Is Suffering Necessary?

While reading spiritual writings it is possible, on occasion, to draw the conclusion that suffering is necessary. Taken to an extreme it is easy to believe that Christians teach that God demands that we suffer and that we see it as a good thing. These are wrong conclusions based on a wrong presumption.

It is more correct to say that suffering is unavoidable than to say it is necessary. The fundamental story of the Christian faith is not the origin of evil, suffering and death, but rather of the God who was willing to enter into the midst of evil, suffering and death in order to rescue humanity. Suffering is not a necessity – but a fact of our present, fallen existence (indeed we are falling away from existence when we separate ourselves from God). Life in Christ is the way through suffering, but not an escape from suffering.

Thus in Christ each believer is commanded to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no Christianity that does not entail the cross. But the voluntary act of love that is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the same voluntary act of love to which believers are invited – to make of our suffering an act of self-offering in union with the suffering of Christ (Romans 12:1). We do not seek an increase in our suffering, nor do we shirk the responsibility of aiding others whose suffering may be relieved. But to seek to avoid all legitimate suffering is a sign of sickness, not of health. Suffering is not necessary – but you’ll not get through life without it.

23 comments:

  1. Fr, thanks for the distinction here. A proper understanding of the fallen world also helps answer the age-old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

  2. Indeed. The answer from Heaven is “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” They hate that tune down in hell (at least the demons do).

  3. “If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven.”

    “… though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created.”

    “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.”

    All quotes above from St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” in chapter 1. Perhaps it would be helpful to talk about HOW you come to the conclusion that suffering is not created. In the natural state of things, only God exists. This is why we were created out of nothing (ex nihilo). It is by the presence of the Word of God that we were created and exist. It is by His presence that we are sustained. Without this presence, we return to our “natural” state which is non-existence. Pain, suffering, evil and ultimately death are a result of the “process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death [having us] completely under its dominion.”

  4. Nathaniel, your citations of St. Athanasius are quite to the point. Suffering indeed is the state we fall into when we separate ourselves from God, the only Life. My point on suffering is perhaps better made by saying that it is not a punishment sent us by God, nor do we earn anything by suffering – thus “not necessary” in that sense. It is unavoidable in that we are sinners and are still in rebellion to some extent in our lives. And the world itself is broken, corrupted. Christ has united Himself to us, even taking on our suffering and entering into death itself to redeem us and restore us to true life in Him. We are invited to take the same road of humility in following Him in our union with Him, thus we voluntarily embrace suffering on behalf of others in union with Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). I edited the post to try and make this more clear. Sometimes writing works, and sometimes it doesn’t – which is also why there are comments to be made. I appreciate yours and hope my response has cleared my garbled post. Forgive.

  5. “Life in Christ is the way through suffering, but not an escape from suffering.”

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love the quote. It is very moving and powerful…something I will have to reflect upon. The commandment to “pick up your cross and follow Me” is not a path for the faint of heart. Indeed, how long and weary is such a path for some. I have recently been moved by the story of Karim, a child from Lebanon, who suffers from Olmsted’s Syndrome. (http://www.journeywithfriends.blogspot.com/) The pictures (especially towards the end of the blog) bring tears to my eyes. Please pray for those who suffer, perhaps, more than the rest of us. Indeed, these little ones represent Christ crucified.

  6. A thought.

    We think that it is hard to ‘take up our cross and follow Christ’ but, as you point out, suffering is unavoidable – hence the human experience will always involve ‘taking up a cross’, nothing we can do about that. However, whether we choose to ‘follow Christ’ with that Cross or wander around in despair with it IS up to us.

    To follow Christ with our Cross is to find transformation and glory.

    The hardest thing for us sinful people is not necessarily to suffer (there’s not much we can do about that), but to learn to suffer ‘in’ Christ. To say ‘blessed be your name’ even in the place of pain.

