“Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”
This statement by the 7th Council aptly describes the work of an icon – but fails to do justice to the reality. Scripture, as words to be read, necessarily becomes linear – words follow words and cannot be read except in the order in which they’re written. Icons, however, can do what Scripture does, but can also bring multiple Scriptures together in a single place, forming something of a commentary. Of course, icons that do this have a tendency to be somewhat jumbled, even busy. Formed by habits of reading, we frequently see such icons and attempt to “read” them, failing to notice the inner relationships within the various items and the commentary that they form.
This is particularly true in the traditional icon of the Last Judgment. Christ is seated (on the cherubim), surrounded by a mandorla, a circle that represents His transcendent glory. From beneath His feet proceeds the river of fire. The apostles are seated with Him. We see some who are being judged (with various demons being pictured as well). Of interest to me are a few details just below the seated Christ. They are the Cross, an altar, and the “balance scales (zygos) of righteousness.” This small collection does something Scripture (in words) cannot do. The three things are placed together because they are one and the same thing.
The Cross is itself the judgment seat of Christ. It is His throne. It is the place from which He reigns. It is also the place of atonement, and is thus the altar. Within the Church, the altar is understood to be both throne, footstool, place of atonement, etc. Lastly, the scales of righteousness, the judgment of Christ itself. Here the judgment is placed in a manner to say that these are all one thing. The Cross is all of these things, and all of these things are the Cross.
The icon directs our attention towards the manner of reading and understanding the Scriptures. Our tendency is to hear “judgment seat of Christ” and immediately picture a law court with the judge presiding, passing sentence. However, when that image is set within the context of the Cross, as in the icon, something different emerges. For example, we have this saying of Christ regarding judgment:
…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (Joh 3:17-21)
The imagery of judgment is changed. Here, it is not the assignment of punishment and reward, but the self-selection of all regarding the Light. Those who do evil hate the Light. Those who do the truth, are drawn to it. Compared to the imagery of the judge, the fire and the worms, such language is perhaps not as fascinating (in its original sense). But this language does much to reveal Christ’s Cross as the most faithful revelation of Christ’s judgment.
For so it was on the day of His crucifixion. The Judgment is revealed on Golgotha. The two thieves, sheep and goat, right and left respond to the Light. The words of judgment proceed from Christ: “Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing!” The hearts of the thieves are revealed (the Light reveals all things). One joins in the mockery of those who crucify and adds his own taunt, “Save yourself and us!” The other, whom tradition calls the “wise thief,” finds paradise in a single moment. He acknowledges his own shame and bears it. In his prayer he enters into communion with Christ. The forgiveness, already spoken by Christ, is made his own.
This is the true character of the Judgment. It is the Judgment prophesied by the elder Simeon when Christ was presented in the Temple as a child:
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)
The Light always reveals things to be what they are. The heart of the wise thief is revealed in a manner that is truly surprising, and is not rebuffed. The other thief echoes the words of those who stand about and mock Christ. They rejoice at the shame they imagine themselves to have placed upon Him, though all that is revealed is the darkness and shame of their own lives. They will not bear any of it and would gladly thrust it on God Himself.
The shaming of God is a frequent thing, even to this day. “Why doesn’t God stop the violence, save the children, give us peace, make them stop, etc.?” All of the suffering in the world is a reflection of our own hearts, and we cannot bear it. It is too great in its enormity. Our shame is ultimately of our own making.
Christ brings no word of rebuke to the wise thief (nor to the thief who rejected Him). He says nothing to those who crucify. His words are for their forgiveness (strangely increasing the shame of those who hate the Light). His words are for His mother and His friend. He covers the shame of the wise thief who willingly yielded himself to public view (he acknowledges his crucifixion is just).
As I look at the icon of the Last Judgment, I realize that this same image stands before me every time I serve the Liturgy – the altar and the Cross. It is the dread Judgment seat of Christ.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1Jo 1:7-10)
That is the Lenten journey. The Cross. The Altar. The Judgment.
A Christian ending to our life, painless, unashamed, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.
Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom!
Amen. Thank you very much father for this very informing and humbling post.
Christ makes it clear that the ignorance of those at the cross is grounds for asking the Father to forgive them. I have to believe that God ‘s love will mean that all will have the knowledge, at some point, to understand His love and be able to make an informed choice. As He reveals Himself fully to those He created, the attraction of unconditional love will be irresistible although choice is always in play. Your explanation of the icon is very important. It’s all in the Cross and in the Cross Christ has completed everything we need. Including our “judgment “.
Thank you, Father.
The more I read the more I realize how this hand maiden has surely fallen short of the Glory of God.
Father Stephen, I often struggle to understand icons: I meander from analyzing to appreciating. Thank you for this very helpful explanation.
Father, as a convert from Protestantism I am especially moved by the theological nuance, depth and dimension in this icon. Do you know if copies are available somewhere for purchase? I looked briefly online today and haven’t yet been able to find it anywhere. A monk at Holy Transfiguration Monastery told me he saw it covering the back wall of a church somewhere in Jerusalem, reminding parishioners what lay ahead as they walked out of the building.
What I would do is print one from online and frame it. I do this from time to time. Works well.
Indeed, one of the most beautiful icons of the Last Judgment is in the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Capernaum (it’s in Galilee, not in Jerusalem). It is on the back wall and does make an impression upon one’s soul, unlike any other icon (it’s one of the few icons I remember very specifically, out of thousands one sees on such a pilgrimage)… Just search for images from that church online…
Thank you Father. This is a very good reminder of the value of icons. They teach the faith in a holistic way connecting all the words and thoughts expressed in Scripture in the interconnected way we need to understand Scripture. Icons are a sure antidote to “Cherry Picking” Scripture.
Here is a Google link with many images of the Last Judgement:
Thank you for showing the connectedness of the Cross, the altar, and the scales, especially in view of this particular icon. So much to think about in what you have said. For one, the words of judgement are not ‘I condemn you’, but ““Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing!” In this is the River of Fire. Once again, words escape me…
Excellent post! I honestly can’t put into words how meaningful this post is to me.
My first response: Whoa…Lord have Mercy!
And my second response within the same breath: Thank you Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things!
Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom!
Your post Fr. Stephen is a light from the Light. Thank you so very much!
Pray for me!
I think most people these days bypass shaming God and move directly to doubt and disbelief. Most people, in my experience, do not shame a God that they believe in. They either tolerate or ignore the mystery of evil (that can seem more like a contradiction) or they reject the possibility that the world as it is is compatible with the God of Christianity. Many modern Christian thinkers have posed this issue as a dilemma between nihilism and Christianity, and, to be honest, on most days one doesn’t seem more likely than the other based on appearances. I think the thoughtful person resonates with this perspective. How many must have suffered horrendous evils all the while unable to see God’s presence? This, to me, is what makes the problem of evil in human history difficult to bear. It isn’t just that enduring the evil itself is difficult, but that this suffering is often accompanied by an apparent absence and silence of God, as if he was never really there to begin with. No comfort, no still small voice… just pain, sorrow, terror, panic, and all the other frivolities God thinks it necessary for even the most innocent of us to endure.
I think it would be better if we let Ivan Karamazov have the last word, that is until Jesus returns.
I appreciate Isaac’s posting here above this comment and I would really appreciate your comments, Fr. Stephen Freeman to his post. I will prayerfully consider whether I have anything to say other than I personally do not believe it is better to let Ivan Karamazov have the last word, until Jesus returns. (Unless this is referring to a real person and not the character in the Brothers Karamazov. No fictional character really has the last word compared to the reality that is Our Lord.)
I suspect that “shaming God” is a source of unbelief for many. Meaning, that when they consider God and the apparent contradictions in the world, they experience shame. Shame is, as noted frequently here, very difficult to bear. Rather than bear that shame, disbelief becomes the option. It’s less painful.
If we look at the Apostle Paul, we see faith in God along with a profound embracing of the suffering of God in the world. That mystery (which is the Cross) can only be seen by grace. Christians have wasted too much time preaching the philosopher’s God who only provokes shame and consternation, and too little time preaching the Cross.
Thanks be to God!
I agree that this is the hardest of all points to wrestle with, the ultimate demand of the soul that is being tortured in utter, apparent God-forsakeness and requesting a justification from its Creator. However, Christ participated in this exact “pain, sorrow, terror, panic, and all the other frivolities God thinks it necessary for even the most innocent of us to endure”, while being, Himself, the most innocent of us and to the utmost degree and “accompanied by an apparent absence and silence of God”.
So, in the Crucified Christ we have the utter justification not just of man, but also of God.
Christ is therefore the solution and transfomation of the problem you describe. Perhaps not always during the unbearable tribulation, but certainly ultimately.
Thank you Father Stephen, your words are so uplifting as Father Stephen’s ( St. Ignatius church) homily on last judgement Sunday. Thank you both!!!
Regarding Fr. Stephen’s emphasis on shame, rereading this past post (a gem) may be helpful:
It was for me. Not to mention that picture of Christ, a thousand words.
Briefly, what was Ivan Karamazov’s last word? (haven’t read Dostoyevsky yet)
In the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan offers, in two chapters, the most devastating presentation of the problem of evil in all of literature. The chapter “Rebellion” and the famous “The Grand Inquisitor.” After making his case against God, in which he muses that, perhaps, in the end, everything will seem to have been justified, he says no. “I refuse the ticket!” is his famous line. Essentially, he says that no apparent good could possibly justify the horrific suffering of innocent children. It’s brilliantly written.
Dostoevsky himself later said that perhaps he had done the job too well in stating Ivan’s case. I think, however, that Ivan’s case is a necessary statement and goes to the heart of the Christian faith. Probably the most poignant and pressing question of all religion is suffering – particularly suffering of the innocent. Our faith has something to say about that – and if it is not being said, then we are not doing right by the proclamation of the faith.
I believe the answer to the problem is in the Cross. I also think the problem itself reveals the very nature and character of God. He is not the philosophers’ God – the All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good, etc. This is a caricature. Rather, the Cross itself reveals the very nature and character of God. He doesn’t “make” things, or “force” things. He “let’s” things. All that He does, He does through love. Love doesn’t force. If love did force, or if He ever did anything by force – then we would be justified in asking Him why He doesn’t use His force to protect the innocent.
The suffering of the universe is the result of freedom. It is only healed through a love that is willing and able to bear a greater suffering. This is the “birth pangs” of the universe (as described in Romans 8).
Dino and Fr. Freeman,
I’ve often heard it said that Jesus on the cross somehow solves the horrendous evils experienced by humanity, so often in fact that it now seems more like platitude than an adequate response. I wonder how anything can be held as a solution when it doesn’t appear to have solved anything. It may be seen as moving that the son of God condescended to suffer and die alongside humanity, but this only seems to further contribute to the problem of suffering. It seems analogous to a king who, after all his subjects have lost their homes to fire, believes he can solve their problems by burning down his own home.
By dying on the Cross the Lord did not “burn down his own home” in solidarity with us: He destroyed death for us, showed us how to die properly… “By dying as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine”….
Here are some wonderful words by Fr. John Behr:
“By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.”
The problem, though, is that from our current perspective the resurrection is something hoped for, but it has not yet come to pass. So for now we live in a world where we suffer and die with no evidence that people actually come back from the dead, and until Jesus reveals to us that the promised resurrection really will occur, his death hasn’t yet been proved to be a solution.
Many thanks for explaining this, Father.
