Friday, 15 December 2017

The Mystery of Human Suffering: God-Suffering-With-Us

"Guernica," depicting the Spanish Civil War, Picasso, 1937.

Human suffering… No human answer can say it all… The following was written in response to a wholesome question, posed after this person had read a previous article on John of the Cross [here]:
"He was remembered because he accomplished great things. What about the rest 99.9% of people who had it equally or even harder? Is there a point for most people's suffering in this wretched world?" 
One can only venture to answer fallibly, just as well God has already answered infallibly.

The Particular: Child Birth

Consider a woman that gives birth. She goes through tremendous pains, and through such pains, she gives birth to a child, and no matter how painful her labour, she sees such pains as worthwhile, because the joy of holding her baby in her arms for the first time, outweighs the suffering. Ask such a loving mother whether she’d choose to keep the child and the pains, or give up the pains and so give away the child, and she’ll say the pains were hell, but I’d choose the child any day.[i]

The Universal

This says something about suffering in general. Suffering can be meaningful if it results in a good, a thing, a fruit, that positively outweighs the negative experience of such a suffering. Accordingly, athletes go through rigorous and painful training, seeing the possibility of a gold medal as worth the pains. Soldiers have died in agony on battle fields, viewing the pain of their sacrifice outweighed by the reason they died (whether real or imagined): to defend their people, or to fight against tyranny. The pain of losing our first teeth is considered to have purpose because it makes way for better teeth, adult teeth. 

What About Those Other Sufferings?

However, when one considers the horrible sufferings people endure—broken families, terrorism, murders, rapes, depression etc.—there seems to be no benefit at all, just sheer pain, and one couldn’t be blamed for thinking, where does God stand in relation to this? He can seem distant, uncaring, some even think blameworthy. After all, he doesn’t always intervene with a lightening bolt. Much could be said, as countless books and articles have done so, regarding man’s free will, God’s respect of this freedom and His goodness and inability to do evil, somehow working all out for the good even if we can’t perceive it, and many other things commonly raised. Yet it really is a mystery, suffering is a mystery, we can explain it a little, but we cannot explain it perfectly.

To Question is Good, but the Answer is Better

But for the Christian, to question and to realise our inability to understand this is considered okay, because we believe that God has already answered and explained the mystery of suffering by speaking ‘once and for all’ His Word—Jesus—who was made flesh, born of Mary, and then at His prime, though innocent, was condemned to death, scourged and beaten to a bloody pulp, spat upon, and mocked, stripped naked by Roman soldiers, humiliated and laughed at.[ii] Then nailed to a chunk of wood to die cold and alone: and all willingly despite been able to save Himself, in order to prove His supreme love for us—dying so as to take the punishment of our sins on Himself, so that we might be freed from the prison of our sin and mortality, and enter into the perfection of grace and eternal life.
That’s how desperate God was to reveal His care for us. This shows where God stood in relation to every kind of victim of every manner of suffering. Not distant and above them, but suffering in them and with them, through them and for them. God has explained it all by His Word in Christ Crucified. It’s just that no matter how much we grasp it, this explanation of human suffering and misery, nailed to the Cross with open arms, is beyond our ability to reason and hence the need for faith, by which we embrace this explanation, this answer, this Word, this man, this God.

Suffering: Worthwhile, Not Wasted

So as a mother sees the suffering of her labour pains as a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of giving birth to her child; the Christian sees the sufferings of this life as not wasted, meaningless or vain, but a worthwhile sacrifice (without advocating masochism, but simply accepting the sufferings that have befallen us) which in light of Jesus’ sufferings and by uniting our pains to His pains, can, by His grace through faith, serve as our share in the labour pains necessary for our rebirth—our delivery—into the eternal life of heaven.

For as silver is purified of dross through exposure to fire, so we can be purified by exposure to the fire of sufferings in our life. Pressure can make coal, but under the right conditions pressure can make diamonds. One key trend in the lives of the Saints, these diamonds of humanity, is that they suffered a lot, but not necessarily any more than many other people. It’s just that they suffered well and hence their sufferings made them better people.

