The Senselessness of Suffering and Death

I recently posted a note on social media in which I said that Christ’s death and resurrection changed the “senseless” character of death. Therefore, Christians need no longer fear it. I got a bit of push-back.

What is senseless about suffering and death?

There are two aspects of suffering and death that are particularly felt to be senseless. The first is suffering that seems to have no purpose: the death of a child quickly comes to mind. The second is death itself: regardless of what we do in this life, we come to an end and pass back into dust. This latter thought is presented in a very stark manner in both the book of Job and Ecclesiastes. The brevity of our existence has always been seen as a challenge to any transcendent meaning. Purpose is swallowed up by meaninglessness.

I am certain that some of the push-back I received was a reaction to so much of popular Christianity that tries to put a happy face on everything in the world. Such glib and shallow treatments of suffering deserve the scorn they receive. On the other hand, no reader of this blog has ever accused me of treating suffering and death lightly. Indeed, in the past year, my writing was described as full of “existential despair.” I certainly hope it is.

The Scriptures, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, do not shy away from the abyss of meaningless suffering. Isaiah states something of the paradox that confronts believers:

The Voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is as grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:6-8)

The meaninglessness of our passing existence is brought into contrast with the transcendent reality of God. The great paradox for believers is the question of what one of these has to do with the other. Is the transcendence of God nothing more than a mockery of what we are? Does His exemption from suffering and death do nothing more than increase our misery? Those who approach this mystery in that manner (for whom the transcendence of God usually stands for nothing more than an idea) understandably rail at Christians for our easy pronouncements regarding suffering and death.

This is made all the more problematic by various forms of Christianity that marginalize suffering and death. They are treated like punishments, a suffering that we deserve. The Christian life becomes a moral exercise and an arena where religious belief alone brings a lasting reward. Sometimes, we deserve to be mocked.

But this is not classical Christianity: it is a cheapened version reducing the faith to a postcard and making it a subset of the American Dream.

The problem of suffering and death, the absence of transcendent meaning and existence, are at the true heart of the Christian faith in its classical form. Christianity, properly understood and taught, does not treat suffering and death as problems within something else – they are seen as the very problem itself of our existence and the heart of the Christian gospel. …

Among the most primitive proclamations of the faith is:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Christ is not seen as dying in order to pay a sin debt. Death and sin are synonymous. When the Orthodox say, “sin,” we mean “death,” and all that it entails.

We proclaim that Christ has “trampled down death by death.” This could be restated as “Christ has trampled down senseless suffering and death by senseless suffering and death.” We do not deny that suffering and death are senseless – indeed, that is an inherent part of the problem. Our teaching is that God, in Christ, has Himself become the complete senselessness of suffering and death, such that He has filled them with Himself (cf. 2Cor. 5:21). Suffering and death no longer stand as an absurd triumph over existence, but are now themselves filled with existence.

This is something we say, not by looking at suffering and death. If we look directly at them, we see only suffering and death with all of their senselessness. But we confess our faith by looking at the resurrection of Christ. That event alone is the single evidence of Sense trampling down senselessness, of death trampling down death.

In the resurrection of Christ these things have been abolished – though, that truth is only seen from within. And it is at that point that our conversations come to a stop. I cannot argue with anyone who beholds suffering in this world and declares it to be “senseless.” Of course, it is. And there is nothing whatsoever within that suffering that makes it otherwise.

Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words “heaven” and “hell” has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.

Christ’s resurrection is not an argument: it is a reality. As such it does not serve as a logical solution to the absurd nature of suffering and death. It is only in union with that reality that we can see within suffering and death anything other than complete meaninglessness. This, however, is the very proclamation of the Christian faith. Christ is risen, trampling down meaninglessness by meaninglessness, filling it with Himself, such that this meaninglessness itself is undone and becomes meaning itself.

Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.




  1. Father,
    Another article I’ll reread.
    As you know, I spoke at a funeral yesterday. I tried to infuse my words with hope. I think it was a sober reflection on my brother’s in law life and hopefully a testament to our faith. The separation death brings is always hard to bear. You note that much of modern Christianity deals quite shallowly and blithely with death. I am not exaggerating the following. My uncle was a godly man. However, at the behest of his children, the ending of his evangelical funeral was like a circus event…people singing a raucous chorus, standing, clapping, smiling, almost more than I could bear. Thank you for your sobering, serious thoughts on death and suffering.

  2. Fascinating post, but what if we can’t yet see reality the way you’ve described? I’ve often been frustrated to hear Heaven/the Rapture/the Resurrection as an excuse to forget current problems (i.e., climate change, racial conflict, poverty… WAR). I don’t know what to believe about heaven or, if it even exists, that I’ll make it there. I want to know how to understand/alleviate my suffering, the suffering of the mentally ill folks I work with every day, and the suffering of their families…

  3. Father,
    I am not sure if I grasp what you are saying. This piece is a tough read for me. Given that our temporal existence [what we call our lives] is filled with meaningless suffering and death, does that mean our temporal existence is meaningless as well? Am I to conclude that our human existence is therefore pointless? If our human existence is meaningless, why were we brought into being on earth at all? Is it to endure our meaninglessness lives as a mere prelude to physical death?

  4. Chris,
    To a certain extent, the Orthodox faith would say that Hell is the primary location for the preaching of the gospel. In the stories we tell surrounding Pascha, we include first, the descent of St. John the Baptist into hell to proclaim there the coming of Christ. And, of course, it is Christ’s descent into hell, preaching and setting at liberty those who are held captive that is the very center focus of the proclamation on the night of Holy Pascha. Christ is risen! is first shouted in Hell. It is the true place where the victory begins.

    Extending that (reading backwards), it begins to reveal that Christ’s entire ministry on earth was always a Descent into Hell. It was to the poor, the sick, the halt, the blind, those bound in every possible way (including by demons) that he specifically came. And wherever He was, it became Paradise.

    If Paradise is not proclaimed in the very darkest part of Hell, then it is not worth proclaiming at all…Hell would always threaten to contradict its value.

    This is the great mystery “hidden from before the ages” as St. Paul says. This is the mystery of Christ crucified. I’ll admit, that it sounds quite mystical to say that this is the only true way to know Christ…but that is the clear teaching of the Scriptures.

    As an Orthodox Christian, I would urge you to get an Orthodox icon of the resurrection (which pictures Christ in hell, trampling down death, and taking Adam and Eve by the hand). Read the sermon of St. John Chrysostom. Sit before the icon and listen. Do that for a time each day. It will reveal itself to you in time.

  5. Paul, in and of itself, our temporal existence would indeed be pointless and meaningless. That is very much the point of Ecclesiastes. The Scripture does not wince when it observes this. And it is only when we see this that we can begin to understand Christ’s death and resurrection. His death and resurrection transforms this temporal existence. My temporal existence, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, are full of meaning and hope, of the sweetness of paradise. And not because, from time to time, they are pleasant enough to make me forget the suffering and death that awaits me.

    Read the Akathist Hymn, Glory to God for All things. These words were written and copied within the experience of the Soviet Gulag. They are a true revelation of the transforming reality of Christ’s Pascha. We do not know life until we know death. It is only revealed to us in that context. As we avoid death and suffering and pretend that our life is something other than that, we are delusional. Those who think they have life are dead. Only those who go ahead and “lose” their lives now (in Christ) are truly alive. That’s pretty much the message of the gospel.

  6. Indeed, The Resurrection is the reality. Only a fully incarnate God can ressurect.
    He fills all things with life.

  7. Father,
    I’m not Orthodox; I’m Catholic, so even though I follow your blog, I guess I don’t quite understand Orthodox belief. I believe in the “resurrection of the flesh and the life of the world to come.” I believe in the new heaven and new earth, not as metaphor, but as reality – much as N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis have also written. What you describe here doesn’t sound like the Christianity I understand. What is the Gospel we tell then, if it is not the overcoming of death – actual overcoming, not just a Buddhist-like reconciliation with it and finding peace in the now? Why would Christ have to die to accomplish that? And to think of all the people who have died and will die, believing that death is not the final end. It’s like a trick. It reminds me of the old movie, Logan’s Run, in which, when people turned thirty, they got a fake chance to ascend to new life, but actually all of them were being killed. There was no new life.

  8. “Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.”

    Now you say that, but if the font is sufficiently small…

    There is so much treasure in your post that it could warrant a book about Resurrection and the true meaning of Heaven its own right. I find that I can hardly ever repeat with conviction what you describe so well. It serves as a humbling reminder that one should only speak about matters one knows. And remain silent on others. My children would be spared so much confusion 🙂

  9. Cynthia,

    Perhaps I have been unclear in what I have written. I am certainly speaking of a new heaven and a new earth, not metaphorical but real. I thought I was quite clear that Christ “tramples down death by death.” Christ’s coming out of the tomb is no metaphor. Neither is His entering into hell. We can, however, metaphorically extend to describe our fallen existence – indeed, it is more than metaphor. A world where children suffer and die horrible deaths is indeed a manifestation of hell and the reign of death. And Christ defeats that.

    However, He doesn’t defeat it by waving a wand and making it disappear. He defeats it by actually dying. He truly enters death and hell and destroys them. But that destruction is a transformation so that now, our own death (as does our life) participates in His death and tramples down death as well. And we will be resurrected and live in the “new heaven and the new earth.” Nothing Buddhist about that.

    Read Romans 6. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that as many of as are Baptized, are Baptized into His death?” Christ doesn’t die “instead” of us…we still die. But “if we die with Him” (in Baptism) we shall also live with Him (trampling down death by death, including death in its most literal form). Most Christians leave Christ’s descent into hell out of their thinking. In Orthodoxy we do not. It is quite central in the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection. The implications of that are essential in the faith – certainly within the Eastern fathers.

    I’m actually baffled by what you have written – wondering how you got that from what I wrote. But, again, I must have been less than clear.

  10. Thank you for your post, Father. I quite love what you have written. Personally, I see Christ as the greatest witness (“martyr”); He’s also the Judge. But His death on the Cross is the ultimate witness against death and the evil one. He is, after all, the truly innocent One. Thus, death is defeated within the eschatological framework of the age, and His death and suffering have meaning for all the world. He gives us something in which to participate in our own ways.

    You wrote:
    “Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.” I write to request that you please elaborate (“go deeper”) on heaven and hell in future posts! Thank you again.

    Yours sincerely,

  11. Cynthia, if I may. Perhaps you have a perspective that is a bit too linear? Christ’s entry into His Creation is total and includes the Ressurection. In a sense it all happens at once but it is hard to describe since it is beyond what we normally experience. It is extrodinarily dynamic. All things are made new in a deeply intimate and personal way yet interconnected and intertwined to everything else at the same time. It is absolutely nothing like Buddhism but it has been seriously attenuated in most of the Christian world.
    Fr. Stephen describes it as a one story universe.

  12. Fr. Stephen,

    I am having a bit a difficulty with this post – not because I think you are incorrect but because of something that seems missing. I am quite sure that it is not missing from your faith but its omission here serves as a distraction – to my way of thinking.

    The death of Jesus in and of itself did not trample down death. Death is not what saves us.

    It is His love that saves us.

    Christ did not need to enter death for two reasons: 1. He never sinned. 2. He was true God as well as true man.

    Hence, He did not stand to gain anything personally by entering into our plight (death, separation from God). His emptying of Himself was completely voluntarily and for no other reason than love.

    It was not simply that He was captured and executed. He gave Himself up BEFORE He was arrested. The Eucharist is our evidence of this truth.

    We are saved because He “undid” the sin of Adam in His death – for His voluntary death was the most perfect, humble and loving act possible for a human being. He gave up His human life, His dignity, His own will, completely out of love.

    And He did not do this for just one person or those who followed Him but for all people, even (or perhaps especially) for the greatest of sinners, the most lost of the lost.

    Death could not hold Him captive – it has no more power over Him. Though His physical death was very real, His resurrection shows us that His love is stronger than death and opens the way to a glorious New Life. (He did not glorify Himself, of course. Rather He was glorified by the Father.)

    We are invited to follow Him into the New Life. And following Him means embracing the Cross as He did. We will suffer and we will die the bodily death but, with Him, we need not be afraid.

    We may well have transient human fears and sorrows, as He did, but we now know them for what they are. Following Him, we bear them humbly and rejoice in being able to love with Him.