“Essentially, he says that no apparent good could possibly justify the horrific suffering of innocent children.” (thinking aloud..) The justification, or judgement, of this evil, far from retribution, is forgiveness, not forced, but voluntary, which necessarily brings shame, which Christ so slanderously (in the world’s eyes) partook of on The Cross. This apparent good is not so apparent. Ivan couldn’t get past the suffering part. In almost a knee-jerk like response, we want to see the evil-doers pay, almost like the familiar shout “crucify Him”….Christ’s response, “Father, forgive them.” In essence, this is what you say is a correct proclamation of our faith.
The phrase “freedom is not free” is quite fitting here. It was given at the highest cost, the humiliation of our God, for (to quote a title) the life of the world.
May God give us the grace to bare our cross, daily, for His sake.
Thank you again.
That is the big problem, isn’t it? It’s why it’s called Faith… We can have have Saints for examples and witnesses (even if we may think they are only “supposed”), teaching of the Apostles and the Church, but in the end, it’s just us and God, and nobody else…
I really love how Fr. Stephen once put it:
There will be no legal defense before God. There can be none. What takes place between us and God is entirely a matter of our being, our existence. No words or explanations, no reasoning. Just who and what you are. That’s all there is.”
I will think out loud. “Solves” the horrendous evils is not a Christian claim. But…the thinking…
First, if there is no God, then there is no such thing as a “meaning” to the universe. Nothing that makes it “intelligible.” It just is. As such, suffering or not suffering are the same thing – just stuff happening without rhyme or reason. That is one option.
Second, if there is a God who created all, then its purpose and meaning lie with Him. Christianity claims that Christ Himself is the Reason, Meaning, Purpose of all existence (He is the “Logos”). So, if things make any sense at all, then they make sense only in reference to Him.
Third, maybe some other God created everything and we don’t have a clue as to what He was up to.
The reasoning. You instinctively think that there is a reason, purpose, meaning to existence. If you do not (as in believing there is no God), then why bother to speak about suffering at all, since suffering and not suffering are just items of our existence. You can only make a point if there actually is a Point.
Christ Crucified is the Point. We are created free, which necessarily includes the freedom to cause suffering. You can say that any suffering (or great suffering) nullifies the entire creation project. But, you’re actually only saying that you don’t like the answer (since, if you think that an answer can be good or bad, you must think that there’s a God who alone gives words like “good” and “bad” any meaning at all).
I would say that outside of the Crucified Christ, the answer might seem foolish or insufficient. But that is coming to a conclusion from outside the reality in which case you can’t know what you’re talking about. Strangely, many saints clearly demonstrate a profound, even transcendent understanding and empathy for the sufferings of the world, and yet, also within their experience of union with the Crucified Christ, find Him to be more than sufficient as answer.
I believe that. I accept it as true. I sometimes get a glimpse of that reality and things make a bit deeper sense to me. If I did not believe it, then the whole of it would be absurd and meaningless. I do not believe that to be true. I have seen and known a number of people who believed that to be true – they were generally sad, angry, selfish, many things, but rarely good, altruistic or kind. I do not want to become what would seem inevitable were I to embrace absurdity as the answer.
That’s what I think.
Isaac, intellectually, philosophically, rationally the Cross is nonesense. It is, however, true.
In the presence of the living God, all is right. All is in proper order. I have even come to the point where I can thank God can give Him glory for my late wife’s death almost 12 years ago. I can only partially articulate “reasons” for that thanks but a big part is that, by grace, I experience the Ressurection. Not only as a hope, put as a living and present reality. Not the fullness, but the Ressurection nonetheless.
Despite the thousands of moments of pain for myself, my son and others. Pain that is still present.
I am a very analytical person. In this case the analytics fail utterly and I am left with the reality of what is and somehow I can only give thanks in tears.
“All things work toward good for those who love God”. An easy platitude or the expression of a deep and abiding reality that can only be penetrated through the Cross.
God’s mercy is incomprehensible to my poor ignorant mind, but somehow He makes what I can bear of it known anyway.
I have shame because of my inability to bear His mercy. All suffering stems from that I think.
If the suffering in the world disturbs my heart, then I must learn to bear more of His mercy so that the suffering will be healed.
That is the Cross.
This is indeed perhaps the greatest of questions… The more you talk on this the more illuminating it is for us all.
It’s noteworthy that Elder Sophrony starts off his seminal book on St Silouan with this very question (of the problem of evil and suffering and the pointlessness of existence in its shadow), without actually resolving it. Yet during the book we see that without much discursive argumentation, but mainly through first-hand experience, Silouan came to know that, (despite having experienced the very depths of hell and despair as few ever have), Dostoevsky’s Ivan’s question seems impossible once we encounter the Crucified Lord in His Light and Love, that Joy transforms in all directions.
And yet we can still somewhat ‘waver back and forth’ while on this side of the grave, being painfully yet providentially ‘trained’ to be able to humbly hold on to the glory that Christ has prepared for us.
Our Faith (as Agata rightly noted) is the foundation.
Faith that “Christ has trampled death by death”.
Besides, that is the most concise definition of our faith
– but it is very weak within us, or rather, it has a potentially immense range, depending on how much Grace we can handle.
And suffering has the ability to increase our capability of retaining greater Grace. The more we make our peace with it (where possible), by re-orientating our entire being upon the Kingdom of Christ (the ‘eschata’) here and now,
the more we cultivate our ability to transcend it like the great martyrs.
Through Christ’s Cross, the solution to death, suffering, and pain, has become the very death, suffering, and pain (!), the cosmic mystery of the Cross is that death, (and suffering, pain etc) can become transformative of death, (and suffering, pain etc) when we merely start to open up to want to believe in such a transformative power. This can even reach such dizzying heights as a God-wards fixation that can liberate man from the tyranny of the terrors that are based on natural self-preservation.
Certainly the ‘ticket’ seems sometimes inordinately expensive for what you get, [and indeed, if you were to simply contemplate martyrdom for two minutes, what it might be like to have your limbs burnt, to be buried alive, to be methodically driven to insanity through torture – assuming, of course, all this is suffered without the aid of God’s transforming Grace – it would seem that the ticket is too expensive to be worth it, for sure!] yet the martyrs who experienced this very “ticket” at its most expensive, spoke of it as being unbearable-yet-also-desirable, a heavy-yet- also-light yoke. Christ has made things such, that if I do not believe that eternal life will unquestionably follow temporary suffering (even if it ‘feels eternal’ at its time), I am no different than one who believes day will not unquestionably follow night. I can drive myself to despair that the night is forever, or I can keep my mind orientated towards the inevitable day that will follow – as much as I can. It has not yet come to pass as you say, but the answer is: “Lord, help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:25]
I deeply appreciate your questions about suffering especially of the innocent. Your questions force me to confront my own sufferings and those that I have loved, and those whose lives are torn apart in other places in the world both now and of the past with honesty. Your questions force me to look to my own heart to see both the pain and the questions. This reality of suffering was and is also hard for me to witness, let alone to bear the emotional scars of that experience throughout my life. Someone I loved died an excruciating death, and the echo of their screams before their death stays with me forty-five years later. Apparently this memory will never leave me. I am an infant in the faith, and whatever little faith I have comes into me through grace.
There is no answer we can give in words to this. The only solution to it is death. Death to all of it.
Perhaps it was because of having such a personal experience of tormented death that enabled me to see and face down death, challenging it, defying it, even down to the literal molecular level of our existence. By some grace I didn’t turn away from that death but faced it as I believe you are. I was a scientist and I wasn’t a believer, but was astonished to find at the molecular level resurrection so synchronic with death that they were inseparable. I could barely grasp what I was seeing in my observations. From that moment I wanted to understand, but the paradox (in Orthodox Tradition it is called Mystery) forced me to look for ‘explanations’. Words are not my forte. I am not eloquent, and usually I’m brusk and hard hearted. That is how I usually cope. But I wanted to understand this and started a search that brought me to realize that what I had seen in the material world at the molecular level is a three dimensional ‘living’ icon. This isn’t “representing” what is, rather, it is what is. Death and Resurrection are one. This unity didn’t just happen once upon a time, or historically 2000 years ago. I’ve seen it and I know it happens now. I don’t know how to explain this. Please forgive me, I know this sounds absurd. But it is because of this experience and grace that enables me to stand before the icons with thanksgiving. And I don’t deserve this grace. I had been given the choice of life or death and I had chosen death, in anger and in defiance. Yet I accidentally found Life and Resurrection so deeply bound to Death that I couldn’t not escape all the sufferings that this unity is.
Is this Love? I witness love in my own heart, despite my sufferings and willingness that I have had to be angry with God, or willingness to deny God exists. I witness God’s grace and love reach through that experience and abide in me despite all that has assailed me. And I am grateful for this grace.
Your questions evoke the grace of God, and with them I witness grace in action. And I am grateful for your questions, and pray for peace and endurance in your heart.
Sorry I meant to say could not escape.
You state “We are created free, which necessarily includes the freedom to cause suffering. You can say that any suffering (or great suffering) nullifies the entire creation project. But, you’re actually only saying that you don’t like the answer (since, if you think that an answer can be good or bad, you must think that there’s a God who alone gives words like “good” and “bad” any meaning at all).” I’m having some difficulty with this statement because it carries with it a philosophical assumption about freedom while Christianity seems to be for you “not the philosophers’ God.” Philosophy whether we like it or not is unavoidable here.
The rough assertion that a creation with free creatures requires such a risk does not answer, for the Triune God of Christianity is not driven by lack to create in order to establish love or flourishing aseity. The freedom of the Christian God is precisely that creation is utterly gratuitous. God need not create, so he need not accept preconditions that are morally repugnant or to quote David Bentley Hart:
“Not to wax too anthropomorphizing here, like some analytic philosopher of religion, but let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end, no one at all happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard“: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. And, here too, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the blessed, given the stochastic vagaries of existence: accidents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endowments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality… Once again, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity? (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 13-14)”
To speak to Issac’s contentions here and what I think is missing or perhaps the wrong answer is that an answer for evil and suffering is even being sought after. Watch someone slowly deteriorate from Brain Cancer and in ignorance tell that person that the Cross is the answer to their suffering. Maybe I’ve misread or misunderstood but the Cross doesn’t make sense of evil or suffering. There is no meaning to any of it, but the Cross and the Resurrection give us hope that Christ has defeated it once and for all of eternity on behalf of the entire cosmos.
I think I agree with you. The Cross is not the “answer” to suffering, in the sense of a rational response. It is, rather, God’s response to suffering. I believe that creation as fallen was utterly foreseen by God – there was no “chance” being taken. I read the Cross within the Godhead from before all eternity – it reveals not just something He was willing to do – but something that He is. The Cross is no mere contingency. Hart sometimes gets tangled up in an argument with Robert Jensen in this matter – in things that go above me.
I will venture to say yet more, and ask forgiveness if I say this in error. I think that suffering is itself a reflection of the good God – in a manner that only the Cross explains. For us, it is part of our movement towards the divine likeness. That is about as much mystery as I can manage on that.
It does, however, raise the question of eternal damnation – about which I am quite doubtful, at least, I do not include it as a necessary matter of Christian thought. That God would knowing create someone who would suffer eternally puzzles me beyond puzzlement. But, as I say, I do not take that as a necessary given (nor does Hart).
I have, in my time, served as a Hospice Chaplain full time for two years. I saw many hundreds of deaths, mostly slow, mostly from cancer. I’ve had murder and rape in my family, death in war, accidents, etc. The questions are real. There are stories I could share, but time and intimacy preclude them for now.