Dr. Jordan B Peterson—"Life is Suffering"

On this note, I think it worthwhile to share part of a transcript of a powerful speech given by Canadian Psychology Professor, Jordan B Peterson, earlier this year. He doesn’t consider himself a Christian. At least, not in any defined sense of the word, but Catholic thought welcomes truth wherever it’s spoken, and whoever speaks it, even if partial disagreement remains. The link is provided in the footnotes. Heads-up, it’s an easy read.

Dr. Jordan B Peterson
People get upset with me because I bring up religious themes, but… it’s not an accident that the axiomatic western individual was someone who was unfairly nailed to a cross and tortured. It’s like, yes…right…exactly!... Well, there’s a deep idea in the West…“Pick up your damn suffering, and bear it… and try to be a good person, so that you don’t make it worse.” Well that’s a truth.

You know… I read a lot about the terrible things that people have done to each other, you just cannot even imagine it. It’s so awful. So you don’t want to be someone like that. Now do you have a reason to be? Yes! You have a lots [sic] of reasons to be… there’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die… you know. You too! And there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it is going to be unfair. It’s like, “Yeah, no wonder you’re resentful!” It’s like, act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse. There’s this idea that hell is a bottomless pit, and that’s because no matter how bad it is, some stupid son-of-a-#@% like you could figure out a way to make it a lot worse.

So you think, “Well, what do you do about that?” Well you accept it. That’s what life is like—it’s suffering. That’s what the religious people have always said. Life is suffering. Yes! Well, who wants to admit that? Well, just think about it. Well so what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself, what good are you? Get yourself together… so that when your father dies you’re not whining away in the corner, and you can help plan the funeral, and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim. ‘Course you’re a victim! …Obviously. Put yourself together, and then maybe if you put yourself together—you know how to do that, you know what’s wrong with you, if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things that you could like, polish up a little bit… And then maybe you could bring your family together, instead of having them be the hateful, spiteful, neurotic, in-fighting batch, that you’re like, doomed to spend Christmas with. So, then you fix yourself up a little bit, kind of humbly, because you know… you’re a fixer-upper if there ever was one... And so then maybe you get somewhere that way, and your family is sort of functioning, and you find out well, that kind of relived a little bit of suffering… And so… you’re a little clued in then, at least a bit, because you’ve done something difficult that’s actually difficult and so you’re a little wiser, and so you can put a tentative finger out beyond the family, and try to change some little thing, without wrecking it….

…And that’s another message of the West: it’s like how do you overcome the suffering of life? (I’m not saying it’s only the message of the West). How do you overcome the suffering of life is be a better person. That’s how you do it. Well that’s hard. It takes responsibility. And I think, you know, if you said to someone, “You want to have a meaningful life… Everything you do matters,” (that’s the definition of a meaningful life), “But everything you do matters!” But you’re going to have to carry that with you. Or do you just want to forget about the whole meaning thing and then you don’t have any responsibility, ‘cause “Who the hell cares”, and you can wonder through life and do whatever you want—gratifying impulsive desires {then sarcastically} for how useful that’s going to be. And [meanwhile] you’re stuck in meaninglessness but you don’t have any responsibility, which one do you want?

Ask yourself, which one are you pursuing? And you’ll find very rapidly that it isn’t the majority of your soul that is pursuing the whole meaning thing, because, well, look what you have to do to do that—you have to take on the fact that life is suffering. You have to put yourself together, in the face of that. Well, that’s hard… it’s amazing people can even do it…

I knew this guy, he’d been in a motor cycle accident, and it really ruined him, and he was like a linesman, you know, working on the power, and he was working with someone who had parkinson’s disease, and they had complimentary inadequacies. And so, two of them could do the job of one person. And so they’re out there fixing power lines in the freezing cold… It’s like that’s how our civilisation works. It’s like, there’s all these ruined people out there that only got problems like you can’t believe—[yet] off they go to work, and do things they don’t even work, and look! the lights are on {pointing upwards to the lights on the ceiling}. My G_d, it’s unbelievable. It’s a miracle.[iii]

A key divergence an explicitly Christian view of suffering would underscore, in contrast to what Dr. Peterson has articulated, is the inability of human effort to result in injecting human suffering with a truly deep, full and perfect meaning without the aid of divine grace, flowing as gift from Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. Without such grace, such meaning might be significant, but it can only remain imperfect and unsatisfactory. Only the meaning injected into suffering by grace is truly meaningful, perfect and divine, enduring into eternity, and faith alone is able to apprehend this meaning which comes from the presence of Jesus in us, in our lives and in our sufferings.

