Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Mystery of Suffering: How Should I Respond?
Suffering surrounds us. Mental and physical illness,
poverty and starvation, wars and violence of all kinds overwhelm
individuals, communities, entire nations. We ourselves experience
suffering. It might be broken relationships and alienated families,
accidents and disease, failed dreams or boring jobs, in dying and
death. How many people suffer from addictions, abuse and other forms
A terrible image of suffering now burns in the memories
of so many of us: planes burying themselves into the World Trade
Center and erupting in giant fireballs. Shock and horror led to
grief and lament, heroism and vengeance—and to questions about God.
—How could God allow this to happen?— —Where is God in all this
suffering?— Those directly involved in suffering often ask, —Why
did this happen to me?— and sometimes even —What did I do wrong
to be punished in this way?—
Humans have long asked these questions. The whole
Book of Job in the Bible is about the question of suffering. Christians
have tried to discover meaning for suffering in studying and praying
about the suffering and death of Jesus told in the Gospels. Some
of the more violent biblical perspectives, however, fail to satisfy
fully. Hearts and minds long for the God of compassion revealed
How should I respond to suffering? There—s a question
for everyone. In this Update we—ll consider the life of Jesus,
including some of the major interpretations of his suffering and
death. We will return to Scripture and Tradition for another perspective
on Jesus— life and death. There we will find clues for our own response
Jesus and suffering
From the Gospels we learn three important points about
Jesus and suffering. Books can and have been written about them.
Here they are in brief:
1. Jesus resisted and eliminated suffering. Many
Gospel stories tell of Jesus healing the blind and sick. Matthew—s
Gospel summarizes this way: —Then Jesus went about all the cities
and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good
news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness—
2. Jesus rejected suffering as punishment for sin.
Deeply embedded in the Hebrew tradition is the conviction that
suffering is punishment for sin, called the —Law of Retribution.—
The people in exile in Babylon, for example, interpreted their exile
as God—s punishment for their failure to follow the covenant faithfully.
This conviction appears in many religions and cultures. Jesus, however,
rejected it. Matthew—s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount describes
God as beyond all that: —for he makes his sun rise on the bad and
the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust— (Mt
Similarly, John—s Jesus heals the blind man and explicitly
rejects the idea that suffering is punishment for sin. Jesus tells
those listening, —Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that
the works of God might be made visible through him— (see Jn 9:1-41,
Finally, consider Luke 13:4-5, a question about people
who died in the tragic collapse of the tower of Siloam. Jesus indicates
that the victims were not killed due to some sin or guilt on their
part. Everyone, he says, needs to repent, to turn towards God.
3. Jesus trusted a compassionate, present God.
The Gospels reveal Jesus— intimate, loving relationship with God.
Jesus— surprising use of the word Abba (—Daddy—) to describe
God conveys a sense of simplicity, familiarity and trust. The parables
also give us a glimpse of Jesus— sense of God. The Prodigal Son
(Lk 15:11-32) tells us a lot about the father: He allows his son
freedom even to waste the inheritance; he watches for his return;
he forgives the son without any bitterness, throwing a party to
celebrate; he goes out to console the angry older brother. Abba
is a loving, forgiving, gentle parent. Even as he faced suffering
and death, Jesus remained faithful to his call, always trusting
God. In the Resurrection, God confirms Jesus— faithfulness.
Interpreting a terrible death
The life and teaching of Jesus highlighted the healing
presence of a God of love and life. In the end, however, Jesus suffered
a horrible execution. The mystery of suffering and death—first Jesus—
and later others——led the early Christian communities to search
for light and meaning. They looked to their own culture and their
Hebrew Scriptures for possible interpretations. These insights found
their way into their preaching and eventually into the New Testament.
From Jewish culture they knew about ransom. From their
Jewish practices they also experienced sacrifice and atonement.
From their Wisdom literature (the Book of Wisdom is an example)
they were familiar with the theme of the vindication of the Innocent
Sufferer. From the prophet Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50, 52-53) Jesus—
followers creatively used the songs of the Suffering Servant to
interpret Jesus— suffering and death. The Messiah, of course, was
not expected to be a suffering messiah.
