When We Suffer
Fr. Gregory Hallam · March 25, 2011
According to St. Bede, God uses our suffering to stimulate our fortitude, faith, humility, repentance and vigilance.
This morning I am going to look at the gospel of the Healing of the Paralytic through the words of a great English biblical commentator of the 7th and 8th Centuries, the Venerable Bede … or St. Bede as the Orthodox generally take him to be. Here is a great Orthodox English saint, arguably the first English historian and a profound interpreter [to us] of the Holy Scriptures. This is what he says about this morning’s gospel in relation to two troubling questions: “Why do I suffer?” and “Does God care?”
BEDE: “We are also informed, that many sicknesses of body arise from sins, and therefore perhaps sins are first remitted, that the causes of sickness being taken away, health may be restored. For men are afflicted by fleshly troubles for five causes, in order to increase their merits, as Job and the Martyrs; or to preserve their lowliness, as Paul by the messenger of Satan; or that they may perceive amid correct their sins, as Miriam, the sister of Moses, and this paralytic; or for the glory of God, as the man born blind and Lazarus; or as the beginnings of the pains of damnation, as Herod and Antiochus. But wonderful is the virtue of the divine power, where without the least interval of time, by time command of the Saviour, a speedy health accompanies His words. Wherefore there follows: Insomuch that they were all amazed. Leaving the greater thing, that is, the remission of sins, they only wonder at that which is apparent, that is, the health of the body.”
Note that St Bede does not say: “all sickness arises from sinful behaviour” but rather many sicknesses … arise from sins. I think that this is probably quite uncontroversial. Some illnesses definitely do afflict us through our own failure to look after ourselves, which, arguably, is a simple yet [also] sinful disrespect for the body as a Temple of the Holy Spirit. Other illnesses arise from an inner disharmony when mental and emotional disturbance wound the flesh. From eating disorders to some instances of high blood pressure, a dysfunctional lifestyle or self-image is nearly always implicated. [and] Invariably the remedy lies in ministering to the spirit of a person rather than the body directly as such. Clearly, not all illnesses have any kind of connection with sin, but some do. In the case of the Healing of the Paralytic, our Lord clearly perceives that this man’s problem is not so much his paralysis as a physical state, but rather his own specified sinful condition which speaks to his paralysis. In healing him our Lord must first forgive him and then through the faith of his friends who have let him down through the roof he commands the man to take up his pallet and walk. This he can do because he has been forgiven.
St Bede then goes on to consider that there are five keys to understanding the whys and wherefores of suffering in our own lives.
The first concerns the testing of our character in our relationship with God. Does this relationship depend upon an absence of suffering, a need to believe in a fair weather God, and, therefore an entitlement to a trouble-free life? If we do not experience this do we think that God must be “sleeping on the job” or perhaps He is heedless and unloving? God forbid! By choosing to illustrate his theme with the examples of the righteous Job and the martyrs, St Bede reminds us that the strength of our faith is only sometimes tested and established in the furnace of affliction. If it emerges from such times of trials intact, indeed even stronger, then we have true and saving faith.
The second key is reflected in the life of St Paul, who, blameless as to this affliction, experienced his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He recognised this as God’s providential care in preserving his humility and teaching him to take his strength from God in the context of his own physical weakness and illness. This is the second purpose of suffering; to keep us safe from complacency or pride by inculcating a humble trust in God—- otherwise we might fall through a trust in our own powers, health and vigour and a neglect of God’s grace.
The third key, illustrated by Miriam the sister of Prophet Moses, is that suffering should be a tutor for our need to repent for our sins before the Lord. In Miriam’s case a bitter skin condition prompted her to repent of being judgemental of others. The suffering may not always be directly connected to the sin but the therapeutic value for the soul nonetheless lies in its chastening character. The precise situation of the paralytic is not known to us but his own suffering was clearly also a tutor to his salvation.
The fourth key is simply the glorification of God … a witness, to a heedless, sceptical or rebellious generation, of His transcendent power and glory so that others might repent. The two examples chosen by St. Bede are those of the Healing of the Man Born Blind and the Raising of St. Lazarus, both of which miracles challenge a wider audience to confront God’s sovereign power and His claim upon their lives.
The final and fifth key is one which we pray will NEVER apply to ourselves; the sobering thought that some sickness is indicative of a soul that has already visited damnation upon itself. The examples of Herod and Antioch, thoroughly bad men in the Scriptures, serve as warnings to those who are heedless in gross sins.
In this analysis of St. Bede, does God care about our suffering? Most certainly He does! Providentially He uses it to stimulate our fortitude, faith, humility, repentance and vigilance. In the example of the Healing of the Paralysed Man perhaps all these factors are at work. If we enter a period of suffering let us actively seize the opportunity this gives us to draw closer to God. We do this in the faith and, therefore, in the frame of mind indicated by St. Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome:
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”