    We cannot be part of this love through any goodness of our own. But when we say “yes” to His invitation to follow, He will lead us where we need to go and instruct us with His Spirit.

    (Of course, you already know all of this. I simply needed to write it once again.)

  13. Mary, please forgive me as I attempt an answer to a part of your question. As a long time reader, you likely know I am an infant in the faith and because of that, I hesitate to write in repose to your question. I’m hoping that my answer will be corrected as needed.

    I believe Father writes correctly the Orthodox understanding that it is Christ’s death that tramples down death. If I may say, in other words, Christ’s death transforms the ‘ontological reality’ of death. Christ enters into death fully human and fully God. Christ enters into death as he entered life, as Love and God incarnate and as a human being . Yet He is Life. This Life entering death transforms it. Death is corruption and destruction of our mortal life to non-existence, and ‘logically’ cannot contain Life. There is a paradox but a reality that death is no longer what it was. I’ll stop at this point only because there is a lot more in the words that are spoken in the tradition and my own words are inadequate.

  14. I’m stuck on my usage of the word logically and feel that it is better to say ‘ontologically’ again, and yet this word seems to be inadequate also.

  15. Mary,
    I understand wanting to make love primary. I think, however, what I have written handles what the Scriptures and the Tradition actually say and emphasize. No treatment should minimize death. Death and sin are synonymous for the Orthodox. It is death into which we fall from the Garden. Etc.

  16. Father am I correct to say that unless He entered fully into death, voluntarily and without necessity, the Ressurection would not be complete either. That, it seems, is what was happening in the Garden. That also is part of the death of Lazarus as well-Christ’s grief at Lazurus’ death it seems to me.

  17. Perhaps I need to clarify what I meant…I was not intending to contradict but to elaborate.

    If Jesus, the human being, had merely been captured and executed, His death “in and of itself” would not have led to our salvation. He needed to be both God and man. His entering into death needed to be voluntary and not motivated by self-interest (e.g. “let’s see what they say after I rise from the dead!”). And it needed to be a *love unto death*.

    Hence, death is not minimized in the least – it is absolutely essential. But it is only in this perfect act of love by the God-man that Life enters death and changes the ontological reality of death. Otherwise it would be just another death of a human being.

    My (unnecessary) post was intended as more of a reflection than a source of information – as I am assuming that Fr. Stephen and the readers already know these things about Jesus. Please forgive me if my ramblings detracted from the discussion.

  18. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
    Mary, first, I don’t see your comments as unnecessary nor distracting. I do, though, wonder if “love” is primary in your thoughts on Christ’s death, as Father said.
    You say :
    “The death of Jesus in and of itself did not trample down death. Death is not what saves us. It is His love that saves us.”
    I quoted that verse from 1Cor. as that came to mind…the point being if Christ had not died, trampling down death by His death, and Risen from the dead, then as Paul states, our faith is futile and we’re still in our sins. In other words, His death is a saving act. It is confusing to me when you attempt to separate Christ’s death with His love and say it is His love that saves. His love encompasses every single fiber of His being, every act He does. In an effort to prove your point that His love is what saves, you say it is not death in and of itself that saves, including His death. Christ’s death, and only His death, does indeed save, His death in and of itself, because no one else has ever, and will ever, do such a thing. His love is inseparable from His death, and His death saves. And we die to our old selves and enter into His death…a death that saves.
    So forgive me Mary, as I too am not the most eloquent in the bunch here…I am only sharing my thoughts. And I sincerely have always welcomed your comments here on this blog. I appreciate the differences in our thoughts and learn much from them.

  19. Thank you very much, sir. I am not a believer, but this holds my attention, and sets a challenge that most contemporary versions of Christianity do not.

  20. EPG,
    If most contemporary versions of Christianity were actually what Christianity taught, I would not be a believer, either. They are terrible distortions in many ways. What I have shared is, essentially, the classical teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith (Eastern Orthodox). It is the oldest form of Christianity, and the second largest group of Christians in the world, but is not very well represented in the West.

  21. Paula,

    Thanks for your kind words. Probably most of my comments do not need to be made…I read the post and find myself writing a comment, even when I didn’t intend to.

    Certainly Christ’s death tramples down death. I am absolutely not disputing that. But this is true because it is CHRIST’S death.

    I agree with what Fr. Stephen wrote: “Death and sin are synonymous…” (for this Catholic as well as for the Orthodox).

    If a reader did not understand the context and simply read that Christ “trampled down death with death”, they might well be puzzled. How can death destroy death? Can sin destroy sin? (The latter we know is not the case – people have been committing sins for centuries in an effort to destroy other people’s sins. We call it war.)

    My reflection was simply one way in which I understand HOW Christ’s death tramples down death.

    I am not attempting to separate Christ’s love from His death. I am trying to separate His death from all other deaths. (Which is my reason for noting what I understand to be the central aspects of His death that makes it uniquely redemptive: that He entered it, voluntarily and humbly, as both God and Man, and with perfect love.)

    If we see death and sin as synonymous, would we say that Christ trampled down sin with sin? If we say it this way, it sounds as though we are saying that it is sin that has the power to save. This, of course, is absurd. Jesus did not sin and thereby save us; He BECAME sin and set us free.

    How His death saves us, what it means that He became sin – are for me essential mysteries of our faith that are often difficult for us to comprehend, let alone explain to nonbelievers. For this reason I reflect on them and share the reflections, striving to deepen my understanding as I write.

    (Note that I am not shouting when I use all caps – I don’t know how to create italics or bold font when adding emphasis.)

  22. Fr. Stephen,

    A question: I recently heard someone teach that it would have been impossible for Jesus to sin because He was God. I found that teaching disturbing – as it suggests that Jesus was not truly human and that the temptations He was subjected to were no struggle for Him.

    While in the eternal Now of Christ’s divinity it was already known that He would not sin, it seems to me that He could not have known this and still be “true man”. Yet some teach that, in His humanity, Christ never ceased having access to all of the Father’s knowledge.

    I would appreciate if you could shed any light on what the Church teaches in this regard – if the question is not too tangential. Thanks.

  23. If you can’t get your wisdom on to a bumper sticker, you need to get a bigger pickup truck! I believe that is in Hezekiah 14:16.
    Good thoughts.
    I think you need to write some more elucidation on this, because it is so counterintuitive to many streams of contemporary thought or lack of thought.
    The way I see the problematic thinking/theology most commonly expressed these days, often by Christians, is “Everything happens for a reason.”
    My bet is that 90 percent of American Christians would say that motto is true. I suppose it’s kind of a vestige of Calvinistic teaching? I’m pretty sure it’s far from true. A in John Piper’s teaching that Jesus sends tornadoes to kill babies in the Midwest for some heavenly reason.
    Perhaps you could explain why it isn’t true. (Or am I barking up the wrong bumper?)
    At the regular contract price we have with you!

  24. Fr. Freeman
    One of the more dubious “gifts” of the modern world has been the coverage of worldwide suffering . I can only imagine that the suffering of the ancient world was enough. Whether by war or pestilence or oppression, suffering was confined to localized areas. That doesn’t by any means reduce the effect on those who actually suffered, but modern technology has introduced us to a virtual sea of sufferings the magnitude of which threatens to be overwhelming.

    I admit that I seem to live a sort of practical detachment. I am not a “great soul”. I watch the news fitfully somewhat like one addicted to something that does him harm. In the light of mass suffering, I see in myself both a temptation to coldness one the one hand and despair on the other. I am too small to think globally. It is difficult enough for a soul like mine to be a follower of Jesus locally.

    As I thought about what you wrote, besides feeling like a man who brings a dinner knife to a fencing match, I wondered if there is a distinction between “senseless” and the idea of “needless” suffering. Furthermore, I wondered if it isn’t the thought that suffering is needless that generates the “push back” you experienced.

    I once proposed to a friend that to be disillusioned is actually a good thing, but that is not to say that it comes about without pain. I believe that the words of Job and Ecclesiastes are true, but they are not the ones that get me out of bed and propel me to work in the morning. And neither, by the way do bumper stickers.

  25. Tim,
    “Everything happens for a reason,” is well-meant, and means to preserve an understanding that God is good. Probably the most problematic thing we can say about suffering is that it is for our good or that it has a good intention behind it. That is particularly true when we see the suffering of the innocent.

    Much of these problems is rooted in a cause-and-effect linear account of life when we speak of God. I wrote in a recent article about the understanding of the cause being located at the end of things. It is a more careful way of speaking, rooted in Scripture and particularly a number of the Fathers (Maximus, Nyssa).

    The end of things is described in Ephesians 1: that God is drawing all things together in one, in Christ Jesus. The end is our true good.

    It is a way of saying that despite the things that happen, God’s purpose for us is constant, drawing us past and through whatever happens towards the good. It does not say that God causes these terrible things to happen in order to create a greater good.

    The mystery, it seems to me, is in the paradox of a free creation and the will of a good God. The Cross, God’s voluntary suffering, represents His own entrance into history and participation in our suffering. That participation reflects His redeeming – His draw us towards the good despite the suffering.

    What I am suggesting in the article, is, for all intents and purposes, a recognition that we can knowingly participate in the end – now. That is something of a “mystical” reality, something that is hidden and not seen from the outside.

    Often, the contemporary use of glib statements are little more than efforts to shield ourselves from the psychological trauma of the suffering around us, an attempt to put a happy face on things. America does not suffer well. Our culture is exceedingly shallow, driven by pleasure and consumption. We do not have a depth of soul. Indeed, because of our peculiar history (coterminous with the modern project) we may well be the most shallow culture ever to grace the surface of the planet.

  26. (Note that I am not shouting when I use all caps – I don’t know how to create italics or bold font when adding emphasis.)

    Mary Benton.
    For italics (couch your statement/word between):

    For bold (couch your statement/word between):

    Hopefully, this comes through correctly!

  27. Byron, I’ll give it a try:

    Mary, to put a word in italics, put a put the carats and the i together without spaces. Then type the word(s). After the word(s), type a < followed by / followed by i followed by <

    To bold something, do the same thing, only use a b instead of an i.

  28. Mary,
    Oh I am glad you responded! Now I better understand your train of thought!
    As for questionable comments, I often think the same of mine, as the thoughts in my mind do not easily go onto “paper”. And because of that, they get lengthy. Mercy! Yet when I read the responses of all of us here, there is not one that doesn’t cause me to think. As Father has said, the blog wouldn’t be the same without the comments (said something like that!).
    So, ok…you say “Christ’s death tramples down death…this is true because it is CHRIST’S death… ” is exactly my point. As for the “how” of this, I agree that it is one of the mysteries of the faith. Trying to explain this to a non-believer or even modern Christians, caught up way too much in secular thought, is down right impossible. The best we can do is respond sincerely, hoping that as we communicate the truth of the faith it will linger in their heart…as the Spirit moves…and cause them to ponder these things.
    You give a good example of a “logical” train of thought, ie, if death tramples death, then sin must trample down sin. But how do you explain *how* Christ became sin without sinning? Again…a mystery. Contrary to secular thinking, to accept the mysteries is to at some point set aside logic. Somewhere faith enters and we accept and embrace these mysteries. As I write this I think of the many times Father mentions “the upside-down” of reality, true reality exposed in Christ. We are mocked because of this. Well, Christ warned us, didn’t He?! Contrary to popular Christian thought, our station here in this life is not bliss! It is blessed, but not bliss…upside-down indeed!
    Where you say the essential mysteries of our faith are hard to comprehend and the reason why “I reflect on them and share the reflections, striving to deepen my understanding as I write.” Me too, Mary! That’s what we do here. That’s why this blog is such a blessing!
    I can not finish without thanking you, Father, for this ministry of yours. As a servant of the Lord, through you He blesses us, even in our unworthiness. A ‘bright sadness’, the paradox, the turning on the head…if I hadn’t begun to understand these things I truly believe I’d be at least ‘zombie-like’ dead. Glory to God, thank you!

  29. Paula,
    Thanks for the comment. Indeed, our community of comments is probably much more important than the blog itself for many…it is something that “makes it work.”

