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The Mystery of Suffering: How Should I Respond?

by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

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 of violence!

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 by Jesus.

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 to suffering.

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— (9:35).

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 5:45).

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, especially 2-5).

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 3-10).

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 understanding.

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 Incarnation.—

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 of life.

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 and hope.

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati. He holds a Ph.D. in social ethics from the University of Southern California and is the author of numerous articles and books, including the award-winning Conscience in Conflict: How to Make Moral Choices (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: Why I Go to Mass (by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.)


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