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Why Me?
Suffering and Meaning

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

Shortly before the Winter Olympics several years ago, the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a large man with an iron bar who beat her about the knees. Her immediate reaction was to cry out repeatedly, —Why me?— She was in great physical pain. She did not know her attacker. She imagined that the injury would put her out of the Olympics. It looked like all those years of hard work and discipline would be wasted. And she wanted to know why. (It turned out that her attacker was in the service of one her skating rivals.)

Why me? This question arises spontaneously when we suffer, whether the occasion is trivial (a paper cut) or serious (a cancer diagnosis or damage from a flood). There is a deep desire in humans to find a reason for their suffering and to discover some meaning in it.

The Bible provides several answers to the question —why me?— Suffering may be just punishment for foolish or sinful behavior. Suffering may be a discipline, an experience from which we can learn and become better persons. Suffering may be for the benefit of others. Or suffering may be mysterious at best or meaningless at worst. For those in the midst of suffering and searching for meaning, the Bible—s lament psalms can be a precious resource in building a community of sufferers.

Just Punishment

The question —why me?— is often accompanied by another question, —What did I do wrong?— Deep in the human psyche is the notion that suffering is the result of foolish or sinful behavior. And it often is! How many persons have been killed while driving drunk? How many have shortened their own lives by excessive smoking?

People get what they deserve in life—so says the law of retribution. The principle that the just are rewarded and the wicked are punished is all over the Bible. For example, —the integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them— (Proverbs 11:3). In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Moses places before Israel a choice. To choose life means to obey God—s commandments and so to enjoy happiness and prosperity, whereas turning from God will lead to suffering and death. The narrative about Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 suggests that the suffering and death that all humans experience are the consequences of the —original sin.—

But the law of retribution does not always apply. The sage known as Ecclesiastes expresses a skepticism founded on his wide experience: —there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil doing— (Eccl 7:15). And on several occasions, Jesus denies that sin is the only explanation for suffering (see Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:3).

Divine Discipline

Overcoming adversity is an element in many success stories: the champion runner who had polio as a child (Wilma Rudolph), stutterers who became great public speakers (Winston Churchill and James Earl Jones), or the celebrated writer who toiled in obscurity for many years (J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books). Such persons often look back on their sufferings and interpret them as learning experiences that gave them extraordinary desire and focus.

The theme of suffering as a discipline from God is prominent in late Old Testament writings. The wisdom teacher Ben Sira warns his prospective students: —My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing— (Sir 2:1). He makes willingness to accept discipline into a condition for making progress in pursuing wisdom: —If you are willing, my child, you can be disciplined, and if you apply yourself you will become clever— (6:32). The author of 2 Maccabees explains the suffering endured by faithful Jews in the second century b.c. as a sign of God—s mercy and care for them: —Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people— (6:16).

The letter to the Hebrews is a long meditation on the meaning of Jesus— suffering and death —for us.— Its exhortation in chapter 12 about suffering as a discipline from God takes as its starting point the sufferings of Jesus —the pioneer and perfecter of our faith— (12:2) who endured a shameful death on the cross and so entered into glory at God—s right hand. A quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12 (—the Lord disciplines those whom he loves—) leads into a reflection on the discipline that loving parents impose upon their children. If we respect and love our parents for having disciplined us as children, so we should respect and love our heavenly Father when —he disciplines us for our own good, in order that we may share his holiness— (12:10). The author of Hebrews assumes that the suffering will be temporary and will make us better persons, and that this kind of suffering can have an educative value in testing our character and helping us to understand better the ways of God. And sometimes it does.

Benefit for Others

When athletes sacrifice themselves and their own glory for the good of their team, they are praised and admired. When firefighters risk their lives to save others, they are hailed as heroes and those who perish are said to —have not died in vain.— When Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed for proclaiming the gospel of justice and freedom, his witness had (and has) significance for all Americans. At least in certain circumstances we can understand the redemptive value of suffering; that is, the idea that the suffering of one person (or group) may benefit many others.

The most important Old Testament figure who suffers for others is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 40—55. Whoever the Servant may have been in the sixth century b.c., he is portrayed in Isaiah 52:13—53:12 as someone whose suffering had a purpose and a positive effect. As a consequence of the Servant—s suffering the sins of God—s people were wiped away so that they could return from exile in Babylon. His suffering is described as a sacrifice for sins: —But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed— (53:5). The Servant in turn becomes the model for the suffering righteous person of Wisdom 2—3, the Maccabean martyrs (2 Macc 6—7), and Jesus the Servant of God.

Mark—s Gospel, which is sometimes called the Gospel of Suffering, interprets Jesus— life and death in terms of service and vicarious suffering: —For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many— (10:45). During his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, Jesus attracts misunderstanding and opposition from Pharisees and Herodians (3:6), the people of Nazareth (6:1-6), and his own disciples (8:14-21). On the way to Jerusalem he predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), and each time he is misunderstood by his disciples. In Jerusalem the chief priests, scribes and elders conspire to hand him over for execution to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. Jesus— identity as Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man becomes clear only at moment when he is sentenced to suffer and die (14:61-62).