Nevertheless, one thing Dr. Peterson highlights is a twofold dimension of drawing meaning from suffering: 1) accepting it and carrying it, and 2) doing so in love, specifically, by trying to reduce the suffering we see in the world, in ourselves, at home and abroad. This is essentially Christian: carry your cross, and love your neighbour—that is, accept your suffering, but make the world a place of less suffering, don’t add to it out of spite, don't be a sadist of revenge or a masochist of self-pity, or most commonly, don't be just plain indifferent, but do something!

To Bear It Well

In Her Last Conversations before she died, St. Therese said: “It's true, I suffer a great deal--but do I suffer well? That is the question.” We have no choice but to repress the reality of suffering or to accept it. Since sufferings are already in our face, gnawing away at our souls and scratching at our bodies, and they will come to everyone in this mortal life, but such sufferings, depending on how we choose to bear them, can make us or break us—make us better, or make us worse, make us more empathetic to others, or make us increasingly apathetic to others.

Undoubtedly, suffering is such a personal thing that we can never judge another person based on how they have borne their suffering—since we cannot see inside the heart, we do not know. Besides, there are some sufferings that are so great, one has no idea what such suffering could even remotely be like. To bear suffering well isn’t to grin and bear it bravely like some heartless stoic, it’s something more subtle, profound, and interior, and it doesn’t mean the pain will ever go away. It means one has learnt how to carry one’s pain, seeing hope despite the immediate hopelessness.

For the Christian, how we choose to bear our sufferings is quite unique and specific. Since Jesus has already carried the Cross, and in the Gospels His insistent invitation to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23) is a summons to carry our cross, our sufferings in life which inevitably come, together with Him. It’s strange how Jesus says elsewhere, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). Our mind is led to say: “You say what! Call us to carry our cross, our sufferings, and if Your cross is any indicator, it seems anything but light and easy!”

Love—Easy and Light

Without doubting, but inquiring nonetheless, I wondered once how the crosses of our suffering and “easy” and “light” could fit together, then I realised it was love. Love makes suffering meaningful, somewhat “easy” and “light”—not literally, no, the pain remains—but love transforms the hardness and weight of suffering’s meaninglessness into something richly meaningful, even worthwhile.

There are victims of various kinds of abuse, who from the wound caused by their abuser which they carry with them for life—a wound caused by indifference and hate—love manages to use such suffering for the service of others, helping other people who share their pain like no one else could. By her love a mother transforms her suffering of childbirth into something meaningful, rich with purpose—a means to her beautiful child. If this is human love, one can only wonder how a divine love infused into our hearts might transform the sufferings of this life from something meaningless into serving a purpose greater than the miracle of new life—the miracle of eternal life.

The essential transformative role love plays in suffering cannot be understated. Without giving love its proper place, perhaps it might be said suffering is only worthwhile if it’s matched by great, glorious and heroic deeds. This seems to be the attitude of the world.

The World’s View—What Constitutes Meaningful Suffering

In Homer’s Illiad, it is recounted how the great legendary war hero of ancient Greece, Achilles, welcomed suffering and even death, weighing it as light compared to the glory or renown which he sought. In fact, he was faced with a choice: to choose a long life lived in peace and prosperity without renown, or a short and glorious life in war. Esteeming the greatness of heroic deeds in war, he chose the part laden with suffering as worthwhile.

The world would agree on this, that suffering matched by great deeds is worthwhile. Hence the suffering of Edmund Hilary in ascending Mt. Everest is hailed as meaningful. The hardships of Gandhi who helped bring about political change through his way of non-violence are seen as commendable.