As always thank you for your gentle and loving response. At first glance it seemed you were presenting some type of Libertarian conception of freedom which from my vapid reading doesn’t seem to resonate with the classical and might I say Christian understanding of freedom. All that I’ve read of you has never indicated some form of Nihilism in your approach to freedom.
You state “I think that suffering is itself a reflection of the good God” I’m really struggling with this. Perhaps because for me suffering is synonymous with evil. Suffering is the fruit of evil. Or at least the suffering in discussion. For me that raises the question does the good need evil (suffering) to be clarified or recognized? And if this is true how are we not guilty of some form of dualism and in serious danger of making God responsible for evil to some degree? It seems you reject a type of dualism that allows evil to exist eternally alongside the good; but by us trying to ascribe any rationality to suffering or evil are we not giving evil some type of ontological meaning and substance? Wasn’t it St. Maximus along with many other Saints who defined evil as “non-being” or “non-existence”?
Thanks Father for your patience with me a sinner
Good questions. I do not equate suffering with evil. Evil is indeed a drive towards non-being – and – is frequently driven by an effort to avoid legitimate suffering. The self-emptying that is within the very heart of the Godhead (revealed in Christ’s offering on the Cross), has about it the character of suffering (for me). That self-offering is the very meaning of love. Christ defines love as laying down one’s life for a friend. “Laying down one’s life” is, I think, a sort of redemptive suffering.
St. Paul, for example, prays not only to know the power of the resurrection, but the “communion of His suffering.” (Phil 3:10) I think that this is true and real suffering, and is inherent in the very character and nature of the love of God. The Cross is not an evil done to God. It is God’s voluntary self-offering.
I believe, as well, that God gathers, is gathering, has gathered, the whole of the world’s suffering into His Cross and made it His own, and has made our suffering a communion in Him. He does not save us in our excellence, but in our weakness. We are not saved in our strength, but in our suffering.
Suffering may indeed be abused and turned into a terrible thing – but it was not so originally – I think. It is a deep perversion of love – which is a frightful thing. Evil, however, has no creativity about it. Everything it does is distortion. It never creates. Even death, I suspect, was a sad imitation of something better. And that something better is revealed in the Death of Christ, by which He trampled down death and turned it into something that works us good.
These are great mysteries. I think I am right about this, but could be corrected. Some of this is within my deepest intuitions, and I confess to feeling a bit vulnerable saying them out loud in such a manner. It is, for me, perhaps the mystery that I most love in God.
I want to thank all those who engaged with what I had to say. Those of you who agree that there is no clear, rational answer to evil and suffering are nearer to what I am attempting to explain. I still consider myself a Christian, but I tend to think that attempts to answer or solve the issue of evil and suffering often do more harm than good, which is why I sympathize with Ivan who I would be so bold to say takes a more Christian approach to evil and suffering than some are willing to admit. Judaism had (probably still has) a tradition of wrestling and arguing with God, and while such an approach is far less comforting that having all the answers it seems to me far more genuine. Perhaps it would be helpful for us Christians to remember this aspect of our Jewish heritage.
In “Doors of the Sea,” David Bentley Hart says that the problem of evil and suffering in the world would be worsened if we could dismiss or explain them away with simple answers as it trivializes what are serious and absurd experiences. I’ve always appreciated that Hart’s answer to the problem of evil and suffering is a non-answer. It is frustrating because it leaves us to wrestle, but it is, in my opinion, the only adequate position for the Christian to take.
I highly doubt I will be the one to bring correction here lol. I get what you are saying and frankly I see the logic in what you are saying even though I think we both agree that the cross isn’t logical to our fallen nature. I would like to pose perhaps a more perplexing question that I feel is tied to the subject of suffering and evil. Within the community of the Trinity do any of the triune beings Father, Son, and Holy Spirit suffer for the other? Is there a “good” suffering that they endure for one another?
There is no disagreement about the communion of suffering we share nor the suffering that Christ experienced however Paul longs for delivery of it. He loathes this weakness it is a thorn. That it might be used is one thing but that there is an answer is another. That we as human beings suffer in this life is inevitable; that it can be redemptive is also true however it’s redemptive quality doesn’t give us a answer or meaning does it? I once heard someone say that Phileo is the highest love not Agape. His reason is that it was mutual love that at no point is one being victimized by another. I think for me the answer which gives us no answer points us back to eternity past of the Triune God who lived in perfect harmony, and mutual love. What suffering can we speak of when we speak of the Trinity?
I too value DBH’s work on Theodicy. I recently lost my father to Brain Cancer and in that moment as I watched him slowly die there was no meaning, no answer, no deeper truth. I told my mother there may not be an answer for this but Jesus is here with us, suffering with us and He has overcome. Perhaps this is communion in suffering to know Christ is with us in our suffering that He is enduring it with us, and that He has overcome not that He will explain to us the meaning.
Thanks for listening and responding
I think there is a mutual self-emptying between the persons of the Trinity. The Son only does the will of the Father. The Spirit says nothing of Himself but speaks only of the Son. The Father delights Himself in the Son, etc. In no way does the Father seek to be the Son, or vice versa, etc. There is, in the nature of love of another person, a yielding, a giving, a reception, an offering, all of which, as I’ve said, have the character of true suffering.
The suffering we endure in this life is, as I noted, a perversion of the true. And I think that there is a transformation of that suffering, unseen most of the time, but experienced at other times, when our suffering (perverted in whatever way) is carried into the sufferings of Christ. Paul does not despise his weakness – he says he will boast of it. He doesn’t like it at first, but comes to embrace it. He positively wants to share in the sufferings of Christ – and this mystery is not at all unknown in the lives of the saints.
I have seen such communion in the example of several of the deaths that I’ve witnessed – where the sufferings of the sick seemed transformed into the glory of the Cross. It is always voluntary, and becomes a profound act of love, a co-inherence. CS Lewis writes a little about this in his time with Joy Davidman Lewis as she died of cancer.
His grief, I think, which was extremely profound, also became a transformative experience for him, probably completing something in him that had eluded his childhood experience of his mother’s death. This time, late in his life, he was able to experience that deep grief with Christ in the midst of it.
These are not “answers” in the sense that Isaac was describing. They are not reasonable. But they are real, tangible, even beyond words. Somehow I think that any “answer” or treatment of suffering that suggests something we have “in spite of” our suffering, is deeply unsatisfactory. It says the suffering has no worth or value at all – only the “in spite of” matters. I’m suggesting that there is something within suffering itself. I do not want to suggest that the perversion of suffering is good – but that suffering itself, rightly understood, is not inherently evil. Causing someone to suffer is indeed an evil act. I do not deny that. But the suffering it engenders is redeemable. Pure evil could not be redeemed because it has no existence.
In your reply to Agata you said: “until Jesus reveals to us that the promised resurrection really will occur, his death hasn’t yet been proved to be a solution.”
I wonder how my approach to this whole discussion would have been reversed to take in “all at once” if your statement would have been “…that the promised resurrection(…)has occured…” or …is occuring (instead of “will” occur)?
Is the case of Lazarus any substance to my linear dilemma?
Somewhere in the solution is the lived reality of our present death, not in an assumed life now and an unknown “after life.” To continue without diminishing the wonderful quote shared by Agata above, Fr. John Behr makes a challenging observation in the sequence of events in Psalms 103(104):29-30 where we are created …after… returning to our dust. This would seem to apply to me that our suffering is in the anguish of our present death and not made “insignified” by the perplexing “death moment” to come. Is it not viable to say that Christ came to save the “dead” and not the living? Our present trajectory is “in death” as a process of returning to dust…and that IS sufferable, not an assumption of in-sufferability. It goes with being dead…made alive. That is the pain I incomprehensibly bear in order to be created. The rehab for anyone recovering from serious injury is painful and does not end until the dead tissue is replaced and for many that process is “life-long.”
The “life” project is not over, but begins “in death now” as the icon waaaaay above would teach me. I am still learning the “art of all at once” from the paradigm my dissonance defends “in a single vanishing point.”
What was “life” like for Lazarus after returning from Life? And why bring him back from Life into death all over again?
I second exactly what sbdn Andrew says based on F. John Behr.
What we witness in the greatest saints is usually diametrically the opposite from the man-centered existentialist reasonings of DBHart and others trying to wrestle with the problem of suffering dualectically.
What I mean is that -as Elder Aimilianos often repeats – the truest Christian does not even ever pray for the suffering to pass, but for the strength of God to be manifest in it.. And in this we see not the philosophical enshrinement -the establishment – of the demanding self, but the kenotic desire to become one with God – a God who’s very “nature” is kenotic.
It is also worth offsetting some of the more ‘secularly affable’ philosophical Theodicial argumentation –similar to DB Hart’s quoted earlier-, with the remembrance of the Father of the Prodigal, who clearly only knows how to deal with the freedom He bestows, through a ‘crucificial’ respect of it. Yet the maturing of the free-to-self-determine prodigal son only ever comes [freely] through his own extreme suffering.
And no matter the spiritual ‘level’ one might be at, suffering ultimately enables heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
We obviously witness and know that the ‘whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now’…
“Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God”, yet this awaiting “for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” which will eventually come and liberate from suffering and renew all creation, and will trample death through death, is not enough for the true believer right now… The joyful message of the Gospel is that I, the Christian, can here and right now, live this eschatological, final truth in the present moment, my feet on this ground yet my life in the Heavens, steeped in sufferings, yet engrossed in the eternal triumph of the One Who has brought us from death unto Life and from Earth unto Heaven.
An additional point worth bringing to this discussion is that in our utter forsakenness from all, including most especially [seemingly] from God, is where we come to encounter the utterly forsaken One, yet there however, we encounter Christ by practically becoming crucified Christs first. I believe that this paradox of suffering is the reason that St John Chrysostom –remarkably- does not exalt Job in his earlier perfect justness, as he does in his later incredible suffering.
In many ways, the entire modern project is driven by a desire to end suffering. It is, therefore, inimical to the Cross. Christianity is not modern and fails the test of modernity.
There is a wonderful Christmas pageant from Mexico called “La Pastorales” (the shepherds). There was a tv film done of it with no less than Linda Ronstadt! It is a presentation of the Christmas story – but with very Mexican understandings. The thrust of the story is the shepherds trying to make their way to the Baby (Nino). However, they are beset along their way with terrible demons, temptations, etc. Repeatedly, St. Michael the archangel has to intervene and save them. Finally, they are confronted with Satan himself who taunts them and tells them that the Baby will only bring them suffering and sorrow, etc. He, instead, promises them great things (like those in America!). It’s a terrible confrontation. It concludes with a huge battle between Michael, his angels, and the demons, delivering the shepherds who greet the Child with joy.
For a large part of the planet, suffering on a daily basis, at least in steady, mild forms, is the norm. The nations of the modern project have, through various means, achieved a temporary illusion that suffering can be managed and tamed. Of course, these same nations think nothing of killing millions of babies to pretend there is no suffering (in the name of compassion). In truth, the “end of suffering” is a terrible delusion. Christ and the Cross make sense among the peasants, La Pastorales, and always has. The truth is cruciform.
Thank you Father, “La Pastorales” reminded me of the peculiar patristic explanation of the Antichrist -666- [ χ ξ ς in Greek] as ‘Christ ( χριστός) without ( ξ ) Cross ( ςταυρό)’. What made our Lord call Peter – upon his demand that He would not be crucified – ‘Satan’…
Thank you Father, thank you Dino and thank you Isaac for starting this conversation, it is really wonderful, especially so close to the start of our Lenten journey…
This note is to Christian Hollums:
Christian, you said:
“…. Watch someone slowly deteriorate from Brain Cancer and in ignorance tell that person that the Cross is the answer to their suffering….”
