Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Suffering and Meaning
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.
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
Next: Paul's Letter to the Romans (by Raymond