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Another Perspective

Why Do We Suffer? Part Three: A Christian Perspective

In part one of this series, I wrote that suffering is a problem for Christianity, one that it doesn't address very well. Afterall, why would a God of love allow suffering?

The Rev. John A. Sanford, an Episcopal priest, my first clergy boss, and one of the men who most influenced my life, couldn't disagree with me more. Indeed, Jack believed suffering is at the very core of the Christian message, that Christianity addresses suffering profoundly. In his own words that follow, Jack, with his typical brilliance, explains why suffering is so central to Christianity. This is a sermon he gave March 15, 1970 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church (now Cathedral)in San Diego that he entitled simply, "Suffering."


Today, the 5th Sunday in Lent, bears the name of “Passion Sunday.” The word “passion” means literally “to suffer”, and the name of the Sunday refers to the forthcoming suffering of Christ on the Cross for the sake of mankind. It brings to mind one of the most important aspects of Christianity: it is a faith which does not retreat or withdraw from suffering, but finds suffering a part of the process of redemption.

Suffering is an inevitable part of the being alive. No living being can avoid suffering unless it ceases to be involved with life itself. There is the pain of the body, which is subject to diseases and injury. There is the pain of the spirit, which suffers at the distress of the world around us. There is the pain of growing up, for all growth involves something painful. There is the pain of love, for to love always involves pain as well as happiness.

The pain of the body is probably less today than in any other time in history, thanks to the pain killing drugs at our disposal, but it still cannot be avoided entirely. The pain of growing up is reflected in the puberty rites of ancient people. In these rites the young man who was to be initiated from the world of childhood into the world of manhood had to undergo a painful time of testing: without the element of pain his growth into manhood could not be brought about. In our time we have, unfortunately, nothing analogous to the ancient puberty rite, but there is still the requirement of pain for growth and this may be one reason adolescence is such a painful time for so many young people.

The pain of love is too often overlooked. It is no accident that the word “passion” has two meanings: One, to feel intense desire for someone, the other, to suffer. To love is to feel pain. It is to feel the pain of not being able to complete or fulfill our love on the one hand, and on the other hand it is to feel the pain of seeing the suffering of those whom we love. Many a person who loves deeply has remarked that they wish they did not love so much, that the pain of it is too much for them. Some persons, who feel overwhelmed by the pain of loving deeply, bury their love deep within them, and try to love as though they did not love, because it is too painful an experience for them to feel.

Then there is spiritual pain. This is the suffering within us to become whole. The yearning to be whole brings with it an element of pain. To feel our incompleteness, to sense our inadequacies, to realize how far we are from being at one with ourselves and with God – this is also a pain, a pain of the Spirit. It is the yearning to be complete with God, and the pain which comes from realizing our separation from Him. Just as some repress their love because it is too painful to them, so some repress their spiritual yearning because it would be too painful to face. The two go hand in hand – the yearning of the soul, which is love, and the yearning of the spirit to find God.

Life itself, then, calls upon us to bear a certain share of pain, and because it does it is important to respond to pain creatively, rather than negatively. For there are negative or destructive ways of responding to pain, and there are positive, enriching ways.

We have already mentioned one negative response to the painful side of life: trying to avoid it or run away from it. If we negate our love, if we drown our painful conflicts in drugs or alcohol, if we refuse the task of growing up, if we turn away from the call to find God, we may be trying to deny the painful side to life. The result will, in the final analysis, be a kind of sickness.

On the other hand it can also be a negative response to pain to seek it out. Life itself will bring enough pain upon us without our going in search of it. It may seem strange that some people should seek pain, but it does happen, and more often than we realize because most people who seek out pain in life are not aware that this is what they are doing. They think they regard pain as something they want to avoid, but in effect they are constantly bringing it upon themselves when it could be avoided. I know of one person who had 16 surgeries. When she finally could no longer find anyone willing to operate on her she committed suicide. It was as though she could not face life except as a “patient”, as one bearing pain.

Another negative response to suffering is to twist it. We twist our suffering around from instance, when we make a life profession of feeling sorry for ourself. Now and then, of course, the best of us indulge in a bit of self-pity. But when this becomes a habit, a way of life, when we make a profession out of being a martyr, and use our suffering in a twisted, egocentric way, then something destructive happens to us.