Christian, first, I am so very sorry for your great loss. I lost my father to cancer too but was not able to be there when he died, so I can only imagine your suffering and pain to witness it….
I think is that such an understanding of the Cross, as an answer to our suffering, is not something we can share with others to ease their suffering, it is only meant for *us*.
We need to have that understanding personally deep in our own hearts. And that will transform our heart and allow us to transmit this knowledge to others, without words. We cannot “preach” the Cross to others (especially in a situation you described), we can only search for this understanding for our own selves… in hope that it will transform us, so we can “enter into true humility, have genuine love, unwavering joy and unshakable peace as a result, and become like a fire that warms it’s surroundings”…
These conversations as well as the icon you have shown and described is very edifying. And they speak to the truth of our suffering as you have eloquently described in your essay and in your comments. As you say, there is no “in spite of” regarding living in or through suffering. There is love in suffering. “In spite of” is an attempt to turn away from or hide psychologically from suffering rather than facing it and abiding in it. But also as you have mentioned, suffering can be a perversion and I’m grateful for your making the distinction.
Regarding what I see in my heart, it seems to me that I am not yet equipped to describe the torment I witnessed as good. And in my comment above I used the word ‘despite’ that experience that I also experience God’s love. I cannot deny the goodness of God and so it resides in me a conflict and paradox to witness and remember that torment and at the same time to see the glory and love of God in that experience. Not long after that experience I was subject to people who used their concept of ‘Jesus’ as their escape hatch from psychological suffering, and presented that to me as a way to escape my own suffering. And I refused that escape (and that concept of Jesus), rather I embraced my experience of both suffering and death.
There is indeed a deep vein in this society to escape personal suffering. And the machinations and diversions used to escape I suspect is tied to the consumption of food, toys and entertainment, and religion as entertainment and escape. In particular, American entertainment is drenched in blood and violence against ‘others’ . Perhaps it is part of the modern project to present violence and abject torment of others as a form of enjoyment, escape and vicarious power. These diversions do more to dull our personal experience of suffering and dulls our capacity to have communion with Christ and with others who suffer.
Father et all,
A lot of things to chew on and reflect on. I think there is a great deal about the Modern Project that is faulty and I know Father you and I have had some meaningful conversations about the topic. I’m grateful for the conversation this has started although it’s not the focal point of the blog. I am also grateful for the charity that has been shown to me here. Agata thank you for your kind words concerning my loved one.
In all fairness I do think there has been a bit of misunderstanding concerning DB Hart’s quote. I think it is easy and intellectually dishonest to just brush his reflection on Creatio Ex Nihilo so flippantly as has been done by Dino. The philosophy DBH presents is drawn from revelation not secular philosophy. What are the logical implications of Creatio Ex Nihilo? This is a central dogma of our faith and DBH is right to defend and reflect on it philosophically.
Where I’m really getting hung up here though is how do we distinguish “proper suffering”, “good suffering”, or “redemptive suffering” from “unnecessary suffering”? Doesn’t the logic of necessary and unnecessary suffering suggest that suffering is essentially embedded into the cosmos and a necessary part of creation itself? What problems does this create for the dogma of Creatio Ex Nihilo? If the cross was “necessary” and “good” then how can we affirm that all that God created was good? If the cross was “good” why did Christ sweat and cry tears of blood before embracing His cross?
The killing of God was the most monstrous and evil act ever committed by the human race which our faith and scriptures agree. So how then in the same breath can we ascribe goodness to it or even state it was a necessary component to God’s act of creating a good Cosmos? Had Jesus not risen would the cross still be necessary or even an expression of “good suffering?” That we suffer in this life as I’ve stated earlier is undeniable. That modernity has attempted to overcome this suffering by it’s on means is deplorable. The only path for overcoming suffering is the cross to which I say amen, amen, and amen to all that has been said concerning the place of suffering in our lives. However this platitude doesn’t give meaning to suffering itself. We have discussed Cancer here and I highly doubt that anyone commenting on this thread believes that in the redemption of all things when Heaven and Earth are one and there is no more pain, sickness and death that we will in the same breath say since suffering is necessary and good in some circumstances cancer, sickness and pain will still remain for eternity because there is goodness in it.
I think what is being obscured here is the rest of the story. The cross is not the final word and if it were we would have no hope. Isaac has alluded to this in his earlier comments about the resurrection. As DBH has said which I think is entirely true and entirely Christian is
“the truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty — wherein neither sin nor death had any place.”
DBH goes on to say:
“even if by economy God can bring good from evil; it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature. ”
I have always valued and respected your insight Father; so please help me here. Every form of suffering I can think of or imagine is a result of a fallen world. If we can all agree that Cancer is not a part of the age to come and that all sickness will cease to exist how can we in the same breath give intelligible meaning to Cancer? And should we? That people are able to cling to the hope of the resurrection and the power of the cross while they suffer is not the same as saying there is intelligibility in suffering itself. That Christ is to be found in suffering and that we have communion with him in this age I do not disagree with. The modern projects ideas to overcome this suffering really has no bearing on the conversation because I am not proposing in any way that we as human beings have the potentiality or ability to overcome the suffering through intellectual, or technological means. Only Christ can and my understanding of the Gospel is that He has. My contention here is that suffering which is the fruit of a fallen world is unintelligible. It is irrational. Creation groans at this irrational destruction and longs for it’s redemption to a time unknown to us all. Thanks brothers for your engaging and thoughtful comments. Pray for me a sinner
One of my patients was going home on hospice, near the end of his battle with cancer. He said to me “This is going to sound crazy, but I’m glad I got cancer”. I replied that yes it did sound a bit crazy and he explained. “I have met people I never would have met, people who have cared about, and for me and people who have loved me and prayed for me. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t gotten cancer.” He said the love and caring mattered more to him than the cancer did. He went on to explain to me how his connection with God had grown out of his battle. He shared with me that he was no longer afraid to die.
I have had many death conversations with people in the years I have been an oncology nurse and they have ranged from people being angry with my bringing it up, to singing Amazing Grace while holding hands around the bed of a loved one who was dying. I have seen the fear turn to acceptance and peace. I have been honored to be a part of this journey with my brothers and sisters. And I have grown as a Christian because of this journey together. After my dad’s death from cancer and my own cancer the following year , I basically gave God “the finger” and walked away from church and any connection with Christianity. When I first became a nurse, I was a practicing Wiccan. But as a cancer nurse, I was confronted with the questions that have been discussed above and I found, eventually, that the only answers are in the Cross. This was not an overnight event and frequently has me kicking and rebelling against God’s grace. But through the witness of the believers I meet along the journey and my finally reading the Word for myself along with the instruction of those farther down this road, God continues His pursuit of this hardheaded sinner. I have been blessed to find Father Freeman and this site and read everything I can, especially these posts, because not only do I gain insight and maybe a bit of wisdom (I am lacking in the erudition of many who write here, but my heart soaks up what you all write), I suspect that while I was raised in the Protestant tradition, I am finding God’s face in the Orthodox one. Many times, wisdom not my own, comes out of my mouth while I am talking with patients and family members and I know that it is God tending to all of us and bringing to my memory the things I have read and witnessed. As I grow in his commandment to truly “love one another as He loved us” I have come to understand that this is an active commandment and that in the doing, in many ways I do not comprehend, comes the understanding.
God bless you all. Pray for me.
Father, I was beginning to think I was the only one who saw that movie La Pastorales. It had a veritable who’s who of Hispanic entertainers at the time of the movie Cheech Marin was also in it as a demon.
The Star of Bethlehem is a glint off St. Michael’s sword and therefore a preview of the Cross.
Such a good conversation! I’ll step away for a moment from cancer. Let’s think about love. CS Lewis, in his The Great Divorce, has a woman who’s made the bus ride to heaven from hell, and she wants her son back (so she can have him with her). She clearly loves her son, but her love has become perverted such that it would do evil were it permitted. But love is clearly not the problem. The perversion of love is the problem.
There is within love a proper suffering. It is the letting go, the giving of space, the allowance of the Other, self-limitation, self-emptying. It is the love on the Cross. It is also, the love within the Trinity that is revealed by the Cross. It is a proper suffering. I do not want to suggest that God requires suffering and death – suffering and death as we know them in the world are perversions of things like self-emptying and the like. But Christ destroys death by death. His death, despite the outward appearance of the Cross, is a good death. It is not an evil death – even though it was meant to be evil. He turns it into a good suffering, a good death, voluntary and redemptive. It turns it into love. Love is stronger than death.
We have the capacity, through grace, to enter into communion with Christ and in that communion to be transformed and to transform the world. Martyrs transform their horrific suffering into a powerful weapon – into the same death that tramples down death. Some even speak in very transcendent terms in the midst of their suffering. St. Stephen saw Christ seated at the right hand of God as they stoned him and forgave his enemies in full imitation of Christ. They meant it to him for evil, but, by grace, it was transformed into good.
This is the mystery in “all things work together for good…”
Cancer is terrible. Death, starvation, pain, torture, etc., are all hideous and terrible. But their destruction (which we are promised) is not simply their abolition. It is also their transformation in a manner that we do not yet see. It is like the Law. Christ has not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. We can say that they will be destroyed (just as death is the last enemy). But we will sing of Christ’s death on the Cross for all eternity. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!”
We continue to remember the sufferings of the saints – and those sufferings are transformed into their glory. I would like to think, when I meditate on some of the great sufferings of friends and family (the aunt who was raped and brutally murdered, for example) that God will not only save her, but will somehow redeem what happened to her. That is a greater mystery.
I worked for a few years as a volunteer with victims of violent crimes and their families. It was emotionally gruesome. They spoke sometimes about justice – but, in truth, there was nothing whatsoever that a system of human justice could do that would bring satisfaction. Punishing a wrong doer only means more suffering, and you don’t get your loved one back. What we really want is for whatever happened never to have happened. But that is beyond possibility. It is what it is.
The only other possibility would be amnesia – which I do not take seriously – or, what I am saying. That the suffering itself is transformed such that it becomes good. That is death trampling down death. That is removing the sting of death.
When we remember painful things, they are difficult to speak about. Many people become bitter, or numb, or anything other than those who remember. But Christians (and Jews) are specifically taught to remember. The Jews remembered their slavery in Egypt. It was terrible. It was tragic. But the Passover seems to have changed it – transformed it. At present the Jews remember the Holocaust – but only in terms of modernity – “never again”! The Holocaust has not been redeemed. It remains an abiding wound without a Passover.
I contrast this with the incredible witness of a number of Christians who survived the worst of Communist prisons. In Romania, the tortures of Pitesti seem to have out-stripped anything ever heard before or since. But Fr. Roman Braga, Fr. George Calciu, who survived it, speak very differently about their experience than the way the Holocaust is remembered by most.
Here is a link to a Romanian film (with English subtitles) called, “I bless my prison.” It is the true story told by a woman who suffered in the prisons – and her experience. This, I think, is somehow very different than simply celebrating the fall of Communism. This is the testimony of the saints. I think it also applies to all suffering – ultimately in Christ.
I am reminded again by the icon atop of this post of the the words spoken by each of the two thieves who hung together suffering alongside Christ in the doorway of death. Love was poured out there to meet, to catch and to carry both of those thieves into paradise.
Suffering, even suffering of guilty ones, cannot be explained or justified in the light of such love. It can only be embraced as Christ embraced it. Do we doubt that he will reward those who suffer?
