The Problem of Suffering
Dr. Albert Rossi · July 8, 2012
Why is there suffering in the world? Is God trying to punish us? Dr. Rossi addresses this important topic and helps us understand that there is purpose in suffering.
We continue to explore what it means and all the implications of becoming a healing presence for others. And today, I’d like to reflect a little on the problem of suffering. Healing presence implies healing something – healing suffering. So I’ll begin with a question. Why do people suffer? Why do children get leukemia? Why did my wife have to suffer as she did from metastasized bone cancer that morphine couldn’t touch the pain. Profound questions.
And we start with the Bible and the answer to getting our arms around and understanding suffering is basically, we just don’t know. We just cannot pretend to comprehend suffering. It says in Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher you’re your ways and my thoughts you’re your thoughts.”
So on suffering, we begin with the clear notion that we don’t have easy, cheap words to give to people about suffering – particularly about the future and if things are going to get better. We have no idea what the future holds. How can I say to someone that things are going to get better? Things might get a lot worse. We don’t understand suffering, and we don’t pretend to have answers on suffering for other people.
However, about suffering, we do have our own Orthodox understanding of a little bit of the meaning of suffering. And we begin with the claim that suffering has meaning. There are two kinds of suffering. And it’s also true that suffering is universal. So these kinds of suffering, it depends on how we perceive the suffering. But suffering is for everyone. How we deal with it makes all the difference.
The Lord says, “For He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” We all have the human experience, and appearances aside, we all suffer. So there are two kinds of sufferings basically. There are either meaningful or non-meaningful, which I would call useless or worse.
Redemptive suffering is meaningful. That is to say meaningful suffering is redemptive. Christ suffered for us. He suffered mightily to save us; to help us; to heal us. And He allows His followers to suffer to participate in His way; in the healing of others. He said that. That’s the way it is. The disciple is not above the Master.
So for the believer, suffering has a redemptive aspect. This is really quite difficult to really understand, but my suffering can and does do good for others. It’s redemptive; heals; helps; and in some sense saves those around us, particularly those close to us. That’s an astounding Christian claim. It’s astounding but valid, and I would say it’s very helpful to those suffering horribly, especially old persons in nursing homes with no one visiting them; wondering what’s the purpose of life; and why am I sitting here all day long with my rheumatoid arthritis; and why doesn’t God just take me?
God is God, and His ways are not our ways. But those who are in nursing homes and afflicted in any way seriously can be helped if they can understand that their life and suffering has meaning; that actually for the believer, them, their suffering can benefit their children, grandchildren, neighbors, and other people in the nursing home.
My wife suffered from her bone cancer. She agonized for a very long time. Why? I don’t pretend to know. But what I do know is that her suffering did hugely benefit me and our children and grandchildren. My daughter particularly says that twenty years after her mother died all the good in her life, between the death of her mother and now, has come through her mother. That is to say her mother has interceded however that occurs in the heavenly realm.
So there’s a very important part of our understanding the healing presence. We don’t alleviate suffering, but we do try to provide some presence. We try to walk with people in their suffering. My wife used to say to me, before she got her cancer, when I’d come home 5:30 at night; give me a hug and say, “Al, I’m glad you weren’t hit by a truck.” My wife’s definition for me, accurately, was Al had a good day because he wasn’t hit by a truck, because I’m a to be hit by a truck kind of guy.
However, it must also be said that there are women whose husbands are hit by a truck and leave them in sad straits sometimes – sometimes without insurance and with young children to raise. How come? We don’t know how come, but we do know that we believers have a choice. We can either become bitter, angry, and self-pitying, or we can do the best we can to work through the suffering by expressing some sort of faith.
And I would then extend this idea that the healing power of our own sufferings and the sufferings of others come through own poverty. There are many sufferings – loss of memory, loss of children, and losses of any sort. They cannot be easily overcome or patronized. But I would extend it to say that suffering, in its own way, is a form of prayer.
So I’d like to play a song for us now from my youth. Many passions and many, many sufferings have been in my life and worked against me. Let’s just listen to the music.
Church music plays
Again, that music brings us into a different valence and a different way to understand suffering. We could ask the question, as was the title of a book, why do bad things happen to good people? And again, we don’t know, but that’s a question. A better question would be, why don’t more bad things happen to good people? That is to say that it has to do with expectations. The disciple is not above the Master, and His followers were thrown out of synagogues and beaten and in their own way harmed greatly, stoned, and crucified.
God did not create suffering. He did not create evil. He did not create death. So when we’re asked the question, as I have been asked, did God send the planes into the World Trade Center? The clear answer is no. Humans flew the planes into the World Trade Center. But as this podcast is implying, there’s much more to be said once that’s said.
So for all of us, me in my life and you who are listening, we suffer. And our sufferings are not unknown to Christ and have all the possibility to be of great benefit to ourselves and to others – merely because we suffer and believe we become a healing presence simply by being alive as we are.
Yes, on a different level we might be impatient and unkindly at times. That’s beside the point. There’s a deeper point being made. We’re all huge sinners, and we all suffer. We’re especially loved by the Lord, because we’re poor and suffering and in a sense sinful and repentant. That’s why he came.
Thereby, sinning and repenting and sinning less as we can and accepting the sufferings as they come into our lives, then allows us to live and breathe and speak and provide a message to others. The Lord does that. He speaks and breathes and gives messages to others through us. That’s the way the Lord works. He chooses the poor and the suffering to do His bidding.