfilled many times here on earth …

    We have?

  11. Anonymous

    Mike:
    Great comment! As you said, there simply is not easy answer to this one. There is a good reason why Aquinas admitted it as on of the valid objections to the existence of God. (BTW, anyone interested in the topic from the Catholic perspective might enjoy Peter Kreefts essay on it here.. The Problem of Evil)

    For my part, my own comments take for granted number 3 in the sense that whatever I have offered was intended to apply to both 1 and 3.

    And your beautiful statements on how we can work towards the good in such situations is one of the things that I find so compelling (at least on an intuitive level) about Christianity.

    The whole focus of the spiritual life is on the other, first on God, then on neighbor. To’ put on the mind of Christ’ as Paul says is to put on that mind which says ‘how can I serve’, to form our way of thinking, to ‘condition’ ourselves to move towards more naturally thinking about the ‘other.’ It is so relentlessly focused on fostering an empathetic response to others suffering that the tendency over time is (or should be) to become more selfless in that regard.

    You’ve understandably challenged us here on our inability to live up to what we preach and have seen it as a scandal (I can hardly blame you). But I wonder if the real question shouldn’t be what I (we) might have been otherwise?

    There’s no way to know for sure I suppose, but for my part I lived many years as a non-believer and I can tell you I was not a selfless person. I wasn’t even trying to be a selfless person. And I don’t think that is uncommon tendency to fall into. I simply wasn’t hearing that message on regular basis, and my mindset tended to naturally over time slide the other way.

    I have recently had a really fascinating conversation with an atheist (via email). This person totally ‘gets’ the message of the gospel and even thinks it beautiful. He even wants to live by it despite totally rejecting the reality on which it’s based (God, Jesus, supernatural).

    I asked him how he would support his own efforts. How would he feed his mind to think this way, and he admitted he really didn’t know and it was one of the frustrations of his endeavor. He found that his message was not only not something his ‘community’ would embrace, but explicitly rejected. He confessed that to the contrary, his associations tended not to feed the selfless impulse, but to feed the opposite.

    As a non-believer, I was never able to find a way around that reality.

  12. Anonymous

    I had a wonderful holiday, Steve, and thank you for asking! I hope yours went as well or better.

    Off-topic, but did you see the press-conference today? I nearly cried at my desk. I was only 13 years old when Cowher was hired, but I still remember his first press conference. My how the time flies.

    Wrong Steve. 😀 That was K. not G. 😛 I hope you had a wonderful holiday (well, actually I know you did with the news of the new baby on the way!). Do I still get credit. 😀

    I haven’t caught up on the press conference yet. I’ll have to go see the updates at the Post Gazette.

  13. Professor Chaos

    D’oh! Darned confusing Steves! (translation: pay attention, Prof.)

    I should have realized I spoke with you via e-mail after the holidays, anyways.

    Correction:

    SteveK, my sentiments echoed to you and yours. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas!

  14. SteveK

    It’s better to file for divorce.

    Thankfully God allows you the freedom to do just that. Lewis called this the Great Divorce, which it certainly is. I don’t want a divorce because I believe what God has promised us all.

    We have?

    Certainly. We see good overcoming evil all the time. When that happens justice has been done and the situation has been “made right” according to God’s moral economy.

    If nothing was ever “made right” here on earth then I certainly would be suspicious of the Christian claims that God will iron it all out in the end. Fortunately we have evidence for it now which gives us the hope that it will be done in the future.

  15. Professor Chaos

    BTW, anyone interested in the topic from the Catholic perspective might enjoy Peter Kreefts essay on it here..

    Thanks for the link, I’m reading it now. Though, I’ll admit it’s quite hard to keep reading with the following statement so close to the beginning:

    The unbeliever who asks that question is usually feeling resentment toward and rebellion against God, not just lacking evidence for his existence.

    The “brick wall” smiley from RA forums would come in quite handy here. (As would “withstupid” and “bop”)

  16. Professor Chaos

    Wow. He just keeps going.

    The reason for unbelief is an unfaithful lover, not an inadequate hypothesis. The unbeliever’s problem is not just a soft head but a hard heart.

    Sorry, I’m getting too far off topic. I’ll quit now.

  17. Professor Chaos

    Fortunately we have evidence for it now which gives us the hope that it will be done in the future.

    What evidence, excluding the actions of man, do we have?

  18. Anonymous

    Prof:

    I think you are misreading Kreeft a tad. He’s not saying that this is why all non-beleivers don’t believe. He’s referring to certain types of non-belief (he gave Lewis’ description as an example) which most certainly does exist. I don’t know if his ‘most’ is fair or accurate, but it at least acknowledges it’s not all.

  19. Professor Chaos

    Steve:

    Most Christians are arrogant.
    Most Pittsburghers are dimwits.
    Most Americans have herpes.

    etc.
    etc.
    etc.

    Get my drift?

  20. Anonymous

    I get it and anticipated it. That’s why I aknowledged that bit was probably unfair. It’s not critical to the rest, but I understand why it rankles.

  21. SteveK

    Most Pittsburghers are dimwits.

    Ahhhh, now I understand….

    😉 (winky-wink-wink smile)

  22. SteveK (not G)

    What evidence, excluding the actions of man, do we have?

    The evidence is the fact that we all know somethings have been “made right”. Whether God was personally involved in the process or not is beside the point. The fact is the concept of justice and “made-rightness” has been objectively built into the universe for all to see and experience. That should give us hope that it will continue on into the future.

  23. Anonymous

    I went to a funeral today that helped me understand a little more of the Catholic perspective on suffering. My friend’s mother, who died, had grown up an orphan who never knew who her parents were, or whether she might have had siblings. There was little affection for her as she grew up, and her wound grew deeper when she finally traced her mother, who wanted to deny she had ever borne her.

    At this funeral the priest was a very old friend of the woman who died, from way back in primary school days. So he knew her upbringing and knew her sadness.

    In his own mind this good priest had been trying to understand how a woman who had such a difficult start to life had turned out to be a loving woman, cherished by many. One thing he noted was that the ‘wound’ of her rejection had in some way given her the desire to always help the ‘underdog’.

    I too was orphaned, but at 15, knowing my family. This good woman helped me in all sorts of ways that I only now understand the reason for. At the funeral they spoke of how she arrived at 17, alone, far away from where she grew up, having been assigned to work with a family. When I was 17, ready to go to university, she made her oldest son drive me to the new town, so that I never arrived by bus alone in a strange town.

    I have not explained this well perhaps. But it seems that the pain in this woman’s childhood had led her to work tirelessly for those in need. She lived her faith.

  24. Anonymous

    Kiwi:
    Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. And you indeed said it very well. Thanks again.

  25. Anonymous

    It is well said. And the key is that she used her particular experiences and the understanding of the suffering that type of situation could cause, and worked towards preventing the same kind of suffering in others who had similar experiences.

    She didn’t glorify the suffering, or call it good, or tell people who were going through something similar to “offer it up”, or that God delighted in their suffering, or any of the more perverse extremes the Catholic take on suffering has gone to.

  26. Tim

    Thank you for sharing that story. I agree with anon about the suffering in itself not being good. The good that I see is God’s grace giving us the strength to fight through incredibly difficult circumstances, such as the ones your friend faced. You and your friend are in my prayers.

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