“You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. ”
When I suffer I try to give thanks. To my surprise, when able, I then know from the depths that I am loved. This is impossible for me yet it is sufficient and lasts in my heart like nothing this world can give.
Thank you Fr. Stephen, Ann and MichaelPatrick for your last comments. I deeply needed them and have received an open heart to receive Christ’s love through these words.
Thank you also for the link to the documentary “I bless my prison”. The memory I have spoken of has been my prison. Thank you Fr Stephen. Now I too can bless my prison.
“But Christians (and Jews) are specifically taught to remember.”
Hmmm. Does this mean, Father, that we are called to the seemingly impossible task of forgiveness *without* forgetting? That we wouldn’t adhere to the old saw “forgive and forget”?
And therefore, that the inability to forget a past unreconciled offense does not necessarily indicate an inability to forgive?
I think the old forgive and forget simply doesn’t work. What is forgiven needs to be transformed, in my experience. Only grace can do it.
I wouldn’t want to simply brush away DBH’s reflection on creation ex nihilo, I have great respect for the man and he is a great mind -an asset to Orthodoxy. But I also think he would himself agree that I should have a far greater respect for Elder Aimilianos or St Silouan. DBH clearly speaks predominantly “from his mind” (to use saint Silouan’s exact expression) and leaves one with a certain level of lesser inner peace and certitude than the Spirit-inspired, authoritative word of Silouan or Aimilianos does on these matters..
I enjoy reading DB Hart’s devastating critiques of prevailing modern orthodoxies. His sword is a good one, but not for all things. I also believe with Dino that Hart would admit to some such limits.
Father, I do not really know how to ask this question on repentance and transformation but is it not true that when a person repents, God’s order is, to a certain extent restored thus allowing transformation for all involved?
I’m continuing to love the challenge this presents for me personally so thank you. You state. ” I do not want to suggest that God requires suffering and death” I want to hone in my focus here. Can you please give me an example of suffering that is not a result of evil? I think we must rule out so far what continues to resurface in this conversation. Namely stories of tragic suffering that are used to make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. This is in fact the contradiction that I’m trying to point out. I can think of a 100 ways in which I’ve suffered either from evil I’ve committed or evil committed by others or a result of a fallen cosmos but I can not think of one single form of suffering that isn’t someone a result of evil as it’s foundation. So please help me here.
Just a quick note: St. Sergius of Radonezh suffered intensely as a child due to his struggle to learn to read.
Not the result of evil, his suffering allowed him to experience a true miracle and not take for granted God’s gift.
The primary example of suffering that is not evil is marriage. You can follow the link to an article on the topic. Raising and having children inherently involves suffering. All love involves suffering – to embrace the other in the right way requires suffering. It is not evil.
I share my experience in my simplicity. But I do this only because I am an infant in the Orthodox faith not well read in Orthodoxy. Fr Stephen’s learning, voice and heart has much more capacity to be a conduit of Christ’s love and words as appropriate to your questions.
But I do wish to explain that the tormented death of a loved one that I witnessed and I refer to in my prior comments was the result of a car accident. I was angry with God, and experienced sufferings in the memory and in my anger with God. But I don’t say and I can’t remember that I had thought I had experienced evil in that event. At worst, I might have thought myself accursed, and resisted that thought.
I was in the accident and as I grow older, the injuries of that accident are beginning to make me suffer physically. And yet I haven’t thought of this suffering as evil, either.
I have definitely experienced evil or maliciousness in people. That too has caused me to suffer. And the innocent and non-innocent are victims of violence in this world and this too brings suffering. If I am to name evil, I call violent behavior and maliciousness in people evil.
In my simplicity I have no response to evil except prayer and turning to Christ. The ontological aspect of evil is beyond me. But I’m going to share a saying that I have been given recently to deal with my own suffering reactions to the evil I see and experience in the behavior of people.
It comes from St. John Krondstadt:
“Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him: because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of a person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
I know this is not an answer to your question. But it is perhaps as a way to view evil, and it is a way to cope with it.
Yes. Childbirth and parenting. I have always been struck by the fact that after the Fall, God tells Eve he will “greatly multiply” her sorrow in childbearing…but that implies there was some suffering/sorrow/pain involved even before sin entered the world.
I can think of a few kinds of pain – very tiny in the grand scheme of things, but but perhaps helpful as small analogies – that have been transformed in my life the more I learn to accept them. One is the pain of distance running. Another is the pain of childbirth. As Fr. Stephen said above, the emotional dying to self of being a wife and mother. And finally the emotional and intellectual suffering that comes with writing (I am an academic and so must write, but that writing involves banging my head against the wall of my ignorance. It is humiliating and confusing every time). In each one I found the pain started off as suffering – in very small degree of course, but clearly unpleasant in quality. But in each as I learned to yield to it, that pain was transformed, purged of bitterness. It stopped being suffering, but did not stop being pain. It gets easier but not easy. I don’t think any of these things will ever be pain-free in this life, but I almost wouldn’t want them to.
I hesitate to bring these up in the same conversation with the kinds of suffering that have been discussed above, particularly because it is obvious at least when writing them out to see the meaning in them (although I often lose perspective and get frustrated about the seeming meaninglessness of my daily tasks and responsibilities, and then the pain turns back to suffering…). But perhaps the grace that has begun to work in these tiny pains for me is the same grace we can trust to redeem far more unimaginable agonies, and in that sense, it makes sense to me that practicing giving thanks in all things is the first step we must take.
I don’t want to suggest, however, that the difference in degree of pain is unimportant. I gave birth with no epidural. That doesn’t mean I could have had a C-section with no epidural. Even a good marriage is painful, but surely there’s a world of difference between the dying to self in a healthy marriage and the torture of an abusive marriage.
Thanks to all for the great discussion here…. I have really been weighed down lately with recent discovery (in the wake of Wikileaks disclosures) of the extent of evil being perpetrated in our day. I’m referring to the (now epidemic) trafficking of children and worse being perpetrated by those in high places. I am Ivan contemplating that little girl locked in a freezing outhouse and that peasant boy with the landlord’s dogs set upon him. I have learned these very sorts of horrors and worse are a regular occurrence today because those we have entrusted with the upholding of human rights and freedoms, and with the protection of the innocent, are foxes guarding the hen house! I am honestly being driven to the brink of despair and insanity by what I cannot, having dared to look into this living hell, now unlearn. What to do?
DBH’s critique of theodicy is a touchstone for me. Suffering, Hart reveals, is in no way *necessary* to God or His creation. He did not need it to accomplish His purposes. In itself, the suffering that is the result of evil such as the kind I, with Ivan, contemplate, is meaningless. It the the suffering voluntarily borne, or borne well, for the sake of Christ that is rendered meaningful by its transformation into communion with Him whereby it becomes a means of our transfiguration into His likeness. The great Christian hope is that even the suffering borne in ignorance of Christ (such as that foisted on a small child against its will) will be rendered null and void and without lasting substance by Christ’s trampling it down by His own Death & by His Resurrection through which He heals all and makes all things new.
In this time of great distress, I am turning also to the great modern confessors like Fr. George Calciu, Fr. Roman Braga, and Fr. John Krestiankin. Having read this post the other day, I broke open my copy of Fr. George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies and Talks. In a response to a question about suffering Fr. George said, “When we were in prison, we asked each other, ‘Why suffering? Why us? Of all the millions of Romanians, why have we been chosen to suffer? What is the purpose?’ And God wouldn’t reveal anything to us. Every day we cried out to God to give us less pain, and He seemed to grant us even more suffering.” Later after his liberation from prison, in his travels Fr. George described coming across a small booklet of quotes in a Catholic library where he was staying and discovering a quote by a famous French writer, Paul Claudel, who said, “Christ did not come into the world to eliminate suffering, Christ has not even come into the world to explain it. Rather, He came to fill human suffering with His presence.” Fr. George continues, “Have you heard? To fill human suffering with His presence! Then I understood that when we weep, or when we revolt or cry out, ‘God, what are You doing to us?!’ He is present within us more than ever, despite all our sins, all our infirmities. He filled our suffering with His presence. Thus, I understood exactly the deep meaning of this pain: God is present in us!
The Cross which Christ bore because of our sin is what God’s kenotic Self-giving looks like in this fallen world. In an hypothetical unfallen world, it would look different, perhaps, but would still be Self-giving Love–Self emptying for the sake of the other. In a world fallen into sin, this entails suffering.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for answering Christian with those two examples, marriage and raising children. Sometimes I think the suffering our children cause us is even more difficult to endure….
You may enjoy this article, and you will for sure recognize the author…. 🙂
(when I asked him about it, Fr. Peter said he totally forgot that he has written it)
The mystery of suffering is too deep.
I don’t think we can plumb the depths of that stage upon which God reveals Himself to us as Love; Where he invites us to partake of divinity by following his steps deep into suffering.
Computing Christ is a myth of modernism. There’s a practical reason why baptism is the first step of faith and death is the last.
Connecting persons in love requires bonding in the divine trinity. The devils hate love. Love requires suffering others and suffering for others.
Does anyone really think we can EXPLAIN this? Forgive me. As an older man I’m impatient with calculations that may ease minds tenuously.
Minds made of mud are called to join Christ in Gethsemane – to pray, weep, to suffer and love. A divine mind can only be given to mud. It cannot be achieved.
I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t dare axiomatically claim – based on philosophical speculation – suffering an unnecessarity when considering somewhat-freely-internally-self-determining-creatures. We obviously cannot ever ‘endorse it’, yet we cannot – as Christians centered on the Cross – annul it’s importance.
For one, sufferings always make a person more capable of relating to Christ. Elder Sophrony thought it almost a vulgarity for a person that is not in some sort of deep pain (coming from ‘outside’ that is, as the ‘inside’ human response can vary infinitely and oughtn’t be a desolation) to address the Crucified God… So, even the shocking tortures of Pitesti or of child victims of Satanists, deeply scarring though they are, enlarge one’s heart in directions we often fail to consider.
The conversation on suffering – specially amidst the modern, expressly ‘anti-crucificial’ world– is inevitably a scandalous stumblingblock. [1 Corinthians 1:23] It is interconnected with “the preaching of the Cross”, which “is to them that perish foolishness; but unto the ones that are saved the power of God.”
God’s Cross however, invariably “destroys the wisdom of the wise, and brings to nothing the understanding of the prudent”.
Some might speculate how suffering might “not have been necessary”, yet, since his free creatures will not –through the wisdom of God in the world– come to recognise and know Life, God and Joy in Christ and seek these in apostasy, the self and sin, it pleased the God of Love by the ‘foolishness’ of the Cross, in all it’s manifestations, to draw all people to Himself. [John 12:32]
The sign of God’s power which ‘the Jews’ require, and the philosophical wisdom that ‘the Greeks’ seek is not the way of God’s humble love. Besides, we, ourselves are in need of, at last, somehow, someday, acquiring blessed humility –the magnet and guardian of God’s grace.
Christ crucified, (“unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness”) is the only power and wisdom of God.
In response to your comment, “I’ve often heard it said that Jesus on the cross somehow solves the horrendous evils experienced by humanity[…]I wonder how anything can be held as a solution when it doesn’t appear to have solved anything.” a small clarification is worth mentioning:
(A purely philosophical explanation -as ‘solution’- would be a wordy exchange, and still, it would only placate according to the measure of one’s experience of the power of the Cross.)
Christ is the solution to all problems, but we partake of this ‘solution’ only to the measure of the closeness of our union to Him. (And He is exalted upon a cross).