  7. The heroes of my life have invariably been the Christians I’ve known who have learned how to give thanks in all things. They did not seek suffering, but sought Christ, and refused to allow anything to turn their joy into mourning.

  8. I work with psychiatric people at a partial care agency and most of them are quite close to God I think it has to do with their suffering.

  9. Joseph,

    When one is in pain, ANYTHING which can transform or relieve that pain is desired. Those who, in the midst of pain, have discovered that following Christ can transform their experience of pain are following the ‘better part’ and will not be separated from the source of their joy. This is why, ISTM, so many who chronically suffer appear closer to the Lord than we are (Lord, have mercy on us!).

    However, that is why it is doubly sad when I see those who suffer (I am a family doctor) wandering ‘aimlessly’ around with their cross, unable to find transformation in Christ (Lord, protect them!).

  10. Fr. Stephen,

    I have a few questions about suffering. It is probably somewhat obvious that I am going through some rather intense trials. I will not mention it here as I believe that this is not the time or the place. I hope that other readers may be able to benifit from this dialouge. I have often heard many people with good intentions say that “God will not give you more than you can bear” I believe this is an attempt at quoting the scriptures. The only thing that I have found similar in the scriptures is that “God will not tempt you beyond what you can bear” This seems to me to be an entirly different thing. I am not sure what it means to say that God will not tempt you and as to being able to bear something, are we not given more than we can bear at times so as to realize our complete dependence upon God for everything, even our lives.
    I have never aksed “why me” knowing full well that no one has immunity from suffering and to a certain degree accept what is happening, trusting God to be in control. At the same time how do we know if we are truly dealing with something or only supressing it? In modern psychology grief is a process that goes in stages. Is there a place for this in the spiritual life? It seems difficult or almost impossible to say “Praise God” immediatly in the middle of pain. I want to be able to do this but find the only words that can come out of my mouth are “Lord have Mercy”. sincere praise seems to be something further down the spiritual path, one in which complete and total trust in God takes over.

  11. Stephen,

    There really aren’t many formulas in suffering. Lord have mercy sounds fine to me. I’ve been in places where all I could utter was a moan.

    The word tempt, btw, is better translated “test” – same word in Greek. Thus God will not let a calamity befall us that would destroy our salvation (I think is the better understanding). Thus your analysis seems quite right.

    May God help you in a hard time.

  12. ‘Is Suffering Necesary’ went some way to answering some of the questions I have on this issue – many thanks. However, I am still searching for answers. Christ on Earth healed the sick, regardless of their faith – that’s how he built up his following – but there have been no miracles for us; my wife died from cancer last month after 3 years of intense suffering and struggle.

    Many earnest prayers were said for the restoration of my wife’s health, by family, friends and on prayer chains at many churches. We visited 2 Christian faith healers, but none of this made any difference.

    So what is the point in praying when prayers are not answered? Has God turned aside, unwilling or unable to help?

    It rather contradicts the Gospel of Matthew:

    Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
    8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
    9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
    10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
    11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

    And of John:

    John 14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
    14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

    John 16:23 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
    24 Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.

    I note that this post is ~4 years old, but I seek and would greatly value enlightenment.

  13. David,
    There are no words that change your loss and your grief. There aren’t answers to loss and grief – at least no answers that make the loss go away or the grief. It is like the grief of Martha and Mary for their brother Lazarus.

    I offer short thoughts – just thoughts – not answers.

    While Christ healed those who came to Him, there was still plenty of suffering and death in Israel. The work of Christ is about the union of God and man – our sickness and death is a symptom of our broken communion with God. The miracles of Christ, and the continuing miracles that occur today, are still about the union of God and man. However, they are better understood as “signs” that point towards something that is coming than the complete fulfillment of the promise.