    I also appreciate the thanks. I assure you that the good things in this ministry are a gift and not anything of my own “excellence.” I was recently called out by someone who accused me of “arrogance” because I (apparently) do not scold people for saying nice things to me. If I did that over the course of the blog’s 11 years, I think it would simply be tedious in the extreme. Like anyone, I deeply appreciate words of encouragement. Some days they are a balm to my soul. Accusations of arrogance are like acid, echoing the accusing voice of the evil one.

    So, thanks for your kind words and the tremendous patience that everyone shows in their comments and questions.

  30. mary benton. Italics put before a word or phrase. Put. After the word or phrase. Use strong I’d you want to hold something.

  31. I’m going to try the italics and bold to see if I have it down…

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for this blog. My faith has grown so much over the 5+ years I’ve been reading it.

    It is not arrogant to recognize that we have been given gifts. Humility is not to deny our gifts but to recognize that they come from God and give Him the praise and glory.

  32. I too suffer from a kind of attention deficit disorder; I’m unable to stay focused on one thing for very long. So, I have several books open to the respective page in each book I left off at. When my attention quota depletes on one text I move to another. Just before reading your article I came upon two separate lines. The first was Jaroslav Pelikan: “If Jesus rose from the dead, nothing else matters. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, nothing else matters.” The second was C.S. Lewis: “It is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should reach it.” I am absolutely certain that, were I not Orthodox, neither of these quotes would have made any sense to me. Of the two, the first has proven to be the most important daily consolation when I catch myself, in unguarded moments, stopping to listen to the clamoring, chaotic chatter of the world. Thanks, Father. Thanks very much!

  33. I am personally grateful that you have not scolded me or anyone for our praise. Most of us get scolded enough in the normal course of time! 😊

    Besides if one is blessed or has been helped and lifted up by another it just naturally pours forth – plus I get the feeling that there is a balance between the praise and the comments – perhaps when you are misunderstood – which might give you a heartache or a headache. And please forgive me if I have ever been one to cause either…

  34. Yep. But I saw Bold! in Mary’s last comment so maybe the question is answered?

    If not: without the space (for italics)
    without the space (for bold)

  35. Re: Italics and bold type:
    I wonder if someone could spell out, perhaps in a document, exactly how to place the symbols, so we can see what the whole thing looks like, and then paste the document here. That’s if what I’m asking is even possible and not too much of an effort.

  36. How about this:
    This text is bold
    Leave out the “+” should give you bold? This text is bold
    Same thing for italics
    This text is italic
    Leave out the “+” gives you This text is italic

  37. Good to know people get messed up with writing on computers too! In college we had to write our papers with a typewriter (1970’s). Some profs required footnotes at the bottom of the page. It took me 30-40 minutes to peck out a page. Often I’d get to the bottom and find I hadn’t left enough room…grrr! A wonder I graduated. 🙂

  38. This post, and the following comments have led me to what I think might be a new realization as to what I think could be the source of something that deeply divides Western Christians, particularly Protestants, and the Eastern Churches.

    That is, the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Growing up, the emphasis was always upon how Christ took our punishment (death). How we deserved death. How he was born to die for our sins (12 days for Christmas). There are the stations of the Cross in the Latin Church, which focuses on the pain and shame Christ faced in his last last days before death. There’s the idea of self mortification. The Reformation was instituted largely over a dispute on whether or not you could “buy off” death. I think I read that John Wesley felt it important to emphasize the more grotesque aspects of Christ’s death as a motivation toward more pious behavior. All of this gives you penal substitution theory, and the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ.
    Christ died to pay for your sins, then he was resurrected because he was God.
    In hindsight, with such an emphasis, I can see why you have some “protestants” talking about finding the “bones” of Christ.

    On the other hand, Orthodoxy, with it’s emphasis on Christ rising from the dead, and upon those in tombs bestowing life. The message changes. Did Christ have to die? Well, if you are going to rise from the dead, you kind of have to, but any punishment is not found in the gory details leading up to the Cross. Instead it is found in the parable of the vineyard, all are paid a days wage whether they worked a full day or not, the prodigal son comes home and is greeted with open arms in spite of his prior behavior. In short, the “punishment” is life with Christ – whether you like it or not.
    Christ lives and you are saved because he was resurrected from death…

    I am open to criticism of this idea, as its only really a thesis I’m exploring in my own mind. But I would be extremely curious to see if this dichotomy resonates with anyone else here.

  39. Be careful not to conflate the Roman Catholic view of atonement with that of Calvin and other Protestant leaders. Aquinas has a very different view than Anselm and certainly Calvin. Anselm appears to be the first Latin theologian to break from the Eastern/Orthodox explanation of Christ’s death. Aquinas’s view was not legalistic, i.e., the balancing some cosmic scale of justice articulated by Calvin and other post Luther Protestants. Aquinas also articulated the Roman church’s view of original sin which is different than the Orthodox view. The latter point has helped me better appreciate the Orthodox emphasis on Christ defeat of sin/death and Satan’s hold over mankind.

  40. I have heard it explained as the Western Christian lives in the shadow of the Cross while the Eastern Christian lives in the Glory of the Resurrection. In many ways I think that statement is accurate.

  41. Nicholas,
    I don’t think we separate them. Notions like “joyful sorrow” and such echo the paradox of saying Cross and Resurrection at the same time. Indeed, we generally refer to the Descent Into Hell icon the Resurrection icon…It is the one displayed at Pascha. It is, I think, an icon of both at the same time.

  42. HTML code for bold and italics. Use brackets. Before and after the text. For italics an the letter i is put inside the first bracket. The brackets at the end contained /i.
    For bold use strong and /strong.

    Italics Bold

  43. I agree Father. We do not forget the Cross but we are not stuck there which is what I think the person who made that statement was expressing. We cannot come to the Resurrection without first experiencing the Cross even in our own lives.

  44. I think the main separation of East and West revolves around beards. We got ’em; they don’t. This also fits the “joyful sorrow” theme that Father brought up.

    Maybe. 😉

  45. Mark,

    I so appreciated your comment.

    Some time ago, my wife and I decided decisively to cut off cable, our watching of most Network TV, and virtually all national and international news. We still hear the “news” (primarily via the radio when driving), so I don’t want sound like some pious ascetic (I am not). But even this small step has transformed our life.

    What we realized is that when we look out the window, shop at the store, go to work, or do just about anything we rarely see even a hint of the supposed crises, racial tensions, political riots, mass murders, or any other mania that the media seems bent on convincing their viewers will overwhelm us at any moment. We look around us and see little for which we cannot be utterly grateful. Tragedies happen, of course, but they are now personal to us. The suffering we encounter is that of those whom we can actually call our neighbors (those we encounter personally) rather than essentially ‘nameless’ people whom we ourselves cannot know or touch and are largely powerless to love in a manner other than prayer.

    I am convinced that we are not made to know everything that happens in this world, much less respond to it in love. It is a sort of knowledge that is impersonal, useless, and even damaging to the soul. At least this is my experience.

    I think it was Lewis who said something to the effect that there is no such thing as the sum total of human suffering. There is only the suffering that is experienced by each human person, many of whom are our neighbors – the ones whom Christ commanded us to love and the only ones we have any possibility of actually loving. How utterly distracted we were! We thought that we were ‘caring’ about the world by paying attention to its suffering, and all the while Lazarus was sitting at our gate.

  46. mary benton Hebrews 4:15 as to Jesus full humanity in experiencing temptation. Any time the dynamic balance between Jesus full humanity and full divinity is upset, heresy follows.

  47. “I have heard it explained as the Western Christian lives in the shadow of the Cross while the Eastern Christian lives in the Glory of the Resurrection. In many ways I think that statement is accurate.”

    I didn’t think it could be a new thought. Its just that this particular post and the comments really highlighted it for me. There will always be nuances between the Western denominations.

    When a balance is presented to someone who has lived with extreme emphases, the de-emphasized points make an inordinately larger impact, I think. Just my thoughts.

    Thanks for the commentary.

  48. I think the fervent awareness of Christ’s eternal triumph on the Cross informs the saints’ sufferings at all times (apart from those special moments of apparent ‘God-forsakeness’: which, however, is the birther of the ultimate, yet admittedly extremely hard-won spiritual maturity that can eventually stave off and transform even that – it’s own birther).
    This is in a way, an experience-of-the-final-resurrection-while-in-the-here-and-now-of-our-suffering, a reorientation of our entire being. There is no other way to retain that “context-independant”-joy -i.e.: the only unshakeable joy that there is– that we witness in the saints. (Context-depenant joy is clearly a fickle thing.)
    So Cross and Resurrection are one: Christ confidently promises paradise while still hanging upon the Cross, mere minutes before the ultimate God-forsakeness of “My God, My God!”. What unfathomable mysteries!
    These things might seem impossibly difficult for us to do, being the ultimate manifestations of God’s commandments, but when we say to God that its is so difficult to do these, His answer is astounding, it is the following question to us: “do you want to?!” (Luke 18:27) It is therefore faith that we need first.

  49. I guess I have a hard time seeing the senselessness of suffering and death (and anything, really) because it is hard to imagine living before/without Christ. Intellectually, I suppose I can put myself there, but the way we view the world in The Church is so utterly bound up in Christ that I really can’t conceive of suffering and death in any other way. Ecclesiastes was my favorite book of The OT when I was a [non[pre?]-Orthodox] child, interestingly enough, but I never read it in such a way as to see life (or death, or anything else) as meaningless, only as meaningless insofar as one lacks Christ. I think that is your point, of course, but I can’t think of a way to put myself there without being cut away from God and The Church somehow; perhaps this is part of Dino’s continued exposition on the “God-forsakenness”, which must be an act of Grace, I think, or it becomes sin.

    To pull a bit of a Schmemann, though (and pun intended), I often think about the implications this has not only for suffering, but death and sin, and how their true character are revealed in all this. I am not sure how much should (or even could) be said about that, but that is the kind of thing I think about. Similarly, I do wonder at the precise distinction between sin and death. Not that The Church’s language has always been precise in this matter, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to look at “real death” as sin borne voluntarily (i.e., not committed) but sin as death involuntarily (and improperly) borne. I am just thinking “out loud” a bit here so this is all quite rough, but that would set things aright in the sense that we can use that framework to view Christ’s Death as The True Death (in the same way as His Life Is The True Life) and our own deaths (from sin) as a caricature and thus a corruption (though yet healed through Christ’s death, Him even “undercutting” and conquering that because it was done *voluntarily*, i.e. within The Will Of God (or, put more clearly for this perspective, The Will Of Life Himself))—that allows us to keep even the darkest parts of our existence Christocentric (as opposed to The Cross as a backup plan, of sorts, which is obviously wrong) and make sense of Christ bearing sin (death, in this particular use of English, as while He did *bear* sin, he never *committed* it), handily defeating it and showing *it* to be not only meaningless, but to show that meaningless itself in non-existent and merely a corruption (or not-yet-fulfillment?) of what truly is. Lots to meditate on.

  50. Let me try!

    To make something italic, type this:
    <em>Italic words here</em>

    To make soemthing bold, type this:
    <strong>Bold words here.</strong>

  51. When we were in Ukraine, many of the people there had fallen prey to “health and wealth” preachers on television and in the community. It is certainly “a cheapened version” of Christianity, and a terrible scourge on the people who come to believe in it.
    I had several people who came to me in tears, or near to tears, because they couldn’t understand what sin it was that was causing their illness and suffering. They had been taught that they were at fault if they were ill or suffering (interestingly, few of them actually believed their belief would result in riches; only health). It was a pernicious doctrine, which only caused more suffering.

  52. Thanks for teaching me the italic/ bold trick (as well as so many other things).

    I believe this site operates different from WordPress. At WordPress, “em” is used for italics and “strong” is used for bold. Here, it appears that “i” is used for italics and “b” is used for bold.

    To test this, I will first type two brief messages using the WordPress code, Then I will type the same brief messages using the latter code. (If it works, it will post as italic or bold; if not, you will still see the code.

    This is a great blog.
    This is a great community of commenters.

    This site’s code:
    This is a great blog.
    This is a great community of commenters.