Our union with Him is the issue here…
Dino, I certainly wouldn’t argue that suffering, as it is transformed and used by God, cannot be made to serve His purposes and become the unique means by which the believer is perfected. Certainly, this is in accord with the teaching of the Scriptures–I think of 1 Peter 4:1-2 & 12-16. Fr. George, in the same talk from which I quoted earlier speaks both about the suffering of prison “not helping me in any way” and, at the same time, suffering making of him what he became through it, being thus “necessary to me.” Insisting on the lack of “necessity” in suffering is in a particular ontological context to affirm God has no need of suffering–it adds nothing to Him–and to make it clear He is not the Author of evil. It is also to caution us from foolishly trying to find meaning in suffering and evil in themselves–there is none; they are, by definition, “anti-meaning”, nonsensical in themselves.
That is not to say that suffering is in no way necessary for us as sinners in a fallen world. God takes no pleasure in our suffering, but He makes it work for our good, blessing and glory. Suffering is nonsensical in itself, but Christ’s making it the means of our transformation can give it meaning. But even here, the meaning comes from Christ, not from the suffering itself. Suffering is the means by which He weans us from idols and attaches us firmly to the things that are eternal. It is how He makes us triumph over sin. At least that is how I understand this.
P.S. I would dispute the notion that suffering necessarily enlarges the heart and renders it more capable of receiving Christ. Where faith and hope are present and grace given, this is certainly true, but suffering is also most frequently the harsh reality that obscures grace for the one who cannot see God and has not learned to hope in Christ. In this latter case, it leads to a shattering of the heart and mind, to nihilism and suicide, and only the intervention of grace and a direct revelation of the love of Christ can change that.
It is not just union with Christ but a joyful union-ultimately.
Somehow, I know not how, the joyful union comes through suffering. Much as there is no Ressurection without death.
I fully agree with your comment.
It is mainly the ontologically humbling quality of suffering that made Elder Sophrony – I believe – see a non-sufferer addressing the Crucified one as ‘almost vulgar’, when all goes well and especially when I am absorbed in this torpor and I have no ‘Eucharistic ascesis’ to show [at least], I am somewhat akin to a ‘non-repenter’, am I not?
There’s clearly a variety of internal responses to unwanted suffering, no question about that. What is required from us is that when the pressure of tribulation –whether great or small– acts upon us, which (we have been warned) is inescapable in this world, we do not internally loose heart or revolt in our self-absorption, but take courage in our eschatological orientation upon Christ.
In Christ we might have peace. “In the world we shall have suffering”: but we ought to be of good cheer; for Christ has overcome the world. (John 16:33)
It must be stated that the only thing with the potential of being even more insufferably nonsensical than all the suffering of this world is, would be a world, (fallen as we now know it), somehow without any suffering, a Babelic, inane stupor where we can forget the Logos. The realisation of such an existence’s utter meaningless would be the very definition of hell. It’s painlessness would become the greatest suffering.
― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
I am humbled by the wealth of knowledge here.
My grasp of God’s ways has come at the “action level” because of my work as a nurse. A new diagnosis of cancer, a loved one with an aneurysm, Alzheimer’s, the list goes on. At one time I began to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by my patients struggles and their cries of “why me, why now?” I comprehend things fairly simply, and I share them back the same.
I apologize if the following is too much like kindergarten but as I have been led to see it from my own walk and those of others, I know that I would be still skipping down the primrose path, possibly practicing wicca since it connects with my love of nature if the world had not brought me up short. My patients have stated as witness of their walks that they, too, had not bothered with thinking much about God (our culture fuels this), until they hit the wall of suffering, in whatever form it takes. THEN, we reach out, we search for meaning, we try to connect with others to make sense of it all. Fun and good times don’t seem to have the same effect of drawing us closer to God unless we have already begun that journey. Isiah says that “He is like a refiners fire” and He shall purify. As I see it, God ordered the universe so that, at the end of all things, (to borrow from LoTR) we shall be with Him because He didn’t create God-robots, but human beings with free will.
When God closed Eden to us, He stated that our suffering and sweat of our brow would increase. I always thought it was because He was being cranky and punitive. But one day the light bulb went off and God whispered to me that HOW ELSE would we ever turn back to Him? He witnessed how we handled Eden and I can’t say I would have done any better than Eve. As CS Lewis says, we are in a war and we are on enemy soil. It is imperative that we fight on the right side. Our enemy is slick and he will hold out every idol and take advantage of every weakness we have. I see the fallout each time I go to work. But in the trenches, I can promise you, is where the lost do let the light of Jesus shine in, sometimes for the first time in their lives. And this, after all, is what we as brothers and sisters, and more especially God, is about. I am guilty of putting all my eggs (so to speak) in the basket of this life and this world and I am certain I am not alone in this. I think we have all heard people say “I’m ready to see Jesus, but I don’t want to die today” and I know I have thought this more than once myself. At the heart of this, IMO, is our trust in this world over our trust in Him – the world we now experience as opposed to the one promised, EVEN with the suffering that goes on here. So once again, through the refiner’s fire we go, so that “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is”.
Ann, your comments encourage me no end! I have relatives immersed in a New Age mindset, who do not seem to embrace the Cross, and I’m always looking for ways to break through that delusion with the truth of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, I know that only Christ Himself can do this for them. It doesn’t help that they come from backgrounds shaped by a Western, purportedly “Christian”, interpretation of the Cross (as “satisfaction/payment” of God’s offended “honor” or as God needing to punish an innocent human in the place of the guilty in order to be willing to release the guilty from the penalty of their own sin!) that is actually a perversion of the truth of the Cross. In reality, the Cross is the subversion of the power of sin, hell and death and of the principalities and ruling powers of this world, not the underwriting of the claims these make on us! At the end of the day, the truth is a simple thing (though not an easy one) revealed to all of us in the concrete reality of life as we live it. It is in the willingness to embrace reality (including that of our own frailties revealed through our suffering) that Christ meets and saves us. That verse from 1 John is one of my most treasured favorites. How beautifully it expresses the great hope that we have!
Karen, thank you so much for your comments, and specifically for mentioning the book you have by Fr. George Calciu. Five hours ago, I had never heard of this book, and in that time, I’ve now heard two people reference it! I’m ordering it. Thanks!
So grateful for your wisdom and guidance.
My experience has been that I find Christ in suffering when I’m willing to ask the question in humility ‘How should I respond’ and I often lose Him in my arrogance with my expectation that I will comprehend an answer to the question ‘Why’?
I’ve come to accept that the ‘why’ question is beyond my job description. It belongs to the Creator and not the creation.
This poem has much to offer me about what to do with the suffering I encounter and perhaps will be of value to someone else.
Let me not live a life that’s free
From the things that draw me close to Thee—
For how can I ever hope to heal
The wounds of others I do not feel—
If my eyes are dry and I never weep,
How do I know when the hurt is deep—
If my heart is cold and it never bleeds,
How can I tell what my brother needs—
For when ears are deaf to the beggar’s plea
And we close our eyes and refuse to see,
And we steel our hearts and harden our mind,
And we count it a weakness whenever we’re kind,
We are no longer following The Father’s Way
Or seeking His guidance from day to day…
For, without “crosses to carry” and “burdens to bear,”
We dance through a life that is frothy and fair,
And “chasing the rainbow” we have no desire
For “roads that are rough” and “realms that are higher”—
So spare me no heartache or sorrow, dear Lord,
For the heart that is hurt reaps the richest reward,
And God enters the heart that is broken with sorrow
As he opens the door to a Brighter Tomorrow,
For only through tears can we recognize
The suffering that lies in another’s eyes.
– Author Unknown
Alan, thank you. Fr. George’s witness to Christ is a great blessing for us all.
Thank you for this post and keeping the discussion on track, Fr. Stephen. There is a lot of Mystery here, and we’re not even near the end in terms of how far this can go. I am quite surprised, actually, that such things as this are being discussed, even here on the open internet. Grace, for sure—and maybe it is necessary to bring these things to light now because we have so thoroughly rejected suffering as a people. But you are right about what you’ve said: there is something within suffering itself. There is a large danger in misconstruing that, but I think you’ve avoided the biggest—if not the biggest—trap by distinguishing between the perversion of suffering and suffering itself.
A lot of the comments feel like they’re trying to hedge around that, which is understandable because of the pain—even shame—of it all, but there is no getting around it. Talk of necessity is not, I think, the way to approach this; we’re way beyond that language here. We’re speaking of Actuality, of Reality. We are created in the image of Christ. And not Christ “generally”, if there is such thing—some well-groomed guy in the clouds with a white robe, a light step, and a large, anesthetized, Disneyland smile—but Christ Crucified. That means suffering is also not avoidable, an accident, or a plan B because of a mistake (the fall and sin), but part of the prototype of humanity. To avoid suffering is to reject what it means to be human at a fundamental level. But it goes deeper than that, though we can only bear a little more depth perhaps. Christ Is The Image Of The Father. Again, not Christ “generally” or “ideally”, but Christ Crucified. Christ Crucified Is The Revelation Of The Father Himself. That is bold and that is powerful and that is beyond scandalous (and it is no crass patrispassianism or anything that like that), but that is The Faith. And so I would go beyond what was said and say that true suffering is not only not evil, but positively good—it can be no other way, for evil does not create, as you have reiterated. And I would go yet one step further here, for this is important: suffering is a Divine attribute. Obviously we cannot speak of such suffering any more than we can speak of God’s love or mercy or anything else—it is completely beyond us—but it, too, is part of Who God Is, in an unchanging, utterly passionless, and pure way. God is not the author of evil, but He Is The Author Of Suffering, and simultaneously The Suffering God. That is tough and it sounds very bold phrased like that, but it is unavoidable. No hedging can get us away from that. But if we enter into it, if we bear it a little and gives thanks in the midst of it, Hell is transformed to Heaven before our eyes like the man who did get to sit on the right hand of Christ when He Came In Glory and we can enter enter The Joy Of The Resurrection, the resurrection which, far from erasing or denying what came before, bears the very marks of the Crucifixion and the death-destroying power *by death*.
We must admit the truth that, in this life, we are, to all intents and purposes, born into the process of dying. This type of suffering is not so much the suffering of love, but rather of ‘ripening’. We also have the torturous agonies accompanying life that essentially come from the experience of ‘not being with God’. Whether in its ‘individual guise’ (i.e.: one’s feeling of utter forsakenness in their desperation), or out of love ‘for another’ (for the sake of our neighbour going through the same forsakenness), this hell is not really bearable… Yet it is the same cup that Christ drank first, and He has provided us, with the ability to retain joy in this ‘hell’ to the measure we are united to Him. He forewarned us to take courage since He has already been victorious.
If the saints claim: “when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy” [James 1:2], this is because their sole objective in the experience of suffering is not to pray for it to pass, but to pray for God’s strength, for oneness-with-Him, to possess them, and prove it has possessed them through the ‘invincibility’ of their joy during suffering. Suffering is transformed according to the degree that our being, our existence, is: “communion with Christ –our joy and our life”. Man’s greatest problem is not suffering or death, it is the lack of meaning; whether in suffering or death or even in life…. And Man’s only Joy is God. Man’s only meaning is Christ. May the Lord grant us all this permanent crucificial-and-resurrectional joy.
while what you have written is true, I have a particular friend now (and have had others in the past) who is questioning the character of his faith as it relates to his profound lack of experience of joy in the midst of some really significant physical, emotional and relational suffering he has undergone, in the context of having devoted his life to God to the best of his ability and to the extent of his understanding, as a Protestant, of what that means. Now, you can say that he has some wrong understandings about this as a Protestant – which is true – but to say that “the ability to retain joy in this ‘hell’ to the measure we are united to Him” would be to add to his real despair over the lack of what he sees as any kind of experience of inner peace and joy from God in his life. He would just say, “Great – even according to the Orthodox Church – which my friend Dana finds so meaningful – I’m not united to Christ. So of what value at all is my faith and devotion? Why even keep on trying to be faithful to Christ?” Right now, he is hanging by the thread of “Lord, to whom else shall we go?” I am not going to tell him anything like what you expressed. I know your intentions are kind – and I have a heavy heart on my friend’s behalf right now, and I’m not going to make it heavier by adding that. May the Lord have mercy on us all. Forgive me.
