Pain and Suffering

September 11, 2008 Length: 12:03

Fr. Tom reflects on why there is sickness, suffering, and death in our world.





Hardly a day passes when you don’t hear about another tragedy: a personal tragedy of some sickness or disease, or a personal tragedy of some kind of rift or rupture in people’s lives; sometimes on a grand scale, like this conflict between Russia and Georgia that we experienced this month, or the ongoing Iraq or the Afghanistan or the Palestine or Darfur—whatever it might be on the grandest, largest scales of almost staggering statistical suffering that you see. But that suffering is always the suffering of persons. We are speaking on Ancient Faith Radio, thinking about Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When you think of him, you think of Stalin, and Stalin once said something that was really true. Don’t usually quote Stalin on the radio, Christian radio. But Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths”—or ten thousand or a hundred thousand, or perhaps, like in the Soviet Union over that period of time, 20 million, as Solzhenitsyn said, 70 million if you count the famine dead and the war dead with the prison-camp dead—“those are statistics.” Those are statistics.

We can say, “Oh, wow. Over 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001. Isn’t that horrible?” The 3,000 people die every day. Probably there’s 3,000 abortions performed—more than 3,000! God knows how many on any given day in any given country or on the whole planet earth. And how many people are in cancer centers and chemos and hospitals and nursing homes, and how many children are being abused and so on. How much suffering there is all over the place!

Now, of course, with our modern data and our television and computers, it’s even almost even to process. It’s too much to bear. But the problem of evil—sickness, disease, suffering, death—has been the problem and is the problem and will be the problem until the end of the world. Certainly it will be the problem for people who believe in God and who believe in a good God. But just to reflect a little bit on this issue, especially somehow in remembrance of Solzhenitsyn and his passing. We’re now in his 40-day mourning period.

There are at least a couple things that we Christians—who claim to be Christians—should reaffirm for ourselves. The simplest would be this: When we think of sickness and suffering and death, there’s two basic approaches. One would be to blame God for it all. “Why did God do it? Why does God do it? Why did God make it this way?” And it could be on the grandest scale: “Why did God make a world in which there would be prison camps and holocausts and murders of millions of people: Jews, gays, Christians, whatever, Muslims, whatever? Why would there be a world like this? Why did God do it this way? Couldn’t he have done it some other way? And there can’t be any God, really, if it is this way.” And there are people who claim even to be atheistic and unbelieving because they can’t stand the pain; they can’t stand their own pain and suffering, they can’t stand of what they see in other people, their loved ones, and so they cannot believe in God, or at least a good God.

But then there are others, and I think basically, when all is said and done, these are the only two possibilities: there are others who say, “Yes, there is disease, suffering, death. Yes, it seems even capricious, not only that some person would get caught in a war and that another person wouldn’t, but that one person would get cancer and another person wouldn’t. One child would be molested by their parents and another person wouldn’t. One person would win the job and have a nice life and be married and happy, and another person wouldn’t. But that doesn’t come from God. That comes from sin. It comes from human rebellion. It comes from primordial and generational sin through the centuries. And God himself made the world, knowing that it would be this way—but he is not the cause of it.”

Having been a pastor for 45 years, I can honestly say that the people that I’ve met in life—and in my own heart, my own split heart… And thinking of Solzhenitsyn on these days, we could remember that he said that the line between good and evil isn’t between nations and classes and cultures; the line between good and evil goes down the center of every individual person’s heart—so our own hearts are divided. We even pray in the psalm words, “Unite my heart to fear your name; purify my heart.”

But in any case, I think it could be said that when disease hits, sickness hits—and, boy, it’s hitting all over the place these days—when troubles hit, when sadness comes, painful realities, you have the people who would say, “Why did God do this? It’s not fair. It’s not just. It shouldn’t be.” And then you have the other people, who would say, “Thank God, that he has saved us from this. Thank God, that he has come into the world and taken on all this evil and suffering that he knew would take place when he created the world. Thank God, not only for delivering us ultimately from our suffering and death, but thank God for giving us the ability to have insight into it. And thank God for the ability to bear it properly and to use it for good, for truth, for love of others. Thank God for that.”

Sometimes I think also that when we look at the life in this world as it is, there are three possibilities. One is that there is no God at all and nothing means anything and we’re just a bunch of drives and hormones and whatever else. And many people, of whom I am one, cannot accept that. The other possibility would be, yeah, there is God, but he’s a monster. He’s playing with us, he’s tormenting us, he’s torturing us, he’s treating us like some kind of a commissar in a prison camp. He’s playing with us: some days he gives us good things, then he takes them away, then he gives us happiness, and then he destroys it, and then he sends disease, and then he brings suffering. God is there, but he’s a horrid god, monster god. That’s a possibility.

Another possibility is that the Gospel is true. There is a God, and he is a good God, and this good God had a choice: either no world at all or the world that we experience every day, the world of the gulags and the prison camps and the holocausts and the wars and the injustices and the abuses and the natural calamities, because we don’t have control over the cosmos and the nature and the planet like we should. All [those things] God knew providentially. He knew that it would be, but he said to have a world at all where ultimately the good and the true and the beautiful will triumph, it will require the Incarnation of the Son of God, the crucifixion on the Cross, the raising up from the dead, the entering into the kingdom of God, and it will require a redemption; it will require miracles. There has to be a miraculous intervention, but God is willing to make that miraculous intervention into this world and even to take on all of the disease, suffering, injustice of the world to redeem it, to purify it, to heal it, to save it, and ultimately to sanctify, glorify, and deify it in the broken body and shed blood of his incarnate Son, the one by whom, through whom, and for whom and toward whom all things are created.

So there’s basically two approaches: “It’s all God’s fault and we return the ticket to God: we don’t want this world” or “It’s not God’s fault; it’s our fault, and we thank God for saving us.” And then there’s only three possibilities: No God, Monster-God, or the good God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the God of Jesus of Nazareth, the God: Father and Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided, who ultimately is the God who knows that there is suffering and evil and who knows that it has to be this way and who does put us through it, but he puts [us] through [it] ultimately in order to deify us, to make us also divine.

That is a terribly hard saying. When Jesus taught it, the apostles themselves wanted to leave. Nevertheless, it seems and it’s certainly the case that for Orthodox Christians, this is the only understanding and vision and experience of reality that makes sense to a person and makes sense of the whole reality when we see things for what they really are, because no one can deny the happiness and no one can deny the wickedness, but how to put those together—the answer is they come together in Christ and the Cross, and only there. Mary’s womb—Christ’s tomb. That’s where they meet. And those who believe that can live in this world and face anything, and those who don’t are going to have to figure out for themselves how they’re going to deal with it.