Yet when it comes to suffering which is not met with great and glorious deeds, such suffering is either deemed by the world as less meaningful, or totally worthless.

An ordinary father who slips in the bathroom and sustains a permanent chronic injury—well, this suffering isn’t seen as overly meaningful as such, more of a pity if anything, and it would be considered less meaningful than if he had injured himself more gloriously in the line of duty or at work where he provides for his family.
A bedridden elderly person who can no longer do anything but suffer and depend on others for assistance—this kind of suffering is deemed pointless, meaningless, so that killing them by euthanasia is deemed the only meaningful option.

As for the sufferings of people who by worldly standards have failed to meet the mark, who have not just failed to achieve great things, nor will be remembered in history for any trials undergone, but who have by all outward appearances completely stuffed up their life, from unrehabilitated gambling to drug addicts, to prisoners who died in ‘the slam’— what value could such sufferings of these people hold? Perhaps some value, a post-modern secular society living off the leftovers of a rejected Christian ethics would say, just not as much value as those who did great things—the Edmund Hilarys and Gandhis—who with their sufferings gave humanity something heroic to feast upon.

The Christian View—What Constitutes Meaningful Suffering

Here the Christian view could not disagree more. A view which holds that love alone gives meaning to suffering, not the grandiose economic-tangible-outcome of such suffering, which is merely superficial. So that the sufferings of an unrehabilitated drug addict, who lives alone, unknown to the world, could in all likelihood, far outweigh the purposefulness and meaningfulness of the sufferings Edmund Hilary endured in climbing Everest, if and only if, such sufferings were borne in greater love. How might this have been done?
The Christian, specifically the Catholic, might say: if such a person, was truly sorry for their faults and wanted to stop sinning, even if they remained involuntarily ensnared by their own addiction, and from the humility of their misery, offered their broken heart to God with all its sufferings out of love for Him, then that person’s sufferings would not be worthless, nor of moderate value, but invaluable and rich in meaning, filled with the very merit, value and meaning of Jesus’ own sufferings. Perhaps such a person wasn’t Christian, then they might be able to do so implicitly.

Regardless, the interior love with which suffering is borne, and not the greatness of such suffering’s outward result, whether reaped in that person’s life or posthumously, is hailed in God’s eyes as the real reason for suffering’s meaningfulness. The fact that the sufferings of a nobody can potentially be even more meaningful than the greatest personalities of history is a profound thought.

The Heroism of Human Weakness, Creatureliness, Suffering, in Light of Faith

Ernest Beker writes in The Denial of Death,

Culture opposes nature and transcends it. Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness [and ergo, heroism is deemed synonymous with a denial or belittling of the reality of human suffering]. But this denial is more effective in some epochs than in others. When man lived securely under the canopy of the Judeo-Christian world picture he was part of a great whole; to put it in our terms, his cosmic heroism was completely mapped out, it was unmistakeable. He came from the invisible world into the visible one by the act of God, did his duty to God by living out his life with dignity and faith, marrying as a duty, procreating as a duty, offering his whole life—as Christ had—to the Father. In turn he was justified by the Father and rewarded with eternal life in the invisible dimension… In a word, man’s cosmic heroism was assured, even if he was as nothing. This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took creature consciousness—the thing that man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.[iv]

Heroes of the Faith

To conclude, we return to the heroes of the faith, the Saints. Initially, one might look at a lot of the Saints, these masters of the spiritual life, and in the face of seeing such great deeds they accomplished, one could be tempted to see their sufferings as worthwhile because of the great things they did and the great legacies they have left behind.

Let’s look at St. John of the Cross whose feast has just elapsed—he was persecuted by his comrades, imprisoned and abused by them, and through it all founded a ‘new’ religious community of friars and is esteemed as one of the greatest poets of Spanish literature. He indeed did relatively great things, but there are others who never did great things, that have likewise been remembered.