Finally there is the attempt to use our suffering as a device to achieve our own goals. Some people, for instance, use their suffering as a way to control other people, or as way to avoid living life. “Don’t expect anything from me, I am sick”, can be a negative response to life, an instance of a person who used the painful side of life as a way to avoid the living of life. “If you don’t do what I want you to then I will get a headache” (or heart attack, or whatever it may be), is an instance of a negative use of pain as a way to manipulate or control other people.

These are negative ways of responding to the painful side of life, and they are destructive, not only because of what they do to others, but because they prevent us from making a positive response to life’s pain. As I mentioned, we do not need to seek pain out, life itself will bring us our share. But when the pain does come, then it will be crucial to our search for God that we are able to make a positive response to pain instead of a negative one.

When we respond to suffering positively it can be transforming. Suffering and healing are not far apart. Under the impact of pain our egocentricity can be broken down, and we can be opened to new experiences with God.

People who have been physically ill and have recovered often speak of having acquired in their pain an understanding of people which they never had before. For the first time, they often report, they have a certain insight and feeling for others which before was missing in their lives. By responding to their own pain creatively they became broader in heart, and deeper in understanding.

Anyone who does counseling knows that there is very little use in trying to bring psychological or spiritual healing into someone’s life if they are not in a state of a certain psychic pain. If anyone feels that all is well with them, if they do not know where they are hurting, then it is practically impossible for them to go through the process of personal psychological growth which counseling involves. It is only when someone is hurting that they can grow, when they know their need, that they are open to creative change.

This is reflected for us very beautifully in the Parable of the Wedding Feast. (Luke 14:15-24) Jesus likens the kingdom of God to be a king who gave a wedding feast and invited many guests. They all made excuses why they could not come. This infuriated the King who finally declared to his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring here the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame…force people to come in to make sure my house is full.” The poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, i.e., those who have been forced by their pain to recognize the need – these are the ones who often wind up the guest at God’s table.

Finally, it is through our pain that we acquire a certain healing capacity in life. There is always two sides to healing. One is the scientific side, the other is the charismatic or spiritual side. The scientific side of healing can be taught in schools and hospitals, but the charismatic side of healing one must develop within oneself. Certain people have this charismatic quality of healing. They may be doctors or clergymen, but they can just as easily be lay people. Whoever they are they are those who have realized they have been wounded in life, and who are now finding their own healing. These become what we call “wounded healers”, and they are the ones who have the empathy, the understanding, the love and concern for others which gives their lives a healing quality.

Our Lord himself is the great example of the “wounded healer”. Throughout his lifetime Christ exercised a ministry of healing. He healed the sick and cast out the demons. Now we have no record that Christ was ever physically ill, but we do know that he bore in his heart the pain of his people. He suffered the pain of love and the pain of the spirit and through bearing this pain in his lifetime he was able to exercise a ministry of healing.

Bu even more, on the Cross our Lord became the “wounded healer”. Here on the Cross he seemed to bear the pains and sins of all mankind. Something cosmic or universal, happened on the Cross, releasing a flood of healing energy throughout all mankind for the ages to come. Had our Lord only lived an ordinary human existence his healing would have been limited to his lifetime. But because of his death on the Cross for the sake of us a healing power was released which is imperishable. This is part of the saving mystery of the Cross, part of what we are called upon to share in this coming Holy Week and Eastertide.

One final word regarding the positive response to suffering: If suffering is responded to positively it will lead beyond itself to a life of power and joy. There is no virtue in remaining caught in suffering forever. Christ suffered on the Cross – but he also rose from the dead. If on the Cross He showed us something of the positive response to suffering, in the Resurrection He showed us that the final goal of life is not suffering but joy, creativity, and fulfillment.

Christianity is a religion which does not turn away from life’s pain but faces it through. But neither is it a religion which remains caught in suffering. It takes us through life’s suffering to the other side, to a life of wholeness and creativity and power. This creative life of the Risen Christ can be within us also. It will not come to us if we avoid, or twist, or try to use life’s painful side. But if we bear what pain life brings us as creatively as possible then the creative life of Christ will transform us through our pain. We will get to the other side of pain, to a still higher life with God.
Okay, what are your thougths about why we suffer?

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