Why do we suffer? The problem of suffering seems to implicate God. The argument usually is framed this way: Because God allows horrific suffering, then God (if there is a God) is either not all-good, not all-powerful or not all-knowing. Job is a perfect foil to poor responses to this problem, the chief being that you suffer because you deserve it. This is what his friends argue, but Job will have none of it. We know that Job is righteous and does not deserve to suffer as he does. He bemoans the human condition: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of a hireling?”
We also know that the chaos in Job’s life is caused by a kind of bet between Satan and God. While the biblical figure of Satan has yet to take on the identity of Lucifer, Satan here is no benevolent spirit. Ha-Satan (Hebrew for “the adversary”) is responsible for making Job’s life a living hell.
By Jesus’ day, Satan had emerged as the Prince of Darkness, with his minions harassing humans on every level, physically, mentally and spiritually. Given the breadth of Satan’s attack, the lines that we would draw between spiritual evil and physical sickness were far more blurred. So when the Gospel reading today says that Jesus “cured many who were sick…and drove out many demons,” we should see these healings as neither completely identical in kind nor entirely different. The Lord conquers evil on every level, and the physical, moral and spiritual interpenetrate one another.
The reading begins with Jesus entering the family house of Peter and Andrew, where “Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever.” Jesus “grasped her hand and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” These lines have led to more than a few complaints: Just recovered and she has to wait on them!
We should go a step deeper here. Mark tells us that Jesus healed her and then raised her (?geiren), Mark’s term for Jesus’ own resurrection (16:6). And when Mark tells us that she served them (di?konei), he uses the word with which Jesus describes his own mission and indicates what he expects of true discipleship: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (10:44-45). Peter’s mother-in-law’s experience of the Lord reflects how the kingdom works, from healing to discipleship.
You may have noticed that I have so far avoided the problem of suffering. There are some partial answers. We know that everything not-God is, by definition, vulnerable (even angels, as Satan proves). We also know that without the possibility of moral evil no one would have free will of any significance. Additionally, most of us have experienced suffering as an important context in which to grow morally and spiritually. Any compassion that I have is directly founded on my own suffering. And surely responding to suffering binds us to one another powerfully. At the end of the day, nothing witnesses to love or purifies it better than suffering for love.
Of course, some suffering is so grotesque that these answers to the problem of suffering simply fall flat. This observation, in fact, parallels the ending of the story of Job. God tells Job’s friends that they were dead wrong about Job. But God also tells Job that there are no good (that is, complete) human answers to the problem. The mystery of suffering remains an enigma.
Perhaps what the Scriptures reveal to us is that while suffering cannot be solved, it can be skillfully addressed. Blaming the victim (“You deserved it”) or trivializing suffering (“Just praise God”) only makes things worse. Both are foolish and alienating. Real engagement takes suffering seriously. Real engagement leans into the pain with compassion and love. Real engagement walks with the other with gentle faith in our Lord, who came to heal and serve and, indeed, to enter human suffering deeply and personally.