Over at The Roman Road in 2011, there was an excellent little series on the theology of suffering, a topic dear to my heart from years of preaching/encouraging in a devotional service at a local nursing home.
It is also a topic very relevant to our modern culture which is so Corinthian and which requires a focus on ‘Christ, and him crucified.’
It seems to me that there are basically three attitudes towards suffering:
- 1 Suffering is an illusion, seek enlightenment
- Classically expressed in Buddhism, this is also the perspective of some forms of scientific naturalism
- 2 Suffering is a fact, seek power
- Although the paths to power differ, this is the common attitude of Mohammad, Nietzsche, and Marx.
- 3 Suffering is a redemptive opportunity, seek the Messiah
- With its roots in the Hebrew scriptures, this attitude finds its fullest expression in the Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic letter from 1984, wrote extensively on the Christian meaning of human suffering in Salvifici Doloris. Here is a brief excerpt:
14. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. These words, spoken by Christ in his conversation with Nicodemus, introduce us into the very heart of God’s salvific work. They also express the very essence of Christian soteriology, that is, of the theology of salvation. Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering. According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives his Son to “the world” to free man from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the veryword “gives” (“gave”) indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only-begotten Son through his own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason “gives” his Son. This is love for man, love for the “world”: it is salvific love.
We here find ourselves—and we must clearly realize this in our shared reflection on this problem—faced with a completely new dimension of our theme. It is a different dimension from the one which was determined and, in a certain sense, concluded the search for the meaning of suffering within the limit of justice. This is the dimension of Redemption, to which in the Old Testament, at least in the Vulgate text, the words of the just man Job already seem to refer: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last… I shall see God…”. Whereas our consideration has so far concentrated primarily and in a certain sense exclusively on suffering in its multiple temporal dimension (as also the sufferings of the just man Job), the words quoted above from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus refer to suffering in its fundamental and definitive meaning. God gives his only-begotten Son so that man “should not perish” and the meaning of these words ” should not perish” is precisely specified by the words that follow: “but have eternal life”.
Man “perishes” when he loses “eternal life”. The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection.
15. When one says that Christ by his mission strikes at evil at its very roots, we have in mind not only evil and definitive, eschatological suffering (so that man “should not perish, but have eternal life”), but also—at least indirectly toil and suffering in their temporal and historical dimension. For evil remains bound to sin and death. And even if we must use great caution in judging man’s suffering as a consequence of concrete sins (this is shown precisely by the example of the just man Job), nevertheless suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what Saint John calls “the sin of the world”, from the sinful background of the personal actions and social processes in human history. Though it is not licit to apply here the narrow criterion of direct dependance (as Job’s three friends did), it is equally true that one cannot reject the criterion that, at the basis of human suffering, there is a complex involvement with sin.