    Remember, if you can still see code, it didn’t work. If the code doesn’t appear but the italics/bold do, it worked. Will they both work? Will neither work? The moment of suspense as I push the “post” button…

  53. Wow. They both worked! Forgive my silliness but I personally like to put emphasis in when I am writing as it often helps the reader to understand the meaning I intend. The meaning I intend may be altogether incorrect, but at least we will understand each other. 🙂

  54. Raphael and Mary,
    Thank you! Now I will give it a try…
    Glory to God For All Things

    Glory To God For All Things

  55. Brian,

    Thank you so very much for your comments from 11/13 @ 9:20 PM !! That’s great advice and I’m glad for what you are doing. It seems like to do what you’ve done, should be common sense….but sadly it’s not very common for many of us, myself included.
    Thanks again!

  56. Brian and Mark,

    I want to join Alan in thanking you for your comments.

    I managed to avoid listening to the majority of news for the past few years, mostly because of my life’s circumstances (lack of time mainly, and ability to figure out how to get TV hooked up in my new house :-)). Several elections came and went, and I only found out about the results later (although I overheard several heated discussions about them at work). None of the resulting changes seem to influence my life too much – I am very thankful for that and know that it is not the case for everybody.

    But I wanted to share one story related to the topic of watching too much and knowing everything that is going on in the world. On a recent trip, I shared a room with a Russian woman who lives in the Netherlands. We both have elderly mothers, and she told me that she finally figured out where her mother’s heart issues came from: she watched too much TV, news and soap operas, and the real and made-up drama were affecting her heart health (arrhythmia, etc). My friend cancelled the TV subscription for her mom and her health improved.
    When I asked my Mom is this can possibly be her experience (she had a couple trips to ER last year with heart troubles), I was very surprised that she… agreed! I never thought of that prior to my friend mentioning it, although I did notice how my Mom wanted to often tell me about the “problems” her TV characters were experiencing.. When I pointed out that this is all “made up”, she kind of agreed, but still was not able to cut herself off…

    I fear something similar related to my sons, who are now young adults. They seem to be watching shows (not even the news) that are dark, brutal and depressing… They literally pause the show when I walk into the room because the scenes are often just too violent (they know how I don’t like that). I stopped nagging and complaining, I just try to avoid seeing it. But I worry about the effect that has on their souls…

    May God hear our prayers for all those affected by true suffering and forgive us for being too weak in resisting the pull towards the darkness of this world… And may we *want* that Faith, so that we know how to stay close to Christ in all situations (thank you Dino!)

  57. Agata,

    Fr. Ambrose once gave me the admonition to “watch what goes into your heart”. I took it to mean that I should stop letting so many influences into myself. I stopped watching TV (aside from an occasional football game) and turned off the radio. It made a large difference in my life and helped me to focus more on prayer and asceticism (such as I practice). I think turning off, or perhaps restricting a large portion of, social media is the next step, although I have not yet gone there.

  58. Byron,
    I have a quote in my kitchen (I cannot remember from where) that says:
    “What you put in your mouth affects how you look and how you feel.
    What you watch (or maybe it says “what you put in your head”, I cannot remember now, I will check later) affects how you think.
    So watch both”.

    As Mark said above, we don’t need to know “worldwide suffering”… Most of the time I don’t even need to know what the weather is supposed to be… it is what it is…(unless you have a plane to catch, but even then if your flight is cancelled, you are very unlikely to know about it before you get to the airport)… Why we are eager to watch zombies and made-up cruelty on TV is really beyond me…

    Social media is wonderful when we use it well. I loved it when Fr. Stephen was posting his reports from Mt. Athos trip almost in real time… 🙂

  59. Agata,
    You brought to mind St. Paul’ s admonition: Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Phil. 4:8

  60. Dean,
    Very beautiful reminder… Thank you.

    Byron, here is the [updated] wise advice from my yellow sticky 🙂

    “What you put in your body affects how you look and how you feel.
    What you put in your head affects how you think and what you do.
    So watch both.”

    (I think I posted it in hopes my sons would read it… I don’t know if anybody did, but I glance at it from time to time and it helps me, especially when I want to eat bad things late at night 🙂 )

  61. Dean,
    We’ve had a plaque on our wall inscribed with that passage from Philippians for nearly forty years, yet it took me most of that time even to begin to heed Paul’s words. I am clearly a slow learner.

  62. I simply refuse to see life, suffering and death as senseless. I always think it may appear to us that way from our individualistic and self-identity in planning or perceiving our life and future in some form or kind in achievement and having. When something is taken away from us by someone, in opposition to our values, then the loss appears as senseless to us, and I feel rightly so too. But when I go beyond the pain of loss I realize all will go on even after I am long gone. If I had something of God given value it will manifest eventually and live on by some means, like thru our children, friends, community etc. and as a Christian I know even that life was never mine but God given. It is hard to make that dive in and thru pain of any kind of loss in the individualistic life and world view, but if you don’t want to despair you have to do it and LET GO. The world is full of senseless killings and sufferings we inflict on others and even onto our self. So in my view, death and life will go on, like the seasons come and go. And nature is more powerful when we do not abide by God/Nature given Laws and principles, it will catch up with us with a time to live and a time to die. How ever it happens, war, famine, illness, God forbid any worse forms, it follows death by reason, though not necessarily due to every individuals by their action or inaction . Everything happens for a reason, maybe appearing senseless to us and rightly so, but God/Life will live on and on and on. We were just a carrier. And in that I do not despair. Otherwise I would, because life truly can be pure hell. It took me a while even as a Christian- Nondenominational or I will despair. I take the side of reason God allows me to have, understand and communicate and he will work out all things for good to those who Love him. So No reason to despair, even for the simple minded. After all he said let the children come unto me…..26 people in Texas, again 5 in Calif. this is continually happening, senseless pain to struggle with. But the real reason remains WHY, what is wrong in this country, apathy, religious apathy and silence, freedom without restraint etc. ………no God or false Gods, no truth no meaning, MHO Glory to God for all things.

  63. Fr Stephen,
    Is the picture you selected, that of Dresden after the British and American bombing? If so, it is an appropriate picture depicting senseless suffering and death. My first introduction about the history of the bombing of Dresden was through Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Slaughterhouse Five or The Chrildren’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death”. It was required reading for me in the summer before I entered a boarding school. A month before reading the book, our family was in a horrific car accident killing and mutilating the bodies of our parents and seriously injuring my brother and I. We were traveling to visit family and there was water on the road and the car hyper-planed suddenly, hit the meridian and the car overturned several times before it stopped.

    In the hospital people from some Protestant Churches came to visit. Without going into details, their visit with me was emotionally and spiritually devastating, resembling the outlook you describe in your essay above. The hospital was Catholic and the visitors loud and negative remarks were overheard among other things. They were asked to leave and the resulting confrontation wasn’t complementary of Christianity. This experience redoubled my disdain of Christianity as I had seen it up to that point.

    It may seem unexpected here, but reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book engaged a healing process within. He was willing to speak of suffering and to speak of death that seemed real to me at the age of 17. I am grateful for the Orthodox approach to suffering and death. These early experiences were not the last to confront me and challenge me with intense suffering and senseless death. I am grateful for this essay and for its healing words. These words, Christ trampling down death with death, are indeed life-saving in their own right, needing no further embellishments. They are words of power and beauty.

    And Glory to God for all things.

  64. It may seem trivial, but honoring the words of the hymn:

    Christ is resin from the dead
    Trampling down death by death,
    And upon those in the tombs bestowing life

    I had inserted the word ‘with’ and it should be ‘by’

    Small words can make a big difference. Words can carry the grace of God or not.

  65. What is interesting is the Hebrew word translated as vanity is hebel which is a dry and empty desert wind that serves no purpose and does not bring life giving rain. It forced me to reevaluate what Solomon was saying. Vanity did not quite ring for me because I saw the meaning as self serving vain glory when it really has another meaning.

  66. Nicholas Stephen Griswold,

    Your comment made me realise why I’ve always loved the translation of Ecclesiastes in the Ronald Knox Bible:

    1 Words of the Spokesman, king David’s son, that reigned once at Jerusalem.
    2 A shadow’s shadow, he tells us, a shadow’s shadow; a world of shadows!
    3 How is man the better for all this toiling of his, here under the sun?

    Now that I come to think of it, I also recall reading in the footnotes of the Jerusalem Bible ( footnote “c” on the 2nd page in this PDF ) the same point you mention here. Somehow that footnote stuck in my mind, but I couldn’t tell why it struck me forcefully then. But after reading this article, and the comments here, I see the meaning even more clearly.


  67. The comments seem to be slowing, so, Father, if I may add this. Most of you probably already know you can do this. In the past, it would sometimes take me forever to find a Scripture passage I was looking for. I would look through a concordance, or try a Bible concordance, or spend lots of wasted time simply searching through a book. But with a smart phone, it is easy. If you recall just 3 or 4 words and speak them into your phone or type them in….presto! The passage will come up, and that with varying translations. So, I can toss my Strong’s, Young’s, and any other concordance I may have. It is a great tool for me…perhaps for others as well.

  68. A long time ago I came across this prayer: Thank you Lord for all you have given me; thank you for all you have taken away; thank you for all that remains. When I experience a loss, this prayer comes back to me as does the words of a priest from long ago: God is not against you. He created you, He loves you, and wants you to be with Him for all eternity. You are your own worst enemy.

  69. Helpful reminder, Dean, for those with a smart phone. Especially for those of us who grew up in the pre-computer age. (thinking of the comments above about the “prehistoric” typewriters! Hard to forget those times!)
    Similarly, after reading Nicholas’ explanation of the word vanity, the words “chasing the wind” came to mind. A simple search on my computer lead me to the verse I was looking for:” I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind”. This gives a better understand of the point Nicholas made.
    What to do with our concordances?! They sure came in handy at one time. I now appreciate the ease and time saved in a computer search, though.

  70. My wife was at our parish’s annual women’s retreat Fri & Sat. The topic of God loving us was a major theme. My wife tells me that a number of women there who grew up in the local Calvinistic religious environment had been taught just the opposite prior to becoming Orthodox. Many are still adjusting to the difference.

    Remaining in the Calvinistic environment seems to force one to either declare God as the author of pain, suffering and evil for inscrutable reasons or gravitate to a view of a capricious and senseless world that is beyond understanding that we must improve somehow.

    So the nihilistic vortex is formed and draws us toward its maw. Only the reality of the Cross founded on the experience of the Incarnate and Resurected Lord can draw us away.

    It is, as mary benton said, an unfathomable love that places the Cross in our midst even before the creation of the world. It is not like any love we can know except as it is revealed to us.

    May His mercy be upon us and Glory to Him.

  71. The Epistle yesterday Ephesians 2:14-18, really hit me as answering the question of overcoming death AND the difficulty many people have reconciling God in the OT and God in the NT. Summarized, there was an enmity between God and His creation, especially we humans during OT times. The Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection healed that enmity in one man.

  72. Dear all, this is an old post with a lot of comments. I must admit that I have not read them all.

    I am not an Orthodox, not even a Christian, but I read this blog regularly with great interest.

    On the matter of suffering, whether it is senseless or not, we sure know that it is real. When it comes to wars and all other suffering that comes from the harm that we do to eachother, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.

    But if God is good, and God created the world, why is there extremely painfull illnesses among the totally innocent? I am, of course, first of all thinking about children. And I mean the kind of suffering that comes from nature, deseases that we cannot be blamed for. (Or can we?) If God created the Universe, why did He allow little children to suffer from terrible illnesses? Did He allow it? What does the Church teach about this?

    Again, I have not read all the comments. If I did, I might have found some answers. Still, I hope someone will take the time to write!

  73. Pettersen,
    Go to page bottom under categories. Type in Dostoevsky.
    Father comments quite heavily on him and his great insight into suffering, especially that of children. You may also try David Bentley Hart’s book,
    “Doors of the Sea” where he reflects on the tsunami in Indonesia.

  74. Fr. Freeman, while waiting for an answer I was reading through the comments. I might not have been thorough enough in my reading, but I did not find an answer to my question.

    Many places I can read that Jesus defeated «death by death». God became Man and suffered at the Cross.

    I do not get this, to be honest. Why was the suffering necessary in the first place? And how do you tell a little child in pain, that Jesus died for us? Why are small children suffering from deseases we are not to blame for? Deseases that seem to come from «errors» in Nature… If God made it all, why did he allow these «errors» to cause so much pain for the innocent?

