Dear Donagh, I'd like to hear what you have to say about suffering. The reason I ask is that a dear friend of mine has been going through hell for the last few years, one thing after another…. There’s no problem getting through to her. She talks to me a lot about it, not complaining or anything - she’s not like that - but just sharing. The other day she said something that scared me. She asked me if I thought they were being punished by God for something. That way of thinking would be completely foreign to me, but I didn’t know exactly what to say, other than that. Could you suggest a few things I might say to her if she brings this up again? Thanks for your site. I'm a regular visitor. Patricia
Dear Patricia, thanks for your letter and, if it’s for me to say so, for your concern for your friend. As it happens, someone else asked this very question recently. Without a doubt it’s one of the oldest questions in the world. It was put to Jesus a few times. "’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.’” (John 9:3; see also Luke 13). This was a novel approach at the time. For centuries the attitude of people in the Old Testament was that suffering was a punishment for sin. Incredibly you can still hear some fundamentalist Christians repeating it, along with its corollary: health and wealth are signs of God's favour. This so-called ‘gospel of wealth’ isn’t gospel at all. For one thing, only a wealthy person would ever be likely to proclaim it. It’s not news to anyone; it’s just the way of the world. Jesus's teaching is entirely different.
But even mainline Christians hang onto the idea of suffering as punishment. Take the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. The penny catechism described it as “a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before entering heaven.” This, even though the word ‘purgatory’ itself means ‘purification’. [See a previous question on Purgatory on this website.] We should see suffering in this life too as purification. In the traditional phrase, this world is the place of soul-making. If we can suffer gracefully, without complaint or blame or self-pity, our suffering is a path to God.
There is no ‘answer’ to the question why we suffer. What is an answer? - an arrangement of words to satisfy the mind’s need for a clear picture. Answers are important in many situations (especially when our suffering is self-induced) but they never fully satisfy a person who is suffering deeply. We should speak instead (I believe) about a response to suffering. Christ is God's response to our human situation. God could not stay at a distance from our suffering: the Word became flesh in Christ and lived among us, not just tasting our chalice of suffering but drinking it to the dregs. Then God raised him from death in “the surprise of the Resurrection”. It was a surprise - an act of the Father’s gracious will - not an answer or a solution.
The Father’s work was revealed in the Resurrection of Jesus. These were the words that Jesus used of the man born blind. “He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.”
The Cross of Christ is the central icon of our Faith. When we suffer we look at it and stay by it, or cling to it. Through the centuries Christians have known just this alone. The Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica (3rd or 4th century), said, "Those who put out to sea sail at first with a favourable wind. Their sails spread out. But later the winds become adverse. Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder…. So it is with us…we hold to the Cross as our sail and so we can set a safe course."
The best we can do for one another in talking about suffering is to pass on the wisest things from the tradition that we have found. Here, for example, are a couple of lines from Henry Suso (14th century): “Suffering makes a wise and experienced person. Those who have not suffered what do they know…? All the saints are on the side of the sufferer; for indeed they have all tasted it before us, and they call out to us with one voice that it is not a poisoned chalice but a wholesome drink.”
But you have something even better to offer your friend, Patricia. You can be present to her directly - as you have been. You are already doing the best that we can do for one another. It is even the best that God can do for us.