Sense of Life. Articles in English. The Mystery of Suffering.
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The Mystery of Suffering

No one can escape suffering and death in this life. Moreover, the suffering we experience — or will at some point experience — affects not only our bodies, but even more so, our souls.

Difficult questions

The problem of suffering looms large in the heart of a suffering person. When we consider the suffering of innocent children and the millions of victims of wars and concentration camps, the question arises with even greater insistence. If God exists, why does He seem so insensitive to the sufferings of the innocent? Why does He permit such blatant injustice and evil?

“We all know,” observed Servant of God John Paul II, “that this question not only gives rise to many obstacles and conflicts in man’s relations with God, but also drives many people to the point of actually denying God. For, whereas the existence of the world opens, as it were, the eyes of the human soul to the existence of God, to His wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so much undeserved suffering and unrequited evil. This circumstance — perhaps more than any other — underlines the importance of the question of the meaning of suffering; it also highlights the care that must be taken in dealing with the question and finding all possible answers to it” (Salvifici doloris, 9).

Every person has not only the right but also the obligation to probe the meaning of suffering. Indeed, God Himself posits the question in the biblical story of Job, who was stricken by unmerited suffering. Suffering is an evil. Its single source and cause is sin. Therefore, in positing the question of suffering, we must also raise the question of evil and its origins.

The root cause of every suffering

God not only urges us to pose the question of suffering, but also provides us with the best of possible answers. Scripture tells us that the greatest drama of the human race was played out in the first days of man’s existence. Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation. They believed the Tempter’s false claim that disobedience to God would bring them perfect happiness. They disbelieved God’s warning that man’s greatest tragedy was sin, that sin would destroy their humanity and bring down upon them terrible suffering through enslavement to the powers of evil and spiritual death. When we speak of original sin, we need to remember that it is the entire human community, in the persons of Adam and Eve, which said “no” to God. Through Adam and Eve humanity collectively severed the ties of life and love, which linked it to God and thus plunged it into a life of suffering and death. Humanity is a community like a living organism. We are all bound to one another in a solidarity of good and evil. The state of sin in which our first parents found themselves cast all of us into the most abject and hopeless condition of suffering. Moroever, as Servant of God John Paul II reminds us, “the immensity of evil now present in the world is not only the consequence of original sin; it is also the result of the bedeviling and hidden activities of Satan, who lays snares to upset man’s moral equilibrium. Satan acts like a wily seducer insinuating himself into our lives so as to lead us astray in directions that are both harmful and seemingly in conformity with our instincts and aspirations” (John Paul II, May 5, 1987).

Why we inherit original sin and its consequences without being personally at fault?

Divine revelation tells us that all of us, from the moment of conception, become part of the human family and inherit the evil that resides within it. Thus we become heirs to original sin along with all its consequences. Original sin and all other sins create within the “living organism” of the human community the reality of sin, which touches us and inflicts suffering upon us all — including innocent children. Thus the source and cause of every human suffering is the objective reality of sin within the human community. Suffering springs from sin and hence from the destruction of objective good within us, both in our interpersonal relationships and in our relations with God. Suffering, then, is not a punishment meted out by God for sin, but the inescapable experience of the consequences of an objectively existing reality — the “sin of the world” (John 1:29). In addition to personally unmerited suffering, there is also the suffering that comes from personal sin (e.g. alcohol abuse, taking drugs, or other forms of substance abuse). 

In the Book of Job, God teaches that we are dealing with a great mystery. Suffering is not always the consequence of personal sin. But when suffering follows as a result of sins we do commit, can we then consider it as a punishment inflicted upon the sinner by God (see Galatians 6:8)? From the parable of the Prodigal Son, we learn that out of fatherly love God does not punish the prodigal son. Instead He allows him to taste the bitter fruits of his sinful choices. He does this in order to bring him to his senses and to a conversion of the heart. Thus it is the consequences of sin that constitute the punishment. In this case, as John Paul II observes, “the purpose of suffering is to effect a conversion, that is, to build up good in the subject, so that in the call to repentance he may discover the Mercy of God. The purpose of repentance is to overcome the evil that lurks in various forms in the heart of man, and also to strengthen the good not only in him but also in his relations with others, and especially with God” (Salvific doloris, 12). 