  75. Pettersen,
    Generally speaking, the Christian faith is not a class in philosophy. It’s not how we frame things. We live in a broken world in which suffering and death are the normal course of things.

    When we ask, “Why?” the answer tends to come back in terms of human freedom. There are various ways in which this is given us in narrative-form (Garden of Eden, etc.). And, in some ways, we have to say that we don’t have the full picture or philosophical explanation.

    The universe in which we exist is a dangerous place, in which the very things that are dangerous are just as free and uninhibited as the things which are safe. There is a depth of mystery in this (to my understanding). I would say from my limited vantage-point, that there is no other way from here to where we’re meant to be (which includes our freedom) that avoids suffering. The Christian point is not to speak about a God who is outside suffering, but about a God who enters into the deepest part of suffering and makes it His own, and, in so doing, makes us His own, and takes us beyond all of that. But, beyond all of that, we are not those who have not suffered. The suffering is part of us and seems to have something to do with the glory that we will be.

    This “mystery” is something to be wrestled and grappled with (at least, that’s how I see it from the inside as a Christian). I see the suffering, and I see the limitless love of God-that-entered-into-the-suffering. I start with God, not with the question from somewhere outside.

    Hart’s book, that Dean recommended, is an interesting read. About as good a philosophical treatment as I’ve seen. But, I don’t approach this philosophically. I approach it from Jesus on the Cross. It’s a different starting place.

  76. Thank you, Fr. Freeman. If I start from the Cross, it is easier to «understand» it all. But is the Cross the true beginning? What about the creation of earth in the first place?

    God created a Universe with «errors» that has made millions and millions of innocent suffer? Then He became Man and suffered with us? But there is still suffering, still deseases, still little children in pain, seemingly caused by Nature itself.

    Yes, this is really something to be wrestled and grappled with…

  77. Pettersen,
    Yes, the cross is the beginning. Christ, therefore, has been in our suffering as co-sufferer since the beginning. Rev.13:8 notes that the Lamb
    (Jesus) was slain from the foundation of the world.

  78. Petterson,

    The “errors” you see were not in the Creation in the Garden. Saint Paul tells us that Creation was subjected to futility “for our sake”. There is a very lot to wrestle and grapple with in this subject. Father speaks often of it in this blog. I second Dean’s recommendation to Go to page bottom under categories. Type in Dostoevsky..

  79. Hi Petersen,
    Glad to see more of your questions.

    Following, Fr Stephen, Dean and Byron,
    I’ll add a few more words, not about the “why” in your question, but the “how”. I came to Orthodoxy in my search to understand something that I ‘saw’ and continue to ‘see’ in my research into the Higgs Potential Energy Field. What I saw I interpreted then as ‘resurrection’, and not just ‘life after death’. Resurrection appears to me as a fundamental ‘field’ within our reality as something that holds everything together. At the time, I was not Christian and had a great difficulty with what I was seeing. I couldn’t accept it initially. It didn’t ‘jive’ with anything I had encountered within what I had been exposed to as “Christianity”. And I wanted very much to reject the whole notion of it as some kind of psychological residual effect of living in a culture that holds itself to be christian in origin.

    It took courage to accept my interpretation as something that rightly, validly, described what I see in the physics of our reality. After that, I decided to read up theology in Christianity to help explain this phenomenon. This exploration eventually led me to the theology of iconography in Orthodoxy and is connected theologically to Fr Stephen’s articles on icons.

    Material nature is itself icon of the Resurrection. Whenever I become ‘lost’ in the maze of sorrows of experiences that in my bitterness, would lead me away from Christ, I remember this initial exposure to the Resurrection in my research in physics. I believe it was Providence that led me there in the first place and through God’s grace in prayer, I become ‘grounded’ in my faith, in my communion with Christ, once again.

    If someone is experiencing grief, I would never launch into a discussion about God’s willing such suffering. I can’t imagine someone engaging in such a conversation (although it did happen to me, as I allude in the earlier discussion above).

    I encourage you to ‘listen’ to the suggestions for further reading given here by Dean and Byron. Even more ‘illuminating’ is attending Orthodox Liturgy–when you’re ready. BTW I wasn’t so ready for quite awhile–3 years it was before I stepped into the Orthodox Church to explore it’s faith. This was 3 years after I had accepted that I was actually seeing the reality of the Resurrection in the physics of the Higgs Field.

  80. Forgive me I’ll add one more note, that if the Resurrection is indeed the fabric of this material and spiritual (redundant to say ‘physical and spiritual’ but that’s the limitation of this language) reality, so is the Cross.

  81. Pettersen,
    In no Christian story is it said that God created the world broken, or “fallen,” in the language of theology. It is not His will or intention for us to suffer. His own entering into that suffering is itself a sign that this is not His intention for us.

    In terms of the Cross vs. the Creation story – though we like to think in linear terms, earlier proceeds to later, for Orthodox Christian thought, the beginning cannot be understood apart from the Cross. So, we start from the Cross and understand the beginning (and the end and everything in between) from that perspective. The death of Christ on the Cross (and all that follows) is the central revelation of God to us. If we ask, “Who is God,” we can say, “There He is.”

  82. Father, thank you for your additional response. I hope what I wrote doesn’t suggest anything other than what you say, but I realize it could be read that way.

  83. Dee,
    No problem. I completely understand the “why” questions – and how they create struggles for people. For myself, I think I started in the middle. I mean by that – that Christ came before my questions. Of course, I grew up with Christianity around me (it was a semi-rural Southern setting). Jesus was someone in my life, on some level, from childhood. I never shook that. I had a strong “re-encounter” with him at about age 15 when I first read some essays by Tolstoy (Russians have long played a role in my life). What I got from Tolstoy was a heavy dose of the Sermon on the Mount as well as a strong dose of Christian pacifism. The upshot of it was that I read Scripture (the Sermon on the Mount) for the first time in which it actually caught my attention. I wasn’t logical about it, much less systematic. I was simply captivated by it.

    Sometime after that, a couple of years I think, I encountered some teaching on the nature of the Kingdom of God in which that was presented in very concrete terms of reality. Much more opened up to me. But it was from inside that position (place) that I first thought about the “why” and “when” questions – but never in the sense of, “I have to know this or else.”

    I’ve long thought that linear questions are a good way to reach wrong conclusions. I’m not really certain that I’ve ever run into anyone who came at all this in such a manner. I do remember, however, my dear, beloved Father-in-law, who, when asked about such things most often answered, “Well, I don’t know about that.” He was very clear about many things – but there were any number of larger questions to which his answer was a very hunble, “Well, I don’t know about that.” But what he knew…

  84. I think in some respects your experience actually reflects the early experience of the Church, didn’t it? The Church experienced Christ well before she attempted to create a theology to understand or express her experience. This perhaps explains why your explanations have such a “lived-in” Orthodox ‘tone’. The faith life you lived in your heart over the years resembles the Orthodox life.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that you gravitate to “Russian Orthodox” piety. Heart speaks to heart.

  85. Fr. Freeman, Dean, Byron and Dee of St. Hermans,
    thank you for your well articulated (as always) comments!

    I will check out the things you mention. When it comes to Russian literature, Tolstoy is a favourite of mine. I have read some works of Dostojevskij as well, but far from enough.

    Some years ago I was standing by the window in a country-side house. It was summer, and outside a little bird was jumping around on the lawn. Then, suddenly, “out of nowhere”, a big bird landed, penetrated the little bird’s body with its long claws and started to pick the bird, which was then still alive and fighting for its life. I called for all the others in the house and they all came running. “Should we do something?” “What can we do?” “We can run out and scare the big bird away?” “The little bird is already damaged, it will die anyway.” “It is nature running its course.”

    We didn’t do anything, and after a while (luckily it didn’t take very long) the little bird seemed to be dead and not suffering any longer, and the big bird flew away with it.

    At primary school, we always learned that if we saw someone being bullied, and we just watched it without trying to stop it in any way, we were actually taking part of the bullying. When I watched the little bird being killed, I had the feeling that I was actually taking part of the killing. (Of course, what I had just witnessed, was nothing compared to what we do to animals (and eachother) every day all over the world.)

    But a thought struck me: Is this how it is being God? Watching without interfering? Now, some years later, I see it differently. I believe that God was there, not only watching, but experiencing. God was in the hunger of the big bird, and God was in the suffering of the small one. God was even in me, feeling my hesitation. And God was interfering. Not through the physical world, but through something else that I cannot describe in words. But still… the little bird, the innocent, was suffering, once again…

    There is a (quite bad) rock song in which it is said: “If I should stumble, catch my fall”. My point is obvious, it has been questioned by people for ages. If God created the Garden without “errors”, why did He let us fall? Wy didn’t He catch us? Of course, we can say that He actually did catch us, by Jesus Christ. But we are still in pain.

    If all the suffering in this world is a consequence of our “falling”, it is hard (for me) to see a Good God behind it all. It is easier, then, to see a vindictive god. If a little child suffering from a painful desease is a consequence of Adam and Eve “falling”, then where is the mercy of God? If suffering is necessary to become what we were made to be, then why is suffering so very unequally partitioned? Why does one little child suffer from the day it is born, while others experience a good health through their entire life? Where is the justice in that?

    Personally, I believe in a good God. But logically, I cannot defend it. I cannot explain why little children are suffering. And I cannot believe that this suffering is God’s will. If I do, God is no longer good. I cannot even believe that God is able to prevent this suffering. If He was, and He doesn’t, then He is no longer good. Thereby I cannot believe that God is Almighty (if almighty means that He can do everything He “wants”). As soon as I fall into logical reasoning, God dissolves in front of my eyes. But still, there is something inside me, saying: look again.

    What I find is good. And impossible to describe. But it does not explain or stop the suffering around me… and quite often, the fact of all this suffering, makes me doubt. What if my sense of God is just me trying to comfort myself… Obviously, my feeling of God does not stop the suffering of all the little children…

  86. PS! Dee of St Hermans, I find it very interesting, what you write about your journey towards Orthodox Christianity, through physics. I know very little about the science you describe. I work as an architect. Apart from the “physics” of building a house, this is mostly an unknown area for me.

    And please don’t worry about the spelling of my name! 😉

  87. Pettersen,
    The modern world (the world that is permeated with the philosophies of modernity) does not have anything to say about suffering other than that it is bad and must be removed. It is probably the most inadequate approach to understanding anything (least of all love). It is a shallow philosophy, and, in the end, more cruel.

    I recall my son at about age 5 or 6. He was suffering from allergies. We took him in for testing. I recalled watching him get these tiny shots all across his back, then some rather painful ones on his arms – those were the last ones. They came back in after about a half-hour and looked at the results. Several of the ones on his arms had to be re-done. I had got him through the last ones on his arms only with a lot of coaxing.

    He took a deep breath, and agreed to the repeats. He bore the suffering with a courage that I’d never seen in him before. It moved me to the core.

    What parent wants to see a child suffer? And yet, I don’t think I had seen those depths in my son before. Over the years, I have seen them several times. He is now over 30 and is a many of deep integrity and faith. The experience probably changed me as well.

    Forgive me, but I think you’re thinking about these things with inadequate reasoning – rooted, as you note, in things like public school lessons. Those lessons are designed to make people “nice.” They do little else and will not produce great souls, I fear.

    Love has profound depth. Christ on the Cross is where I have met love. It is that love that I most use to answer and guide my questions.

  88. Fr. Freeman, of course I forgive you. And I hope you forgive me too, if my questions appear banal.

    In my first comment under this post, I wrote the following question about suffering: “What does the Church teach about this?” In your first answer, Fr. Freeman, you wrote: “…in some ways, we have to say that we don’t have the full picture or philosophical explanation.” And then you emphasize an important point: that Faith is not Philosophy.

    What the Church teaches when it comes to suffering and why it exists, is still quite unclear to me. But I guess it is too much to ask for, that 2000 years of Tradition and Faith should be summarized here in a short comment online.

    Thank you for sharing the story about you and your son. As most people, I have also experienced pain, both physical and psychological, though less than many people I know and love. And I agree that pain in itself is not necessarily evil, it is just extremely painful. Still, making others suffer, is seen as a sin, as far as I understand it. And when the pain we experience comes from Nature (like with deseases), it seems like Nature itself is sinning. Why this is so, remains a mystery to me. And I find it reasonable to ask, once in a while, if God really is good… or if we just imagine Him good to be able to survive…

  89. Pettersen,
    Well you are certainly moving in the right direction by turning to God (indirectly, through an Orthodox blog) and asking questions…and hopefully directly by asking Him, talking to Him, one to One. asking questions.
    Your comment about the birds was ever so helpful for me. Thank you for relating that, because I now recognize that you are most sincere.