You are correct that we cannot simply ‘bludgeon’ a sufferer with truths that might not be adopted rightly by them in their predicament. Even seminal figures of Saint Silouan’s stature would perhaps not be helped by the very truths they later uttered themselves, if nonchalantly hurled at them when they –in their inevitable self-absorption, exacerbated by their suffering of God’s providential ‘forsakenness’– were loosing heart. All we can do is show discerning, personally tailored yet heartfelt solidarity.
[Our personal conversation must always take on this bespoke tailoring of a 1-2-1 private lesson with a weak pupil, (where we’d be naturally concentrating perhaps on just cementing 5% of his knowledge) while the more ‘general word’ contrastingly requires the exposition of 100% of any topic. Compromising any of these two would however be a sad compromise for the listeners/learners.]
However, it is clear from what you said yourself [ie: ‘Right now, he is hanging by the thread of “Lord, to whom else shall we go?” ’], that he is seeking that closer unity to the Lord that he evidently knows –without anyone telling him this of course– is what brings meaning to the meaninglessness of suffering along with “the ability to retain joy in this ‘hell’…
Dana you wrote : “I have a particular friend now (and have had others in the past) who is questioning the character of his faith as it relates to his profound lack of experience of joy in the midst of some really significant physical, emotional and relational suffering he has undergone…”
What I am wondering if that word joy gets confused with a very American hallmark sentimentality and if the joy of suffering might take on a completely different quality more of ones love for the Lord, knowing that He suffered much more for us and thereby allowing the sufferer to rest in the peace of that Love.
Dee of St Herman’s,
Your February 21 response is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.
You give me strength.
“If the nature of God’s love can be in any sense positively shaped by sin, suffering, and death, then sin, suffering, and death will always be in some sense features of who he is. Among other things, this means that evil must enjoy a certain independent authenticity, a reality with which God must come to grips, and God’s love must—if it requires the negative pathos of history to bring it to fruition—be inherently deficient, and in itself a fundamentally reactive reality. Goodness then requires evil to be good; love must be goaded into being by pain. In brief, a God who can, in his nature as God, suffer cannot be the God who is love, even if at the end of the day he should prove to be loving, or the
God who is simply good, or who is the wellspring of being and life. He like us is an accommodation between death and life.”
-David Bentley Hart (No Shadow of Turning)
I’ve run your comments by a few friends frankly because I felt your argument was quite poetic, but despite it’s sentimentality I still found myself struggling deeply with what you were saying and it’s implications for our eschatology and what the Easter message is.
Hart goes onto say:
“The God whose identity subsists in time and is achieved upon history’s horizon—who is determined,
however “freely,” by his reaction to the pathos of history—may be a being, or indeed the totality of all beings gathered in the pure depths of total consciousness, but he is not being as such, he is not life
and truth and goodness and love and beauty. ”
It seems for Hart and even Chalcedon that suffering attributed to the Divine creates problems for Divine Impassibility and Christological formulations itself. That we can ascribe suffering to the humanity of Christ is one thing but that we can ascribe suffering to the Divine is something entirely different. As my friend Tom Belt has noted :
“I think we have to say there is in God a hypostatic, kenotic giving of oneself to the other which is essential to the fullness of divine personal existence and which is the grounds of all the contingencies of the Incarnation. But I don’t think that means in turn ascribing everything contingent about the Incarnation to God essentially. Suffering (not ‘evil’ – I don’t equate the suffering of ‘pain’ as evil) can be good as a means to an end. But as good ‘in itself’? Desirable as such? That’s the problem. God is the one ultimate good who is desirable as such. If we want to say suffering constitutes God’s being per se, then suffering is desirable as such, not as a means to any end, and that seems very problematic to imagine in God’s case. And if you agree God is undiminished beatitude, exactly what do we even mean in saying there is somewhere in God the suffering of some pain, some divine “Ouch!” Remember Chalcedon. The suffering of Christ is attributable to the ‘person’, not to the divine ‘nature’ as such.”
What I take away from your comments is not that Christ is the hope of rescue from a fallen world but rather He has become in Christ the truth of my pain.
God is not changed by suffering and death. God changes suffering and death. Hart dismisses a straw man, at least in terms of what I am saying. I offer these thoughts:
In Orthodoxy, Christ on the Cross is entitled, “The King of Glory.” Christ crucified is God glorified. It is so because it is the revelation of the glory of God – the glory that heals, that tramples down death by death, that restores all things to their right order.
Note that Christ does not destroy death except by death. This is like the doctrine of the Incarnation itself. In the Incarnation, Christ takes on our humanity, but our humanity is immediately deified. It is changed, united with His Divine Nature in the Hypostatic Union.
On the Cross, we can say, I think, that Christ “deifies death,” or that the death He dies is not the death that we know, but the destruction of the death we know. It is the transformation of death. God is not changed, but everything else is. And He does this, not in a manner external to His nature, but perfectly as His nature.
God is and always has been “meek and lowly.” This was not known until Christ made it known. But that meekness and lowliness is also Christ “doing what I see the Father doing.” We say, “God is longsuffering,” etc.
It seems to me that we cannot and should not separate God’s actions from His being. In the doctrine of the Divine Energies (which Hart almost always neglects), we say that God’s nature cannot be known, but that God can be known and participated in through His divine energies. Our modern mind immediately things of some sort of “force rays” or something when we say “energies.” But it is also just the word (in Greek) for His “actions.” God’s actions are not external to Him. They are His energies. When I act, it might be external to me, but God’s actions are not external to Him. He is His nature, but He is also His energies. To know God in His energies, by participation, is a true knowledge of the true God, not just derivative knowledge.
God is what He does. This is why I’m bothered about the economic/theological distinction. The West does not accept or use the doctrine of the Divine energies and cannot speak in this way.
I ponder the Cross – because it reveals God. I do not understand it (it is His Wisdom), but I know that it’s the right place to look.
That’s some thoughts…
Thanks for your charity and interaction. I am by no means a DBH scholar here and I can’t pretend to know the mind of such a man however I am not sure I agree with you concerning Hart’s neglect of the energies or “acts” of God as you put it.
“On the Cross, God’s love is an infinite act, and no passion can conquer it: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Hart goes on to explain Apatheia as Trinitarian love.
“God always is an infinite gesture of self-outpouring love, the Father’s entire gift of his being in the generation of the Son and the breathing forth of the Spirit. He is never a purity of essence withdrawn from every other, but is entirely the utter generosity and joy of self-giving. God’s is a life of real pleasure in the other, always already full of delight, fellowship, feasting, responsiveness, and love. In God’s acts, the Father inaugurates, the Son effects, and the Spirit perfects their one indivisible movement (though of course, in God this is not a successive or composite reality). Nothing can give increase to that fullness of community and joy, God enjoys a peace that is absolute, never needing to define itself over against death or violence. ”
“Apatheia, defined as infinitely active love, “feels” more than any affect could possibly impress upon a passive nature; it does not require our sin and death to show us “mercy”: God loved us when we were not, and by this very “mercy” called us into being. And this is the ground of our hope. ”
When I read Hart I see no issue or confusion of action or energies rather I see a poetic understanding of God’s actions towards us from eternity past. However what I think seems to be confused here is the impassibility of God for some in the incarnation of Christ and how the union of the two natures is easily confused (especially for me). The confusion of the two natures or at least that is what I am understanding Hart to say and why he reaches the philosophical conclusions that he does about suffering.
“The denial that the incarnation of Christ is a change in God’s nature is not a denial that is a real act of the living God, really coming to partake of our nature, nor certainly is it an attempt to evade the truth that, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The divine Person of the Logos has really, through his humanity, suffered every extreme of human dereliction and pain and has truly tasted of death. What the fathers were anxious to reject, however, was any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human – which would be to say God did not become human. A strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine “kenosis.”
It seems here we could say that the Son emptied himself of His glory while also preserving his immutability. There is a disproportion between a infinite and a finite beings which allows for the infinite to appropriate and accommodate the finite without ceasing to be infinite.
I think Hart agrees with you here concerning Kenosis too:
“the very action of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit.”
Hart further comments:
“Cyril, for whom the unity of Christ is so profound, and the union of natures so intimate, that we must speak of the communicatio idiomatum in the incarnate Word, if we are to be true to the gospel, still — perfectly consistently with this Christology — asserts that “According to his own nature, (Christ) suffers absolutely nothing; as God he subsists incorporeally, and is entirely beyond suffering.” (Cyril)
I think where I find disagreement if I understand you correctly is the importation of the suffering of Christ’ humanity into God nature and essence. Can we move in a straight line from ‘whatever we see in Jesus’ to ‘what God is essentially’?
What are we supposed to do with Paul’s statement that God is, say, “invisible”? That’s a pretty categorical affirmation of God’s immateriality. But Jesus is a physical-material person – essentially so too. All human being is essentially material. And it’s certainly not obvious from looking at Jesus that God is essentially invisible.
My friend Brian comments :
“The Cross tells a TRUE story. It doesn’t tell the WHOLE story (in the sense that it makes obvious in purely human, finite, material terms the whole truth of God). Particularly, it wouldn’t follow from God’s suffering on the Cross that suffering defines God ‘essentially’ and is thus an inherent good.”
I do not mean to import the event of Christ’s suffering into the Godhead (other than what can be understood in the communicatio idiomatum). Rather, I am saying that the kenosis is not an event so much as a revelation of who God is. I think Hart agrees with that. I do not think we could rightly know God apart from the Cross – it does not reach back and define Him – but in it – He defines Himself. I do not say that God changes – I have said that He changes other things. God changes death. God changes suffering, etc. But how He does all such things (kenotically) is consistent with and reveals who He is.
It seems that while Fr. Stephen and many others have done a good job of painting a picture of the true place of suffering in our lives, there still places on the canvas waiting to be daubed with color. So I’ll venture a few brushstrokes:
1. I suggest that the way were made to be by nature actually causes us pain when we are faithful to them in this life. One is example is that we were made to love. Anyone who is old enough to read this blog knows that the art of loving is filled with pain, even when everyone involved intends no harm. Never the less we were made to love.
In a human scenario love and hate would just fight back and forth and we could do nothing more than hope that love wins out. But God in His genius plunges right through the enemy and explodes it from the inside out. In this case He has made love in such a way that it not only confronts hate but invades it such that love utterly destroys it.
2. Any hope we have of understanding the place of suffering comes not from the intellect but from the heart – and not from that case we heard about that made us sick, but from the suffering we ourselves bear. It is a mistake to look at all the victims of suffering “out there” and try to wrap our rationale minds around it, anxious to fix it, to make a judgement. The only way we can truly deal with these things is one-on-one face-to-face.