The facts of crucifixion and death jarred Jesus— followers
into searching the Hebrew Scriptures for insight. A good example
of this whole process is the New Testament—s Letter to the Hebrews.
Here we read of the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus (see Chapters
Scholars tell us that what the Bible understands by
terms such as sacrifice and atonement may be quite
different from the understandings that many of us have. For example,
for Hebrew people, the blood of the sacrificed animal symbolized
the life of the person or community. Pouring the blood on the altar
was a symbolic gesture reuniting life with God. The sacrifices were
an expression of the people—s desire for reconciliation and union
with God. The ritual, of course, still included violence and the
death of the victim.
Throughout the centuries Christians have reflected
on and developed these different interpretations, leading to a variety
of theologies and popular pieties, some of them quite distant from
the Scriptures and even farther from the vision of Jesus.
In the fourth century, St. Augustine spoke of satisfaction
for sin in legal terms of debts and justice. A key development took
place in the 12th century when the theologian St. Anselm developed
St. Augustine—s ideas to describe atonement for sin. Anselm, reflecting
the medieval culture of his day, understood sin to be something
like a peasant insulting a king. Reconciliation would require satisfaction
for this insult to the king—s honor. Sin, however, is an infinite
offense against God that demands adequate atonement. While humanity
was obliged to atone, no human could pay this infinite debt. Only
God could do so adequately.
According to this 12th-century view, that is exactly
what Jesus, the God-Man, accomplished by his suffering and death.
It was actually later theologians and preachers who added to Anselm—s
position by emphasizing blood and pain as the satisfaction that
placated God—s anger. Many Catholics still grow up with such an
This image of God—angry, demanding, even bloodthirsty—often
appears in sermons, songs and popular pieties today, although the
focus is usually placed on Jesus— willingness to bear the suffering.
Many people are uneasy with this view of God, even if they do not
know exactly why. This image of God is very different from the one
expressed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Jesus is not Plan B
There is an alternative interpretation of the life
and death of Jesus, also expressed in the Scriptures and throughout
the tradition. This view, perhaps only on the margins of many people—s
religious understanding and devotion, is completely orthodox and
is solidly rooted in the Christian tradition. Indeed, it offers
perspectives much closer to Jesus— own experience and vision.
What, briefly, is the heart of this alternative interpretation?
It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation,
God—s sharing of life and love in a unique and definitive way. God
becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for Original
Sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God—s first thought, the
original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus— life is
the fulfillment of the whole creative process, of God—s eternal
longing to become human. Theologians call this the —primacy of the
For many of us who have lived a lifetime with the
atonement view, it may be hard at first to hear this alternative,
—incarnational— view. Yet it may offer some wonderful surprises
for our relationship with God. God is not an angry or vindictive
God, demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as payment for past
sin. God is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love
in creation and in the Incarnation. Such a view can dramatically
change our image of God, our approach to suffering, our day-to-day
prayer. This approach finds its strongest scriptural expression
in John—s Gospel and in the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians.
Throughout the centuries great Christian theologians
have contributed to this positive perspective on God and Jesus.
From the groundbreaking Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century
(St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus) to Franciscan
John Duns Scotus in the 13th century to Jesuit Karl Rahner in the
20th century, God—s gracious love and the primacy of the Incarnation
have been proclaimed.
In the late 20th century, theologian Catherine LaCugna
pulled together many of these themes in her book God For Us.