    To return to this conversation, the matter of suffering is the crux. I use that word purposefully. It is the Cross of Christ that visibly speaks, encircles, encompasses the Christian faith…actually, the whole world. “Good” can not be separated from suffering. It is all tied together. By bearing suffering (all kinds)…and learning what that means and how to do that (this takes a very long time…really, it is built upon a lifetime)…we literally participate in the life of Christ. We align ourselves with Him. That’s what it is to be Christian. We align ourselves with our Maker. He voluntarily went to the Cross because He so loves the world.

    Again…you are moving in the right direction. Keep moving. That said, just in case you are one to self-reflect a lot and overly concern yourself with the possibility of veering off the right path, I really don’t think that is possible when a person has already turned to God and begins “asking”. That is the only way you are going to “hear”. Example: In order to communicate with another, you have to engage them in conversation. And to engage them, you must “turn towards” them face to face (literally in some cases and figuratively in others, like in blogging). It is all about a personal encounter. God is always present. But we must turn to Him to “hear”.
    To offer another Christian word to the discussion…this “turning” is the beginning of repentance. Another word which is key to the Faith. It is more than merely saying a one time “yes”. It is more like a continual focus and refocus on the Almighty…in all manner of living…in all manner of life.
    It is interesting that the Church has a word for those who are ‘seeking’. The word is “inquirer”. They are those who want to know more about Orthodoxy and have taken the next step, willing to be taught. It is not unusual that this can occur when all else has failed. Of course, not all inquirers stay. But the door is always open. And it swings both ways. Thus, you are free to leave. Freedom can be costly, though. And so can be the Faith.

  90. Pettersen,
    One other aspect concerning the understandable question regarding ‘suffering’, (little children suffering, God being Almighty etc. etc.) is that the question itself is expressed from within a worldview with an understanding of God as just another temporal being of ‘eternal’ duration who knows things in the same manner that we (time-bound and mutable creatures) do: as external things existing within the conditions of space and time.
    This of course is not how things are for God. It is also less and less like this for us humans to the degree that we partake of the ‘mind of Christ’.
    Not that we become insensitive (quite the contrary), but that the transcendence of suffering becomes a reality for us, and the joy of Christ is not a context-dependant joy, but an unassailable reality, founded upon the good end of all history which is being whispered within our souls by the Holy Comforter.
    The saints often remind us that if we had the vision of the ‘other side’, “suffering” would not seem to us so “very unequally partitioned” at all.

  91. Pettersen,
    There are things that I take as axiomatic. One of those is the goodness of God. A simple reason for this is that God Himself is the Good. Goodness apart from God is a meaningless concept. What I see in Christ Crucified is the display of the goodness of God. That is where I start. I admit that there are questions that can be asked for which the answer will seem unsatisfying. But often, I think, the fault is in the question. As a Christian, my desire and the goal of my life is to be “inside” the Crucified Jesus, to be utterly one with Him. It is only from that vantage point that we may truly speak of the Christian God.

    So, I stand before Him, admitting that there’s lots of things I don’t know, and things that I ponder, but, slowly, as I have been gathered into Him, there are answers – though the answers are aspects of Him – not independent syllogisms.

    A problem with modernity it that it imagines itself to know things that it does not know – and wants us to believe that modernity is the place and manner of finding answers. In point of fact, despite its masterful use of technology, modernity has also been a cause of vast amounts of human suffering – cruel, intentional evil, often in the name of a greater good.

    Its prosperity is frequently used to hide its many crimes. Ultimately, I think only traditional Christianity is able to critique it sufficiently.

  92. Dean, I have now orderer Hart’s book, “The Doors of the Sea”. Thank you for your recommendation!

    Paula, thank you for your nice words!

    Dino, you end your comment with this: “The saints often remind us that if we had the vision of the ‘other side’, “suffering” would not seem to us so “very unequally partitioned” at all.” To be honest, I do not understand what you are trying to say at all. To me, it is obvous that suffering (as we know it in our “earthly” life) is by all means unequally partitioned. How else should we describe a child in terrible pain? Where is the harmony, the balance, the holiness, of such a suffering? As grown-ups, we can listen to others, we can pray, we can tell ourselves that “it will be better”. But a child in pain, cannot do any of these things. It cannot even understand what we tell them, if it yet haven’t learned our language. We, as grown-up witnesses to this suffering, can surely find comfort in our Faith, but what about the little child? I am quite sure, that if I ever experience having a child in pain, I will thank anesthesia long before I will thank Church. A little child does not have the privilege(!) of Faith as a grown-up can have. And let us not forget all those who are in great pain and who do not believe (because they have not been introduced to Faith, because they are not able to believe or what ever reason).

  93. Thank you, Fr. Freeman. You seem quite eager in your criticism of “modernity”. I was raised in a “critical” home where many of the same thoughts on our world were often expressed. People all over the world, within and outside religion, have critized modernity for as long as it has existed. It is an important exercise, surely, but in the long run this never-ending criticism seems in itself somehow infertile. That is one of the things I appreciate so much with the Chuch – that it represents not only a criticism, but also an alternative.

  94. Fr. Freeman, let me emphasize that my last comment is not meant as a criticism of your writings! On the contrary! When I write «what I appreciate with Church», I hope it was clear that I see your writings as part of that Church.

  95. Pettersen,
    To explain the apparently unequal partitioning of suffering (a complaint Prophet David often articulated in the Psalms), and how the ‘vision’ of the “other side” offers a corrected balance (Luke 16:25), we simply need to see how suffering (naturally) produces the opposite to smugness. Many a hardened old man, suffering of cancer, or a youngster ready to erroneously make a god for himself out of an object of creation, are brought to a sudden and deep awareness of their need of the One true God and the realisation of their need to be humble. That is an impetus to holiness and salvation. I think we needn’t protest the difficulty of a child having an insight into such ‘faith’ as a rational concept that comforts (even though such a protest is quite flawed to be honest).

  96. Dino, thank you for your answer. I still don’t think I get you quite right, though. It seems to me as you make a picture of suffering as some kind of good “educational” power teaching us how to avoid smugness. I feel quite certain that this is not what you mean, though, and that I read you wrongly. All the suffering in this world, especially the suffering of the totally innocent, seems like quite an exaggerated way of teaching us to be humble?

    When it comes to the last sentence in your latest comment, my knowledge of English language and grammar is unfortunately coming up short. I do not understand it: “I think we needn’t protest the difficulty of a child having an insight into such ‘faith’ as a rational concept that comforts (even though such a protest is quite flawed to be honest).” And why is it flawed, in your view?

  97. Pettersen,
    I’d say it’s flawed in my view because children can have an innate sense of God and His providence (despite their sufferings even) that typically escapes us (owing to our secular conditioning).
    There is a majestical writer amongst the Church Fathers –St Maximus the Confessor– who repeatedly addresses the question of pain(suffering) and pleasure in great depths. He also reminds us that this ‘dyad’ (pleasure&pain) is inescapable. It is also characteristically misinterpreted (interpreted the reverse to how it ought to be).
    In a nutshell, he proclaims that after the Fall, pleasure leads to pain (as it led to the Fall) and pain leads to pleasure (as it led to the Ressurection), these (products-of-each-other) work in this way as a spiritual axiom of sorts.

  98. In Christ, we see meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death being transformed (as the article above says) by His meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death.
    The Divine Word, the Logos, is also interpreted as ‘Meaning’ in Greek. So Meaning Himself enters meaninglessness.
    How genuine a Christian is can be proven by the meaning that they find in suffering. It might be just as much (in fact more so) as they find in hapiness and pleasure.
    The godless who might protest the lack of meaning in pain and suffering and tribulation, actually find no meaning in their pleasures if they consciously and honestly examine them.

  99. How else should we describe a child in terrible pain? Where is the harmony, the balance, the holiness, of such a suffering?

    We need to be very careful to not simply classify suffering as part of any “harmony, balance, holiness” in life. Suffering is a reality in life–and it is a reality because of the fall (to use a simple label). We have built our own house and we continue to build it and, truly, to make it more and more destructive. As Father has pointed out, the modern world has no answer for suffering. It’s only recourse seems to be death, as the ongoing push for euthanasia under any circumstance reflects.

    In Christ, we see meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death being transformed (as the article above says) by His meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death.
    The Divine Word, the Logos, is also interpreted as ‘Meaning’ in Greek. So Meaning Himself enters meaninglessness.

    Here is the difference. It is not that suffering has meaning but that Christ enters into it and creates meaning. The actions of God in all things, including but not limited to suffering, are about healing. Suffering itself has no meaning; Christ, in His elevation of Life over Death (conquering Death by Death, as Church hymns proclaim), gives meaning to all things, even suffering. Christ on the cross shows that even though we die, we live in Him, in resurrection. God transforms all things.

  100. Hi Pettersen,
    I went through a lot of sicknesses when I was a kid, few hospital stays. I can say that with each one, I learned a bit of courage, a bit of compassion, and I think each drew me closer to God, and so to experience an ineffable love. The adults around me were more worried and upset than I was.

    I think regarding cruelty and suffering, it helps to see that we are created not as toys or robots, but in the image and likeness of God. The free will and creativity we have give us the chance not only to be cruel and selfish, but also to try to find and imitate God’s love. That is quite an amazing thing, to think that God did not create to control, but to give the freedom to creatures to also create beauty, and be “like God” that way. It wouldn’t happen without a certain level of autonomy. Keep in mind that a Christian, life includes creatures we don’t see such as angels, who are also actively a part of this wondrous creative process. And the certain freedom that goes with it. It’s a trade off, but why would we want to be “less”?

  101. I had a brother born 10 years after me. He was profoundly affected by Down’s syndrome, had gran mal seizures and was blind. Ricky lived with us for 24 years. At about 4 he learned to walk. He could never feed himself or use the bathroom. Back then there were no nice protective helmets like today. My parents finally bought a boy’s football helmet to protect him from slamming his head onto the floor during a seizure.
    As I said, he lived 24 years and died after a brief illness. I don’t know how much he suffered or how aware he was. However, my father, a forklift driver, was ennobled by Ricky’s brief life, though he and mom suffered much. Dad told me, “I’m glad that we had Ricky in our lives.” He had come to see his son’s life as a blessing. Thank you Dad for allowing Christ to work that healing in you.

  102. As others have mentioned here, Pettersen, Christ does ‘enter’ suffering and death. It is quite hard to express this in another way that makes any logical sense outside of the life of Christ, itself. If I were to attempt to describe what differences (before and after I converted to Christianity) I perceive that is most salient, perhaps it would be that in my own suffering or pain, I’m not alone, and that there remains yet a paradoxical, silent joy in the fullness of life.

    Your story of the two birds is quite helpful in describing our own sense of ‘helplessness’ in the context of the suffering that we witness, as does Fr Stephen’s story about his son’s courage to take on more pain, without complaint. I’ve seen similar strength in my own son who had to have rabies shots when he was bitten by a rat. He too was 4 years old. I held his hand and he, without a whimper but with a single tear, bore these shots with his own courage.

    Ironically, having gratitude (ie Dean’s comment) and shedding pride (Fr Stephen’s father-in-law) has allowed me to witness the presence of Christ in such situations of my own suffering.

