Comprehending suffering

Father Iain McKillop

I was asked recently why I thought God was allowing a friend to suffer and why he might allow the present pendemic. Was God trying to teach anything through it?  I love the person deeply and struggled to give a sensitive reply to a question that it is almost impossible to truly answer.  If I, who am imperfect in my love, don’t want anyone to suffer and wouldn’t put anyone through pain, surely God who IS perfect doesn’t aim for any to suffer.

Such questions have been asked since ancient times.  The Book of Job may be an ancient play exploring the issue.  Job’s four friends try to reason why the good man Job suffers intensely.  Has he sinned, or taken God for granted?  Is this punishment? Have his life and actions been inadequate so need refining?  After 34 chapters of arguments, which we the reader know from the start to be false, the voice of God (chapters 38-41) vindicates Job as well as himself.  Their answers are seen to be mistaken, God’s truths activities and purposes are shown to be higher and more mysterious than human minds can fathom.  Job, as far as we know was an invented character; perhaps he represents someone in legend or history known to have suffered.  The story, through fiction, explores theological truths. 

I still find that book’s answers inadequate, but it helps emphasise that God doesn’t bring about suffering.  God’s power may not always intervene to relieve all suffering or prevent its cause (from natural causes to human acts of evil).  Job’s friends made Job’s sufferings worse by misunderstanding him and his situation.  We must be careful not to cause greater hurt by misguided speculation about others’ troubles, or inadequately represent God to them.  Jesus expanded our understanding of God’s perfect nature.  Our loving Creator doesn’t cause evil or direct any form of suffering.  God doesn’t cause  pendemics.  Yet huge problems remain if we consider that suffering has a meaning or comes upon people for a reason.  Though we naturally try to rationalise difficulties, as Job’s companions did, I’m not sure that there is a meaning or ‘reason’ behind suffering in that way.  We live in a world where suffering is often an inevitable result of events, not something that is ‘brought-upon-us’ or ‘allowed’ by God. 

Some suffering comes through natural disasters.  The Earth, for all its beauty is partly unstable.  This Creator-formed instability is one reason why the world is beautiful and sustains human life.  Eruptions formed mountains; the complex wind, rain and tidal systems bring fertility; the intricacies of evolution and genetics have formed species variety; bacteria which can cause disease also help digestion, removal of toxins, bio-degradation after death.  The processes that formed the world and human beings are still active, helping all earth develop.  We could alleviate some suffering by not settling unstable land, eating unsuitable things, sharing the resources of the world more equitably and generously, sharing scientific, medical or technological benefits widely.  Selflessness and international cooperation could relieve much suffering after natural disasters.

Suffering occurs because we are sentient beings.  Our complex metabolisms and nervous systems are wonderful.  We receive enjoyment and value from them when they are working properly.  But when they fail pain or illness are inevitable results.  Pain isn’t ‘brought about’ by God, it is a natural element of life indicating where the system is going wrong.  Our intricate minds are inter-linked to our metabolism.  The complex nature of human thought expands us, but fear, worry, depression are natural corollaries, developing from the protection mechanisms of that complex system.  God isn’t the cause of mental or physical disorder, nor are ‘evil spirits’ as was superstitiously believed in the past.    

The inter-linking of human relationships means that we hurt when relationships break down or we lose someone who we love.  This causes intense suffering.  To not love might alleviate this, but social interaction keeps us healthy.  We are made to relate.  Who would rather be an automaton than a sociable, loving, sentient being who cares and gets hurt?

Our need to find reasons for suffering is part of human intelligence.  We naturally want to understand what is happening.  But you can’t explain suffering as you might search out scientific reasons for the sun’s radiation, historical/political causes of wars or the source of an epidemic.  Some people are fortunate to experience less suffering than others.  God doesn’t ‘spare’ them because they are righteous, just as he doesn’t cause suffering in others, despite the reasoning in some Psalms.   Suffering can often be intensified if we blame ourselves or others as Job’s friends did. 

I believe that suffering is an inevitable consequence of our complex natural condition.   Suffering isn’t ‘caused’ for a reason.  That’s not to say that we can’t ‘learn’ from it.  I don’t believe God uses it to ‘teach us a lesson’, ‘punish’ individuals or ‘direct’ us as some Old Testament reasoning implies.  But the experience of suffering can help us learn.  It might also teach us not to make similar mistakes again.   We might come through it appreciating what we have,  holding onto God or others more trustingly, caring more deeply for those we love, sharing our troubles, seeing life’s priorities and our possessions in better perspective.  I’ve learned more valuable lessons through suffering than in academic education.  But we mustn’t regard God as causing it for a reason or blame God for pain.

Neither should we over-spiritualise suffering.  Some ‘super-spiritual’ Christians say “I am blessed by God to suffer as Christ suffered”.  St Paul said: “I am completing in my body that which is incomplete in the sufferings of Christ” [Col.1:24].  But I think Paul was talking about something different, specific to his personal life or ministry when he wrote these words.  Christ’s suffering was considered sufficient to deal with the agonies, sins and weaknesses of all time.  He doesn’t call us to continue to suffer on his behalf.   That’s dodgy theology.  However, true discipleship can lead Christians into situations of suffering.  We expend energy, sometimes expose ourselves to danger when we reach out to witness, build a better world and bring peace or relief to others’ suffering.  Brave medics are doing similarly today.

We can help by offering peace, love and assuring of God’s presence where people struggle to find reasons for their suffering.  No-one is to blame, suffering is an outcome of a wonderful, complex world.  (Sadly the present pendemic is also a result of the complexity of nature, and may have been exacerbated by human beings).  Of several things we are assured: God knows thoroughly what human suffering is like because he too experienced it physically and mentally in the life of Jesus, and God is with us to support, strengthen and comfort us.   In the midst of confusion, pain, even when we doubt God’s love, as Job did, God is with us.  His love surrounds us, his strength is here to embrace us and to affirm that we are cared for and loved.    One wonderful response to suffering is that it can draw people together to support each other in love and care.  Job’s friends responded best, not when they tried to find reasons for his condition but when they sat in silent companionship with him and showed their empathy.  We can often be God’s arms to embrace those who suffer.  In our present isolation we cannot give that physical embrace but we can help to be God’s voice to comfort. love and bring peace.  Sometimes we can even be used by God to help heal.  How might you best help someone who is suffering to cope with their situation?