She uses and expands the Cappadocians— wonderful image of the Trinity
as divine dance to include all persons. Borrowing themes of intimacy
and communion from John—s Gospel and Ephesians, she affirms that
humanity has been made a partner in the divine dance not through
our own merit but through God—s election from all eternity. She
writes: —The God who does not need nor care for the creature, or
who is immune to our suffering, does not exist....The God who keeps
a ledger of our sins and failings, the divine policeman, does not
exist. These are all false gods....What we believe about God must
match what is revealed of God in Scripture: God watches over the
widow and the poor, God makes the rains fall on just and unjust
alike, God welcomes the stranger and embraces the enemy.—
The emphasis on Jesus as God—s first thought can free
us from the idea that God is violent. It allows us to focus on God—s
overflowing love. This love is the very life of the Trinity and
spills over into creation, Incarnation and the promise of fulfillment
of all creation. What a difference this makes for our relationship
with God! Life and love, not suffering and death, become the core
of our spirituality and morality.
The abyss of suffering
But what about the —dark abyss— (Psalm 88) of suffering?
The alternative approach with its emphasis on God—s overflowing
love leads us beyond our natural question of —Why?— and suggests
four elements of a response to suffering:
1. Acknowledge suffering. Being truthful means
avoiding denial and admitting the pain and horror of the suffering,
whatever the cause. We must never glorify suffering. Yes, it can
lead us to deeper maturity and wisdom, but suffering can also crush
the human spirit. Following the lead of the Psalmist (see Psalms
22, 44, 53, 77, 88, 109 and many others), we can express our pain
in lament. The first step to grief and healing is to move from overwhelmed
silence to the bold speech of lament. The psalms show us how to
speak out against suffering and oppression, even to complain against
God. Such crying out allows us both to grieve and to grow into a
mature covenant partner with God.
2. Trust in God. Lament renews our relationship
with God. Trusting in God, of course, is especially challenging
in the dark times of suffering. Our usual response is initially
just the opposite. We question how God could cause this suffering
or at least allow it. We ask why. We may complain to God or even
begin to doubt God—s existence. That is exactly why the lament psalms
can be so helpful, matching our experience and emotions. The lament
allows us to stay in conversation with God, gradually moving to
a new trust.
Jesus, of course, is a marvelous example of trust
in God. His deep, trusting relationship with Abba grounded his life
and teaching. —Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one
of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even
the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you
are of more value than many sparrows— (Mt 10:29-31).
3. Act. Trust in God both allows and inspires
our response to suffering in our action. We acknowledge that at
times our choices have caused personal and social suffering, so
one form of action is moving toward repentance and a change of heart.
We also suffer from sickness and many other personal challenges.
In this suffering we need to reach out to others, to ask for help,
to receive what they offer, to allow them to accompany us in —the
dark abyss.— As we reach out to people, so too we move toward God,
who may seem very distant. Lament, praise, gratitude—all of these
are forms of worship.
Following the life and ministry of Jesus, we work
as individuals and as communities to overcome and end suffering.
Our actions include remaining with others in their suffering. We
can also directly express our compassion by preparing meals, running
errands, providing transportation and praying with those who suffer.
Awareness of the world—s suffering leads us to action
concerning political and economic issues. The needs are so great
and the issues so complex—what can one person do? We can search
in solidarity with others for courageous ways to overcome suffering
and its causes in our world. We cannot do everything, but we can
at least do one thing. We can, for example, tutor in an inner-city
school or organize parish groups that promote the consistent ethic
4. Stand in awe. We know that it is a human
reaction to ask —Why?—, to search for meaning and reasons for our
suffering. Yet suffering remains a mystery, not a problem to be
solved. We stand with Job at the end of his bold contest with God:
—What can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth— (40:4).
The emphasis on creation-for-Incarnation, culminating
in the Resurrection, also gives us great hope. God does not desire
suffering but works to overcome it. God did not demand Jesus— suffering
and does not want ours. Thus, we lament and act to overcome suffering,
even as we acknowledge its incomprehensibility. We marvel at God—s
remarkable respect of human freedom. We know that the suffering
of injustice and terrorism results from peoples— evil choices. Yet
we also know that the suffering of incurable disease or natural
disasters simply happens in a world that is not yet fulfilled.
Finally, however, suffering is not fully understandable.
Rather than —why?— perhaps we should be asking, —How can I respond?
What can we do now?— A profound trust in a compassionate God allows
us to ask these questions and then to act, with surprising peace
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