Consider, St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). She was a Carmelite nun, and died at 24 from the painful disease of tuberculosis. She lived such a simple life that those responsible for writing her obituary had no idea what to even write about her, since by human standards she did nothing great at all. Why then is she remembered? Even hailed as “the greatest saint of modern times” by Pope Pius X. She did little, but loved great. One has only to read her book, “Story of a Soul” to see how much love she had for God and neighbour alike, and it is this love which has touched the hearts of millions throughout the world to love in turn, inspired not by her greatness, but by her littleness.
St. Therese of Liseux
Sure, she died so young—24—and from a horrible disease, so she knew suffering well, but such suffering was far from meaningless, since although without achieving any outward glorious and grandiose deeds, simply lying in bed and dying—through her great love for God, her suffering, united to Jesus’ and by God’s grace, swiftly transformed, sanctified and matured her soul, until it radiated with a glory far more glorious than even a thousand Achilles’ could have won by a million heroic conquests.

So we see in Therese that the sufferings of the Saints have meaning not because of their great deeds, but because of their great love. Whether not they did great things by outward standards is accidental—periphery, and of little consequence, since it’s love, their love for Jesus and their fellow neighbour that gives their suffering a greatness of meaning.

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s line is so often quoted, but with reason: “None of us can do great things, but small things with great love.”
We all suffer, some less, some more, and suffering is bound to come our way even more, as life goes along, since the pathway of this mortal life is strewn with roses, sure, but thorns as well. So, no matter what, we cannot really control how much we suffer, since it is beyond us to prevent it altogether, and for a mysterious reason God permits it to happen, without causing it or creating it. Since in this life, because of Jesus’ sufferings, sufferings contain a potent potential power to make us better, stronger, kinder, deeper, softer people, depending on the spirit in which we bear them. As we have said, pressure makes coal, but it can also make diamonds, and without such pressure the diamond could never be a diamond.


So yes, suffering as a whole, stands outside our power to control, but what is within our power, and free choice, is how we choose to bear such suffering—for no reason, or for the reason of love—using our pains to reach out to others, and to draw into deeper union with God who in Jesus suffered on the Cross, and who still today, suffers in our suffering, not distant, but near and intimate, as Emmanuel, a Hebrew name for Jesus meaning, “God-with-us”. Here we are in Advent, leading up to Christmas and I find myself writing on suffering. Yet this is no small matter, as the name Emmanuel, used especially in this season to speak of God coming down from heaven to be born as an infant in our midst, takes on a beautiful meaning when we consider the meaning of the word “compassion” from its Latin root compassio: that is, “one who suffer with”.
So in Jesus we see a God-who-suffers-with-us. Cries with us, bleeds with us, sweats with us.

The Christian message is profound, because it says that here, in Jesus, is God who suffers with us, and this God doesn’t ask us to pretend suffering isn’t real or to put on a fake smile as though we don’t hurt, or to live a life of pleasure that represses the inescapable sufferings of life. No, but rather we have a God, who while suffering with us, asks us, not to fashion crosses, but to acknowledge, accept and carry them when they inevitably come, and to suffer not alone, but with-Him, since with Him one’s soul is touched by His love.

A divine and human love comingled, which in some strange way replaces the hard heaviness of suffering’s meaningless into the “light and easy” burden and yoke of a meaning which makes this sometimes-painful mortal life, rich and beautiful and undeniably worthwhile, so much so that we cannot help but recognise something noble when suffering is marked by love—endured for the sake of others. Jesus, Kolbe, the Anzacs, a mother who’s given birth. For “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7); and where it resides, meaningless cannot abide.

[i] This calls to mind the words of God to the prophet Isaiah, words addressed to each of us: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Is 49:15).
[ii] St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel 2,22,3-5 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, tr. K. Kavanaugh, OCD, and O. Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC:Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979),179-180:LH, OR Advent, week 2, Mon.
[iii] Original source: The Speakers Action Group, “2017/01/22: Pt 2: Freedom Of Speech/Political Correctness: Dr. Jordan B Peterson,” 44:20-50:40, youtube, A shorter clip (~8 mins) which concerns the part transcribed above, see
[iv] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Free Press Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster: New York, 2007), p.159-160.

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