  103. Apologies to all if I am intruding where I should not, but your example of the two birds and your reaction, Petterson, plus folk calling on you to read what you might find under the ‘Dostoievski’ category has given me a thought that might be helpful. At least, it helps me on this enormous subject.
    I am remembering how a teacher of mine always spoke respectfully of the character of Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov”, that he is a great soul for being so bothered by the suffering of children and its seeming unjustness. Ivan follows his logic really to the same point that his brother Alyosha does – that is, to the crucial (that word again) point that each of us is in him or herself responsible somehow for the suffering of others. That’s what the scene in the courtroom is all about – Ivan trying to take that responsibility upon his own shoulders, and he can’t do it. It’s a human responsibility – we feel it. And that recognition in itself is so very terrible as much as it is a mark of our relationship to God. In our very existence, our being, we participate in the divine awareness of responsibility through suffering and agonizing over suffering – we are like Him in that. So, when He empties Himself on the cross, He takes on the death that is unbearable for Ivan and for every other aware human being (as a fictional character certainly, but from the mind of a suffering human, Dostoievski himself, who has just lost his little boy according to a disease that he feels he himself has passed on.)
    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… that is what He is doing for every suffering living thing, and that is a good God preparing His many mansions. We ask for ongoing creation when we say in the psalm “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That’s David looking forward to the Resurrection, and back to his own beginnings and responsibilities. It is you, torn to see the little bird torn. Badly put, I know, but you, I – we are like God in this awareness and we seem to need to go through it.

    I’m truly sorry to intrude. Do erase my comment, Father Stephen, if you feel it is not helpful.

  104. This might not sound very nice, but our faith really doesn’t say that the world is a perfect place, although all is created as “good.” We are called to be different from the world, such as it is. Jesus says, “Do not be conformed to this world” and to his apostles, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The “ruler” or “prince of this world” is the evil one. We have a calling to be different. That is the work of faith in Christ. I consider it yet more evidence of God’s faith and trust in our possibilities to be “like Him” and the great honor and responsibility and potential to join and participate in Christ’s life, the life of the Cross that tramples down death. I could not tell you why it is so, but I believe and trust that it is so, and that it is a much greater calling than we can imagine. It is also related to God’s gift of creativity which is part of the divine image in us.
    (I invite correction if there is theology missing from what I have written)

  105. I wonder how many of the “why” questions are conditioned by the utilitarian mindset of our world. Certainly the exestential wondering is not new but the way in which questions are asked seems different as well as the expectation of a particular kind of answer.

  106. Dear all, there are too many comments for me to answer directly. This goes to all of you.

    First of all; thank you for the response!

    I must admit that I am quite confused… I just ordered the book “The Doors of the Sea” by David Bentley Hart, after getting it recommended by Dean in one of the comments above. Since I just ordered the book online, I have not read it yet, but I have read some short summaries. As far as I understand, Hart claims that God is not “willing” or taking part of the suffering that happens in this world. That there is no chance that all the suffering in the world in the end will be “worth it”, because of the “pleasures” that follows. Thereby, there must be something evil in this world, or as I read in another post at this blog (I am quoting after memory) – “evil is something good moving in a wrong direction”.

    In the comments above, I get a feeling that some view it differently. That there actually is(!) meaning in suffering, or that Jesus made suffering meaningful when He entered it. Jesus turns everything up-side-down, He “twists” the world and makes a New Reality. Or, said in other words, He shows us the True Reality.

    If that was the story, I would be able to “follow”. If this world full of suffering was not made by God, but God entered it to sacrifice Himself and show us a “way out”. But does not Christianity teach that this world is(!) made by God? And that it was made perfect, but we somehow destroyed it?

    This is where my true struggle begins. The pain that comes from what we do to eachother, is understandable. We are given a free will (or at least some of us believe so) and only have ourselves to blame for this suffering. But the pain and suffering that seems to come from Nature itself, is harder to understand. Is Nature also given a free will? If not, why does it cause us pain? Is Nature “fallen” because of our human sins? If so, why does God not “repair” it, so that we (human beings) can focus on our own sins and all the suffering they cause?

    If we all stopped sinning (I know that is impossible, but let’s imagine), the world would still be full of pain and suffering, because Nature would still “sin” against us and cause us pain. Or am I wrong? Would God finally “repair” Nature, if we were ever able to “repair” ourselves?

    I asked what the Church teaches on this subject, and the answers given above seem quite unclear to me. That might tell more about my lack of ability to understand than your ability to explain… Or, is it as simple as this: my way of trying to understand this “logically”, is simply a “dead end”?

    Btw; thank you for the different links to other very interesting articles. I have read them all.

    I really have a lot to chew on with this one…

  107. Thanks, Pettersen, for your reply. By the way, you should not think that none of us have had the same thoughts that you have (speaking for myself, anyway). They sort of logically follow. But let me pose a question to you:

    What would the world be like without suffering? I mean, no animal would kill another animal to eat it. Maybe not even plants, since on some level we think plants do seem indicate a kind of “awareness” (for lack of a better term) we can’t explain. I mean, at some level all life wants to live and not to die.

    So what would that life without suffering look like? Would we all be like animals in a zoo, hand fed by God without struggle? Would no one ever die (for is that not suffering)? Would nothing ever die? Would we still have reproduction, children? (But then that would make the world so crowded there would have to be suffering). I mean, think about it, how would that work? Would we all have to be drug addicts, so we wouldn’t suffer?

    This might seem irrelevant, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a kind of response to the question.

  108. Michael Bauman, utilitarianism or not – pain exists, and I simply (and maybe naively) wondered what the Church says about that matter of fact.

  109. Thank you, Janine! You are good at asking questions! I remember you from my last “riot” in another comment field on this blog 😉

    First of all; of course you have had these thoughts. I am sure you have heard questions and comments like mine a thousand times before, and I am very thankful for the fact that you still bother to answer me!

    I cannot imagine a world without suffering. My closest idea would be a picture of “Paradise”, but I honestly have no idea what that picture really looks like. I guess, in a “painless” universe, breaking a nail would be a monstrous disaster. We can only compare pain with the pain we know. If breaking a nail was the most terrible pain we knew of, then I guess we (or at least I) would still turn our faces to the sky and shout at God: why are you letting me suffer?

    I guess that to be able to know joy, we must also know pain. But still I wonder why some people experience so much more pain than others…

  110. Pettersen
    If somehow it happened and God “repaired” it, so that we (human beings) can focus on our own sins and all the suffering they cause, we would never focus on them.
    Suffering and death are put a stop to our endless appetite for sin this side of the grave.
    Cs Lewis is right to say: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. … Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.”
    The depths of our turning away from true good (God) are much deeper than we assume.

  111. Dino, do we really need to see innocent suffer, to remember God? Is that how low we have “fallen”? And what about the innocent themselves, how have they “turned away” from Him?

  112. Pain exists no doubt but the way we think about it and process it and question it is conditioned to some extent by one’s world view/philosophy and the view on one’s culture. Whether it is utilitarian or not, the Traditional view of the Church is largely pre-modern if it can be classified at all. Revealed is probably a better descriptor.

    To comphrend entirely requires entering into it. It has to be received. All questions are good if, as you do, they are asked wanting to know. But the assumptions of the Church and the experience of the Church are quite different.

    Coming to terms with how radical the Traditional Christian paradigm is required a lot of struggle and the questions do not magically go away. That is part of embracing the Cross. Ultimately it is embracing Christ’s death so we may enter into His life.

    We voluntarily share the suffering of others, in Christ, empathically giving up our own. Or so it seems is the path of holiness. Impossible without the grace of God. Yet the Book of Job gives us a shadow of it.

  113. Hi again everybody,

    Pettersen, there are a couple of things in these last two comments. First, you interestingly bring up a broken fingernail as a crisis. Have you ever known someone for whom a broken fingernail is a crisis? Believe me, this is not the picture of an enlightened moment 🙂 (I myself might have once been such a person, or at times found myself being that kind of person!!!) So, in a sense, you have brought up a very good example in answer to your own question.

    Also, Dino brings up the idea of suffering as teaching us something. Quite clearly, we are beings who have been created not to be static, but to grow and to learn. At least, we are born given the gift of this capacity. How does suffering play a part in that growth, even learning from our own mistakes? Moreover, let’s think about something else, many people suffering, let’s say everybody suffers. Look at the suffering of Christ. Why was His suffering so great? In some way, we are entering into this very same territory of our last go-around you mention, where we are coming to sacrifice. Why would we learn how to sacrifice?

    Here is a hint, the Cross is a kind of exchange of one way of life for another. Again, I remind of how many times Jesus taught us that the one who would give his life will save it. Think about what one sacrifices for. You became an architect, as one example. You suffered to study, to give your time, to learn something. It is an exchange. We are meant to grow — and the One we worship sacrificed for something and for others so we can all grow in what He offers us. Why? Is that leading to something good, beautiful, true, courageous, better? Is that making us better, or more than the world would teach us to be?

  114. But still I wonder why some people experience so much more pain than others…

    Petterson, there’s no such thing as actual equality in the world; there’s no “even distribution” of suffering (or anything else). Suffering is simply a reality of our lives, not something meted out onto us in even measure. There are truly horrific things that happen to people, both good and bad, but in the end the suffering holds no power. God has made provision for life and, while we can take part in that life here and now, it is not limited to here and now. Even after what we see as death, He provides.

    As Michael and Father have both noted, we embrace the Cross as Christ did. What happens, will happen. But it is not the end.

    And what about the innocent themselves, how have they “turned away” from Him?

    I think it is a mistake to only consider this from the standpoint of how we sin. If all have sinned, as scripture tells us, then all have turned away. God still provides; He does not leave us. One elder has remarked that as long as one soul resides in hell, Christ will be there with them. Our focus in all things is on the goodness of God and His love for His Creation; He does not leave us.

  115. Janine, the fingernail was just meant to illustrate my point: that even in a “painless” universe, we (or I) would have found something to complain about. As long as anything is “worse” or “better” than anything else, there will be suffering. In a universe where everything is the same, nothing is above the other, one could say that everything was “joy”. But, without something to compare this “joy” with, one could just as well say that everything was “pain”. I guess the meaning of words like “joy” is lost without its opposite. In a universe without opposites (Paradise?) everything is “joy”, and therefore everything is “pain”. This is how I see it, trying to be “logical”…

    So, where does this lead me? Joy presupposes its opposite, and vice versa. Thereby, to know “joy”, we must somehow know “pain”. One could argue that pain is given us as a gift so that we can learn to know joy?

    To answer your question: no, I do not know anyone who would see a broken fingernail as a crisis. Even in the “modern” world I live in, people I know seem to have a better understanding of life than that. And I have a hard time imagining you really being that person. I must admit I do not believe you 😉

  116. Haha, Pettersen, I will *not* invite you to watch American reality TV shows, but I assure you there are some for whom a broken fingernail (I grant you one that is probably expensively manicured) might be a great crisis. But I say that not to imply that the purpose of suffering is to teach us joy. Rather, there is that question of growth and learning, becoming greater than our selfishness or self-centeredness, expanding who we are. Ah, there’s that notion of sacrifice again.

  117. I start to understand that I cannot “understand” Faith from the “outside”. It cannot be explained. It is not a machine. It is Life.

  118. “It is not a machine. It is Life.”

    Very, very profound

    (And how does one make those italics anyway? )

  119. Pettersen,
    there are a myriad different variations to how suffering pans out,
    I recall St Isaac the Syrian listing all sorts of reasons,
    from creating an obstacles to the sin-lover,
    to purifying the already purified further,
    to granting true ownership of God’s own holiness to (innocent yet immature) sentient beings…

    There will always be questions if one wants to question (and answers if one wants them too),
    the overall ‘feeling’ that lingers in one’s soul, of either doubt or assurance, however,
    depends on one’s internal inclination.

  120. Also, I would say that Joy does not require it’s opposite (even though it clearly enhances one’s appreciation of joy) to be experienced as what it is.
    True joy is communion with Christ,
    you could call Christ: Joy, (as we call Him Truth, Life, Love in person).
    Our moving away from Him produces the opposite to true joy. It is not pain per se that produces it (despite our common experience of this)

    St Ignatius of Antioch and many other martyrs experienced this unshakeable joy in the midst of the most inconceivable tortures.

  121. Pettersen,
    Bottom line. The Orthodox Christian tradition holds that God created the world good, in all respects, including human beings and angels. However, in our freedom we chose to rebel (which is the meaning of sin). That rebellion included a portion of the angels (which is what are called demons). Our sin, we are told, is the cause of creation’s own being subjected to futility (subject to death and decay).

    Where all of that becomes impossible is when the question is put in terms of space/time linear history. We do not have a space/time linear history of the universe. We have the story of creation – which serves a different purpose. It will quickly become an impossible conversation if that same understanding is pressed for historical type information. Some Christians, obviously, interpret it in such a manner. I do not. I believe that the stories we have give us true, theological information on that matter and that we reason on that basis.