The earliest confessions of Christian faith (1 Cor 11:24; 15:3; Rom 3:25-26) proclaimed Jesus— suffering and death as —for us— and —for our sins,— thus echoing Isaiah 53. Paul himself often uses similar formulas (Rom 5:6; 14:15; 2 Cor 5:14, 21; Gal 1:4; 3:13). These credal summaries affirm that Jesus suffered and died as God—s Servant on our behalf, and so made available to all peoples a new relationship with God. His suffering is full of meaning.

According to Paul, believers can participate in Jesus— suffering and death as well as his resurrection: —that I may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead— (Phil 3:10-11; see 2 Cor 1:3-7; 4:10).

What about Colossians 1:24? There Paul says: —Now I rejoice in suffering on your behalf, and I fill up what is lacking the tribulations of Christ.— This cannot mean that there is something deficient in the reconciliation brought about by Christ (see Col 1:19-20). Rather, the idea seems to be that Paul—s sufferings (and ours too) on behalf of other Christians may shorten the time before God—s kingdom comes in its fullness (see Mark 13:20).


When Cardinal Basil Hume was visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia during a terrible famine, a reporter asked him why God allowed this catastrophe to happen. He replied: —I have no idea.— There are many cases of human suffering where the usual answers—just punishment, divine discipline, or benefit for others—do not work. The case of Job is one.

Job is introduced as —blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil— (1:1). When first deprived of his possessions and health, Job remained patient and trusting in God (1:21; 2:10). However, in chapter 3 Job lets out a howl and bewails his fate: —Why did I not die at birth?— (3:11).

So begins a long conversation (Job 4—37) between Job and his —friends— about the law of retribution and theodicy (God—s justice). Three propositions are debated endlessly: God is all powerful; God is just; and the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Job—s friends reason that since he is suffering, he must have sinned, because God is both omniponent and just. Job, however, complains that God is not just. They all confront the mystery of innocent suffering (as Jesus does in Gethsemane) and do not know how to resolve it.

God—s speeches from the whirlwind (Job 38—41) provide a change of perspective rather than an answer. God invites Job (and us) to view creation from God—s perspective and to recognize how limited our human perspective is. There are areas that we cannot see or know, much less control. God—s —answer— is that sometimes (as in Job—s case) suffering is a mystery beyond human comprehension and what is needed is humility and acceptance in the face of mystery (see 42:1-5).

The mystery of suffering is the background for apocalypses like Daniel and Revelation and for much New Testament theology. Apocalyptic is crisis literature, generally emanating from suffering people. It defers the resolution of the mystery of innocent suffering to the Last Judgment. Then all creation will acknowledge the omnipotence and justice of God, and the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked punished. Christians believe that with Jesus— resurrection the endtime has already begun and God—s kingdom is among us. And yet evil and death are at work in our world. Until the Last Judgment we experience the mystery of innocent suffering in our lives and try to confront it with hope and patient endurance.

A Community of Sufferers

Suffering is a universal human experience. Yet when we suffer, we often feel isolated and alienated. The Old Testament lament psalms can help suffering persons to break out of their loneliness.

Psalm 3 is a good example of a lament. It begins with an address to God: —O Lord.— Next there is a complaint: —Many are rising against me...— (vv. 1-2). Then in vv. 3-6 there is a confession of faith in God (—you, O Lord, are a shield around me...—) and a profession of trust (—I lie down and sleep... I am not afraid—). Next there is a petition: —Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God— (v. 7). Finally there is a kind of thanksgiving: —Deliverance belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people— (v. 8).

According to Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, Jesus— last words were from a lament psalm (22): —My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?— To get the full meaning of Jesus— words it is necessary to read the whole psalm, which ends on a note of vindication and celebration.

The biblical laments can help sufferers to recognize that they are not alone but stand in a long tradition of suffering people. These psalms allow sufferers to address God directly, to shake off their personal and religious inhibitions, and to express their feelings of pain, fear and confusion. Also, they can help sufferers to articulate the questions that their suffering raises: Why am I suffering? Does it have any meaning? Where is God?

The lament psalms are part of our biblical heritage. Once used in liturgical celebrations at the Jerusalem Temple, they are now embedded in a tradition that links millions of people all over the world. They remind us that those who suffer are honored members of our community of faith. The laments may be the Bible—s most important contribution to the issue of suffering and meaning.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has served as general editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972.

Next: Paul's Letter to the Romans (by Raymond Collins)


Praying With Scripture

Read Psalm 22. Notice the alteration between complaint and confession in the first part (1-21a) and the atmosphere of vindication and celebration in the second part (21b-31). Pray that God may grant you the self-understanding and courage to give voice to your suffering as well as the trust to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of it.



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