3. To voluntarily suffer can bring redemption, healing, revelation, so many good thing. To inflict voluntarily suffering is evil. Just as with shame, it must be entered willingly and not thrust upon someone.
hope this is helpful, drewster
As opposed to saying “God changes suffering or death” would you be comfortable with stating it as God “reveals” to us what suffering and death really are and their place in the cosmos? I think in many ways you and I are in complete agreement and forgive me for where I may have misrepresented you or misunderstood you.
If not reveals can you explain why or why not?
I just listened to your audio podcast “The Marriage of Love and Hate” and couldn’t help but recognize that you address suffering. You seem to make a theological claim about suffering as essentially embedded into the cosmos from the beginning by your analogy of the “tree of knowledge”. A fast in the beginning so to speak ( I like that)
Would you agree that in the reception of the first chapters of Genesis by the tradition, that the majority of Christian exegetes take considerable creative liberties with the Scriptural text then reading back into that account? How would you compare St. Augustine’s Theodicy to say St. Maximos? Do you find yourself identifying with both or with one as opposed to the other?
Augustine according to scholars saw no primoridal innocence or perfection how in your mind does that differ from the Orthodox understanding of a “primordial catastrophe”?
First, I take it as problematic when we think about these things in purely historical terms. In that sense, we want the proper sequence of cause and effect. That also creates a sort of historical necessity that is problematic. That Maximos can suggest a near simultaneous creation/fall means that on some level, theological/mystical contemplation triumphs over the letter and certainly over a purely historical treatment of the early chapters of Genesis.
I’ve tangled with a few Orthodox who trot out reams of patristic quotations to prove a historical reading of Genesis. But the fact that such treatments as this by Maximos even exists and is not roundly condemned, means to me, that whatever this or that one might have thought about Genesis, they were not literalists in our modern sense. They clearly think that the truth of Genesis is hidden beneath the letter.
I’m not familiar enough with Augustine to answer the comparative question.
When I think about these things (Genesis, beginnings, etc.) I bracket historical questions because I think we cannot know them, and I think reason (cause/effect/sequence, etc.) is pretty useless in this regard.
But I take Genesis as Scripture, and thus authoritative, particularly when read in a Christological manner. And that’s the point.
My own treatment of the Cross that you mentioned is indeed that it’s there from the beginning, and that we may even speak of a kind of “unfallen suffering.” Evil has no existence in and of itself – it is utterly derivative. The painful, sorrowful suffering that we see in our world of futility is a distorted image of the right and proper “unfallen suffering” (at least in some instances).
The “not” that exists in the Garden is a form of this unfallen suffering. It must be voluntary. It does not destroy or hurt, but actually creates and expands (it is necessary for the fullness of personhood). I do not think the Cross is an afterthought, just a rescue operation. It was always present (the Trees in the Garden). What the Cross would have looked like in an unfallen scenario is not something we can know or imagine – but it was always there.
The death Christ dies, by which He tramples down death, is not the same death that we die apart from Him. His death is a “deathless death.” It is a life-giving death. It is the abolition of death. And so on.
this last comment of yours deserves a full article I think. It is quite a profound angle to point out (the unfallen one I mean) regarding suffering… We also see glimpses of this in the miraculous “love of suffering for love” of the martyrs
I also look forward to such article by Father Stephen, thank you for asking him.
But based on personal experience, I think even in the unfallen world there would have been suffering as soon as children came into the picture…. Maybe not right away, but by the time they grew into adults, their parents would be suffering as a result of allowing them their full freedom… Just my two cents (personal experience inspired) on “unfallen suffering” 🙂
Sorry to parse and nit-pick, getting somewhat theological here Agata, but as few things are easier than conflating our personal experiences with these theological-anthropological notions discussed here, and squander clarity along the way, I have to do it:
Our own suffering (as parents) for our children’s unnerving practice of their free self-determination is unquestionably founded on man’s falleness (and in more ways than one); even in the rare case that we somehow were saintly parents, this suffering would still be analogous to the “pain” of the angels when they see us falling, sinning and remaining unrepentant.
The “not” that exists in the Garden and discussed above, however, is a different form of suffering, it’s founded on both Man’s “unfalleness” as well as his primordial “imperfection”, and it implies the effort of voluntary growth into freely kenotic self-determination -as a creature- in the image and likeness of a crucifically/kenotically loving God.
In most of human suffering however in the way you depicted just above, the basic intensifier is our time-bound and consequently short-sighted point-of-view which certainly tends to disregard God’s ultimate providential plan that it cannot now see, and robs us of finding meaning in our suffering (whether for another or not). Faith is our greatest friend here.
Incredible answers!I agree with everything you have said. “Evil is groundless, because it was not created for some purpose, it therefore lacks natural definition. For it has no logos to interpret what it is, and hence of necessity it is not in accordance with nature. If then it is contrary to nature, it will not have any logos (rationale) in nature, just as artless construction has no logos (rationale) in art.”
This resonates with my experience of evil; it is senseless and awful, and destructive precisely for that reason. This does not “get God off the hook,” beyond saying that He is not the creator of evil, but it does explain why theodicies ought to be avoided. For, in the end, they become cruel attempts to gloss over the existential reality of people’s suffering with abstract syllogisms that cannot speak to the core of their suffering.
If I am understanding you correctly I think we agree on suffering’s unintelligible purpose in our life. I think this is what DBH and those who resonate with him agree on and to this I think DBH is faithful to the Orthodox Tradition. To your concept of “unfallen suffering” I think this is an excellent point. If we take the scriptures, and tradition seriously and simply reflect on our Christian lives this can’t be avoided. I’ve not heard it in such terms and when the topic of suffering is addressed this element is not something I’ve really heard anyone speak of directly. I wonder however if suffering is the proper word we should use here and if it doesn’t create more confusion than clarity, and more argument than agreement. Perhaps we should speak of subordination instead? I think we can speak of subordination as part of our human and divine being without using terminology such as “suffering” and be faithful to the scriptures and the tradition as a whole.
The Son is co-equal with the Father, yet the Son is obedient to the Father. A thing so sweetly known in many relations of human love is, beyond imagination, present in the midmost secrets of heaven. For the Son in his eternal Now desires subordination, and it is his. He wills to be so; he co-inheres obediently and filially in the Father, as the Father authoritatively and paternally co-inheres in him. And the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together—and coequal. Perhaps this is the “unfallen suffering” you refer to? If so maybe we should say that obedience to the Father is embedded into an unfallen cosmos and is in fact divine. Your usage of suffering maybe why I’ve misunderstood or on so many occasions we have talked past one another in this thread.
At the end of the day the problem I have with open theism and the related field of modern kenotic theology is it seems to me like these theologies start with the problem of evil and build their doctrine of God on top of it. Yet, if evil is something so outside of the good order of things, so incoherent, then building our understanding of God on it is problematic. Of course, this does leave open the very important question of how to deal with pre-human suffering in the natural world. I don’t know what to do with this.
I have no problem with philosophical speculation when the Scriptures or Tradition are silent on an issue, but when it actively seems to speak against a certain kind of answer I do see a problem
*A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity by Nikolaos Loudovikos, (Brookline,MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2010), 276. 70.
I’ve not seen anyone else use the term “unfallen suffering,” either. But it works for me. Yes, subordination could be used (as could “kenosis”), and so could the term “love” (the best of all). The difficulty with the other terms, as correct and excellent as they are, is their weakness in expressing the same idea…that suffering as we know it in this life, is a distortion of something good.
The difficulty (and it seems you come close to this) in understanding evil as “nothing” and “senseless” is to attribute to it “something” and to use its “senselessness” as its logos. This is not so. The logos of the devil is the same as the logos of any other angel. And all of the senselessness that we call suffering, is only senseless in that it moves away from its logos and does not do what it should (or what the motions or forces within it should).
This, I think, more rightly states the consequence of creation ex nihilo. It also means that as much as we might hate suffering – we can see, even there, something that was distorted.
And, more importantly, it allows a way to speak of the kenosis in the Godhead that, in history, is manifest as the Cross, without needing to give “evil” a role in creating the Cross.
Fr Stephen, Thank you so much for your responses to Christian. And thank you Christian for your questions. I’ve have gained so much from your conversation. This understanding you provide here about suffering, Fr Stephen, is so amazing and helpful. I’m still needing to contemplate this further, to hold it in my heart and live it. I’m very grateful.
For those of you following the conversation here is a link to another conversation on Suffering. I’ve brought some of the comments made here and transferred them to the other blog. Hope it’s helpful and would love to see Fr. Stephen join in on the conversation. Father we definitely need an article on Unfallen Suffering. Such a catchy title won’t be ignored I assure you.
The pastor at my husband’s Evangelical church has been preaching a series from Jeremiah. This morning’s topic was suffering. He did a pretty good job I think. Two things I heard him say:
1) Suffering often becomes unbearable for those who have a “quid pro quo” moralistic understanding of the nature of God’s dealings with us. Therefore, an experience of the suffering common to all is improperly understood as “Why is God punishing me?” And the temptation is to despair.
2) The meaning of the Cross is that God’s answer to our suffering is to enter into the very depths of our suffering in complete solidarity with us in Christ.
Is it correct to say that Christ is the fruit of the Tree of Life?
I wonder this because Jesus is the Bread of Eternal Life Who hung on the tree of the Cross.
I believe what follows is more or less just thinking out loud. But I continue in my thoughts to try to understand this conversation about suffering. You eloquently wrote:
“The “not” that exists in the Garden is a form of this unfallen suffering. It must be voluntary. It does not destroy or hurt, but actually creates and expands (it is necessary for the fullness of personhood). I do not think the Cross is an afterthought, just a rescue operation. It was always present (the Trees in the Garden). What the Cross would have looked like in an unfallen scenario is not something we can know or imagine – but it was always there.”
I find this comforting. And yet oddly, I don’t quite understand why I find comfort in this description. I really appreciate the vision of the Cross as a Tree in the Garden as existing before the fall. Do I understand you correctly, there are writings of the Fathers, such as St. Maximus where this understanding is implied?
And then you write:
“The painful, sorrowful suffering that we see in our world of futility is a distorted image of the right and proper “unfallen suffering” (at least in some instances).”
In this life, after the fall, it seems suffering is typically experienced in the distorted form, it is involuntary and painful. It is resisted, it seems, because we want, or attempt to resist the “source of the suffering”, such as an event (pain, illness, death, violence, or memory) that we don’t want to happen. And then the attempt to manage, avoid or mitigate the suffering experience, can be itself, a cause of suffering as well.
On reflecting on these things, I have a few more questions: Christ’s death changed death. Has His suffering changed suffering? Is to be like Christ to suffering differently and to accept it voluntarily? (‘Take up the Cross’) (and Reflecting on the movie, “I Bless my Prison” in this case). I attempt to integrate this thought with the words “My yoke is light”.
As I try to understand what happens in the experience of the Saints who became martyrs, it almost seems as though their suffering doesn’t happen. Or that by embracing their suffering with love, the experience is very dramatically changed. So I’m left with the question, what happens in this experience of forced pain for these Saints? It seems as though the pain is not suffered in a kind of spiritually induced anesthesia or in a miraculous form of disruption of the distorted form of suffering. Is this impression mistaken?
There is much to contemplate here but understanding is difficult (I’ve got weakness toward concrete materiality) and embracing a lack of understanding is equally difficult. I seem to return to these questions because I have strong doubts about myself, about whether or not I have the stamina to be a martyr for Christ, or for the faith. Perhaps with God’s grace, it might be possible, but God’s grace would have to overcome the weakness of faith, and “faintness of heart” that I have.