The meaning of suffering

To be freed from enslavement to evil we must experience remorse for our sins and entrust ourselves entirely to the will of the Creator. After the Fall, the “image and likeness of God” in man (his intellect, free will, and aptitude for love) became so deformed that he was unable on his own to allow God to free him from his captivity to sin and death. It was for this reason that God became “true man” — a member of the human community. Being at the same time true God (God has no past or beginning, but always “is”), Jesus Christ was able to reach into the history of every man and woman and take upon Himself the entirety of evil and the suffering flowing from it: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was wounded for our transgressions…bruised for our iniquities…and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).

In themselves, sin and its attendant suffering are meaningless and would remain so, if it were not for the fact that God took upon Himself the sins and sufferings of all people. It is God Himself in His true humanity who experiences the appalling suffering that flows from sin. He who knew no sin “made him to be sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). By dying on the cross, the God-Man willingly experienced the greatest evil and suffering caused by the sins of us all. The full horror of this evil He expressed in the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). It is God Himself who experiences in His true human consciousness the sufferings caused by that greatest of evils, which is man’s rejection of God. Thus God in His love reaches wherever the destructive power of sin casts its shadow. He unites Himself with man in his fall, so as to raise him up, so as to grant him forgiveness and freedom, and make of suffering the way to salvation and growth in love.

By experiencing unspeakable suffering at the moment of death, Jesus most perfectly opened up his humanity to the love of the Father and entrusted Himself to Him with perfect obedience. In this way He was able to overcome every sin, which always consists in the disobedience of the creature toward the Creator. He did this on behalf of us all.

As John Paul II observes: “Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the ‘entirety’ of the evil of turning away from God, which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering, which is separation, which is rejection by the Father — estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering he accomplishes the Redemption and is able to say, upon breathing his last: ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30)” (Salvifici doloris, 18). The Servant of God goes on to say: “We might call this ‘substitutive’ suffering; but above all it is ‘redemptive.’… In his suffering, our sins are wiped out precisely because he alone, as the only-begotten Son, could take them upon himself and accept them with that love for the Father, which conquers the evil of every sin. In a sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space existing between God and humanity, and fills this space with good.” (Salvifici doloris, 17).

By His passion, death, and resurrection, Christ made it possible for every human suffering that is united with Him to become the means of salvation and growth in love, which is to say that it has infinite redemptive value. Jesus also revealed to us that whenever we experience suffering, God is in every instance the first to bear its weight. It is the Savior Himself who is present in and suffers with each of the millions of human beings who live in poverty and indignity, undergo brutal persecution, die of hunger, and suffer as victims of torture and terrorism. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can discover this shocking reality of the love of a God who shares humanity’s suffering in order to save it.

By gazing on Christ’s cross through the eyes of faith, we discover that every suffering, particularly the most senseless and innocent, becomes our way of salvation as long as we freely unite it with the suffering of Christ, boundlessly trusting in Him and entrusting ourselves to His mercy. It is then that we discover the great gift and grace that is our suffering, for then we realize that we are participating with Christ in the act of redeeming the world, and that our present sufferings are merely the way leading to eternal joy in paradise: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4: 17-18).

Saint Edith Stein who died a martyr’s death at Auschwitz has this to say on the meaning of suffering: “The human nature that Christ took on enabled him to suffer and die. The Divine nature that he eternally possessed bestowed upon that suffering infinite value and redemptive power. The passion and death of Christ is repeated in His Mystical Body and members. Everyone must suffer and die, but if he remains a living member of the Mystical Body, his suffering and death take on redemptive power, thanks to the Divinity of the One Who is its head. That is why every saint desires to embrace suffering.”

Fr. Mieczyslaw Piotrowski SChr

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