    I’ve given it in a simple form. I personally have a lot of thoughts/speculations about the question which I do not write about.

  122. Dear Pettersen,

    Orthodoxy teaches that the world was created good, but not perfect. Our first parents were innocent and immature, like children needing to grow and learn. The growth and learning was intended to have been accomplished within the love of God for them and their growing trust and love for God. In order to truly be a Person, one must be able to say “no” and have it stand. The first humans were given the opportunity for that to happen. Because their trust had been disturbed (we don’t know why or how this happened), instead of saying “no” to the serpent/temptation they said “no” to God in his direction about the tree. The “fall” was from a place of communion with the Source of All Life to a place of humans trying to maintain their lives through their own resources – which is impossible for created beings for whom everything is contingent. Most of the suffering in the world, aside from that caused by natural disasters, disease, etc., happens because humans are doing things (sin – in Hebrew in the Bible it means “missing the mark”, that we fall short of being the humans we were created to be – engaging, as every human does, in the many and varied types of death-dealing) that cause suffering on many levels, in order to try to preserve our own lives when we feel under any kind of threat (psychological as well as physical). I know your questions are more about the disaster and disease causes, but you did ask what Orthodoxy teaches, and this is my attempt at answering (in a limited way).

    Orthodoxy does not require that the scenario of the story of Eden be “historically” true as if a video camera were there recording things (see Fr Stephen’s writings about history) – though in all old and deep narratives there is some element of that kind of truth. But the point I’m trying to make is that there’s a difference in focus between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity regarding the first humans and humanity’s ultimate problem. Orthodoxy sees our present state as one of captivity to everything that would lead us into death and non-existence, rather than being free to move toward acquiring/receiving the transcendent life that comes from voluntary self-giving love (being like God). We are ignorant and have a disease – and we can’t enlighten and cure ourselves from inside our created-ness and captivity to death.

    Christ entering into death by means of crucifixion was God showing us the kind of God he is: voluntarily, because of his love, identifying and uniting himself with humanity all the way down through every kind of suffering into the most humiliating of conditions, death itself. But also, since Jesus was both God and innocent human, there was nothing within him by which Death could hold him. Therefore, because of Christ being both fully God and fully Human in the Incarnation, in Christ’s Death and Resurrection the ultimate power of death was broken. Death (and by extension suffering) is no longer the worst thing that can happen to us, since God, being the source of Life, went through it and came out the other side. So yes, suffering is both meaningless – in that it has no ultimate purpose or “body” of its own, so to speak – and something that can be filled with meaning if we let it lead us to transcend death through freely trusting in and saying “yes” and “thank You” to God who is truly Good. This is something which cannot be proven by logic or argument; one has to come to trust that it is True Reality, on the ground of God’s goodness, as Fr Stephen wrote above.

    All of the doctrine in the Orthodox Church is expressed in its worship services, and that’s one reason why curious people are advised to actually go to the worship services, and talk to a priest who can take the time to explain things. We do have a few theological works that summarize Orthodox doctrine as the consensus of the early Church Fathers – and we have about 3 dozen books that guide us in how to worship God! If you want to read a compendium of Orthodox doctrine, this is a good place to start:
    The site is easy to navigate; you can stop anywhere when you need to, and find your way back. It’s sequential, but you don’t have to read it that way. You’ll recognize some things you already know about Christianity, but some doctrinal emphases are very different than in both Catholicism and Protestantism.

    I grew up Christian and never wanted to be anything but a Christian. One of the reasons I came to Orthodoxy was that I found it to have adequate answers, within a Christian framework, for my own questions about suffering. Your questions are good and important.

    God jul!

  123. I personally have a lot of thoughts/speculations about the question which I do not write about.”
    Forgive me if I overstep my bounds here. I wish you could see my expression as I ask this…better yet, if you would pardon my bluntness. I mean no disrespect. But my first reaction was “like what?!” Do you hold back these thoughts because it would be too controversial? Maybe they are not helpful because they are speculative?
    I certainly trust your judgement, but I can not help but wonder. Because I also trust your knowledge. Better, your train of thought (when I can follow it!).
    But I can take “no” for an answer!!

  124. Thank for the help Byran, Michael, and Fr. Stephen

    But I think I got Dino in italics although html never seemed to work for me before … okay testing (feel free to delete!)

  125. Paula,
    Well, it’s because they are simply “speculations.” There are contexts and conversations where I can speculate out loud. However, on the blog, such thoughts are very public (and merely speculations). I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood or taken to be saying something when I was only speculating.

    Mostly, such speculating is simply me thinking about things that I do not know, but in a way that would be helpful were it so. But it has nothing more reliable about it than my speculation. A “speculation” doesn’t even rise to the level of an opinion. Hence, the silence.

    Believe me, I’d quickly be trolled for anything off the mark.

  126. Thanks Father. That’s what I thought.
    But I’d sure like to sit in conversation with you and talk about your musings!

  127. Regarding the teaching of all creation being fashioned good but not yet perfect, Fr. Tom Hopko musings are great:

    “So there’s a real question here whether the entire creation was paradise from the beginning. In this narrative, it doesn’t seem so. It seems that paradise is only where man is, and it’s only where man is in communion with God, where man is adoring God, obeying God, keeping God’s commandments, and his job is to make all of creation into paradise… That might be it. Who knows? But in the beginning you just have this little garden of Eden, this little paradise spot.”

  128. Interesting, Dino.
    Then there’s this thought (I believe from the writings of St Maximus) of the creation and the fall happening simultaneously. I remember Father mentioning this and me asking what that means. Right now, I can’t remember Father’s answer, and even if I could, I’d have difficulty explaining it. But I do know it made sense. Still does.
    It’s just hard to verbalize…for me, anyway.

  129. Alan,
    Mind you, I was 15 at the time, and lots of things would change in my life and mind. But, there was a book entitled, “On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence.” My older brother (5 years my senior) was shipping out to the military and Vietnam. He gave it to me as a parting gift. He said, “Read it and don’t go.” It had a profound effect on me at the time. This would have been 1968-9 or so. I became a pacifist at the time – simply based on the straight-forward notion that Jesus had meant what He said in the Sermon on the Mount. It wasn’t a sophisticated reading, I’ll admit.

    I read a number of things. I had become an Episcopalian (also through my brother’s influence), and enjoyed going to quiet services in a parish that was sort of “high and dry.” (Not smells and bells, etc.). It was the old days – 1928 BCP and no real discussion about the stuff that would come later. It was good nurturing.

    I ran into the Jesus Movement in 1970-71 and wound up spending a couple of years in a commune, drinking heavily at some pretty intense charismatic/pentecostal thought (which, strangely, is not at all mainline Protestant). I left that when I was in college (around ’74) having become rather burnt out. I “healed” a bit back in the quiet of a BCP liturgy and went to seminary, starting in ’77. That is brief history.

    I first read Lossky in 1975-76 – my introduction to Orthodox thought. I kept reading for some years to come and saw Orthodoxy as a “touchstone” of what was true. So, it’s odd that I did not convert until 1998. That’s probably as much of a comment on the state of American Orthodoxy as it is on me. I think it’s much easier to convert these days (it’s done a lot more often, and in English).

    BTW, I wouldn’t recommend anything by Tolstoy these days.

  130. Thanks Father. I appreciate the reply and also the biographical information. I’ve been reading your (great) posts for many years and yet didn’t know most of what you just wrote.

    Funny, shortly after I hit the “submit” button on my comment, it occurred to me that reading Tolstoy likely wouldn’t be beneficial to me. Good to know that thought I had was correct.

  131. Alan,
    When I became Orthodox, there were those who, knowing me as an Anglican, wanted to write about “my story.” I asked them not to – in that I saw myself as a penitent entering the Church. I’m keenly aware both of my many sins over those years – and half-hearted compromises, and such. There’s not a lot I take pride in. What I do see – and rather clearly – is that God had always been at work in my through His Providence and was doing greater things and and for me than I was asking for or imagining. That is still the case. That my writing is useful to some is something for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s also the case that its usefulness (or effectiveness) is unplanned and unguided. It simply is what it is. I remain profoundly aware of how little I know – perhaps how little most of us know. But, in a time of great hunger, anyone who can scramble up a crust of bread will be seen as a benefactor.

    We live in such difficult times.

  132. Hi Pettersen and all,

    I wanted to share some thoughts on the bird eating the other bird

    When we look to the ecosystems we see the reality of hunger, and the strong eat the weak. We also see in human relations in the fallen world how the strong force the weak to work, holding back the wages.

    In Christ we have the absolute reversal of this. The Stong does not eat the weak but gives Himself to us as Food. Jesus is the Bread of Eternal Life.

    We are deeply fragile. Our encounter with hunger and longing is an important part of realizing our need.

    The image of the fallen world is that the strong crush the weak, but it is not so in Christ. Some followed him for physical bread only, the problem of day to day life. Christ knew the true problem was emptiness and starvation of living to simply enter the grave. So He is the Warrior King who enters death, breaks down the walls of the prison and fills it with life. He went into death and though humans die, because of Christ we are not hopeless at the grave.

    I have noticed that when a gift is given to me, if there is a real need for it, I experience a bit of shame in accepting the gift. And the giver of the gift also takes a risk. The risk is that the gift, when received, will become simply an object and the giver forgotten. A gift is never an object, never a thing. The giver is always attached to it. I used to wear a scarf around my neck even when teaching and would tell my students it reminded me of my sister who gave it to me, and how blessed I am to have her as a sister.

    God who is so immeasurably Good has given such a gift to humans, in our lives, but the gift is so great we take ownership of it and call it our own without reference to Him. That is part of what happens when each of us falls, we believe a lie. But the hunger inside us can become so great, and the eating of dead things so insufficient, that we may begin to hunger for true Life.

    You are right in that a good God would not leave creation to be crushed. He knew when He gave us the gift that we would turn from him, believing the lie, and become vulnerable to death.

    We have been so gifted that we may mistakenly believe we are in control and can set the right course of action for our lives. When we see children die we are reminded we don’t get to stay here forever. We should not see an error God made, but a person who may teach us what we have forgotten. Christ did not just suffer on the Cross. When you see another person suffer sickness know that Christ suffers it as well. He fills all things. He bore fully the weight of sin, and does not leave us alone in our suffering. This enables us to go with courage into the difficulties of our lives, because we know He is there too.

  133. There is evil present in the world and it’s effects touch the the innocent as well as the rest of us. Nature is also affected by the doings of men. Faith, humility, putting on the armor of God’s mercy and love. Doing the next good thing in our world neighborhood is the way forward, that I see. And that is hard enough. Is there a way to speak of evil that can be helpful? Outside of knowing it is there? Is it by being silenced in the face of it? That certainly can happen, and does not seem right. To stand against evil, all I can think of is putting on the armor of God. “Call on me in the day of trouble and I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 50:35 To ‘deliver’ is to allow ourselves to be in the will of God. Unfortunately , our desires often cloud our perceptions, and I have found myself very outside the will of God in my life for sometimes long periods of time. Lord have mercy!

  134. Christa, may His mercy be with us all. I have spoken of it before but my Dad was a local community health director an MD with a Masters of Public Health. Though not a Christian he walked in the knowledge of God with us. He approached his calling with a philosophy similar in content to “do the next good thing”. His knew that the health of the community he oversaw was improved if the health of one person was improved. Therefore he looked for ways to improve the health of unique people knowing that by doing so, he improved the health of all. He resisted the ‘change the world’ way of thinking.

    He saw evil everyday in the midst of those who needed his help the most and in the souls of many of the politicians to whom he was accountable.

    He taught me a lot about refusing to just give in to the evil. But it was also my first exposure to the life and healing that comes when the immediate need I see right in front of me is addressed.

    Being more than a little dense it has taken me 73 years to begin to understand that a little and then only due to Fr. Stephen.

  135. Christa,
    St Paul told us to “overcome evil by doing good.” Thinking too much about evil easily becomes overwhelming, particularly when we want to “do something about it.” It is for to concentrate on doing good and it is for God to see that our good actions accomplish what He intends. We simply never really know the full outcome of our actions. It is why the Scriptures are so simple in their instructions to us, while the world is chock full of plans, good intentions, and lousy outcomes.

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