    Our losses are painful, deeply painful. I’ve buried a child and my parents and many friends. Some died very tragically. Either there is no meaning in all of this or Christ is the meaning. My own experience has not been the removal of suffering, but the transformation of suffering. Living in union with God through Christ has made suffering bearable (though never easy) and worth enduring. It is not an idea, or an answer that “makes sense,” your question isn’t really the need to “make sense” of your pain and loss – it’s the need for your pain and loss to be transformed into something you can live with.

    Your question has anger within it – which is completely normal. I have felt the same thing. But my anger eventually had to give way to something else so that I could move forward (including moving forward towards answers I could live with).

    Some questions that became helpful for me:

    What is the place of suffering and death in our world? What is God’s place in suffering and death? Is there such a thing as a “good” death? What does it mean to be “united to Christ in His death?” Why does the Scripture say that “love is stronger than death”?

    You will be in my prayers – may your wife’s memory be eternal!

  14. Thank you for your rapid response. Your ‘answer’ is surprising (to me) – I will think on what you have said.

  15. Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve been discussing the “necessity of suffering” with my literature students concerning Brave New World (and I am in the midst of reviewing your other posts on suffering too). In that context, I more or less told them that the elimination of suffering was the elimination of beauty, truth, and goodness (and by inference art, science, and religion). BNW seems to offer a world “without suffering” as a thought experiment, i.e. where it is avoidable, which makes me want to say that it is in fact a corollary (i.e. a necessary but not sufficient condition) for understanding the divine human telos, etc. Can you offer any thoughts on this that would be useful for my discussion?

    Thank you. I realize this is an older blog post.

  16. Jeremias,
    Ultimately, the only “moral” guidance in the moral project is to “eliminate” suffering. Note – that the word “eliminate” is a utopian word – thus belonging in somebody’s notion of a Brave New World.

    a great error of modernity is the notion of “great” “best” “as good as possible,” etc. All of these superlatives can only make the present situation unacceptable. And if it’s unacceptable, then it must change and improve. And who does the constant drive for change and improvement benefit (since the result will always just be another unacceptable situation)? It benefits those corporations and individuals who cast themselves as being in the change and improvement business. Yes, the bottom line is money, and that’s what the massive propaganda scheme (sales scheme) that is modernity never goes away. Someone is making too much money.

    But, in truth, the best you can do is to have a fairly decent life. Enough to eat (you can’t really eat more than enough), decent shelter, decent health care (for everyone), a reasonable job (all jobs, no matter how incredible to being with, become work after a while), family and friends, perhaps a community of shared-beliefs, and enough to share with those who have less than you. This, interestingly is pretty much the Biblical notion of “prosperity.” Have enough for yourself and a little more to share.

    Now the young generation should look around and see that the system has become deeply skewed and they are very unlikely to achieve even this level of “prosperity.”

    But the right way to live is not with our eyes on the “best.” The right way to live is learning to be happy and be well with what you actually have. The Utopian drive only creates misery in the last analysis. It’s also always a lie.

    If the world were perfect, where would any of us find a place?

    We do not ever create suffering on purpose. But it is always unavoidable. If it is unavoidable, then we should learn how to live well with it ourselves, and how to create communities that can help support others in their suffering. Everybody dies.

  17. I find that the latest utopian vision is being offered to us by none other than Bill Gates. He is proposing the establishment of a “smart city” on land he purchased in Arizona.
    Ahhh. The Brave New World.

    Ultimately those who want to eliminate suffering always get around to eliminating humanity, I.e., everybody else but them.

  18. Father,

    What does it mean to unite our sufferings with Christ? Do we somehow partake of His sufferings on the cross, as in share in carrying that cross? I’ve also read it written that Christ took on our sufferings – but certainly we still suffer and feel those sufferings. What does that mean? Is He really feeling our suffering too, or we share in His, or both? I know Christ’s suffering was fully sufficient for our salvation so I have trouble understanding this idea – though certainly I like it!

  19. Andrew,
    Yes, both. Christ takes on our sufferings (not removing them, but entering them with us), and we become partakers of His sufferings, as St. Paul prayed in Philippians.

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