The Point of Suffering

Over the past few years, certain images have been burned deep into our memories. One is the published composite of hundreds of faces of rescue workers who never returned from the World Trade Center. Another is the row upon row of simple headstones on a well-manicured bluff overlooking the tranquil beach of Normandy. Many in our midst have not yet been released from images of the brutality endured in southeast Asia. And these are only a few examples of the horrors that we carry around within us.

What is the point of all this suffering? If God is so good, why are we subjected to so much pain? People have always tried to provide answers to such questions. Many of these answers are found within our own religious tradition. Suffering is punishment for sin; it is a trial to test the mettle of our virtue; it is an opportunity to strengthen our inner beings; or, as we find in the Book of Job, it is a mystery beyond our comprehension. I wonder whether the people referred to above would be satisfied with such answers.


The readings for today could be considered troublesome. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the servant was actually afflicted by God. The passage from Hebrews says that Christ too was tested. Then in the Gospel, two of Jesus’ closest companions are told that they must drink the cup of suffering that he drinks. These pictures do not offer a very consoling message.

Was God really “pleased” to “crush” the servant of whom Isaiah spoke? Or did God allow the servant to be crushed so that others might somehow be saved? In the same vein, the author of Hebrews says that Christ, the great high priest, was tested so that we might receive mercy and find grace. In these readings, one person suffers for the sake of others. Is that fair? But is that the question placed before us today? The servant and Christ have both moved beyond the question of whether or not suffering is fair to the point where they seek to bring good out of suffering.

This still does not explain why there is suffering in the first place. Some have said that it exists because God has created an imperfect world. But is imperfect the right word to explain our world? Wouldn’t it be better to say that God created a world that is in constant flux? Every branch of science today recognizes this flux without labeling it imperfect. The pains of growth and diminishment are part of that flux, as is some of the suffering born of some human choices. Does that make the world imperfect?

On the other hand, we cannot deny that sometimes we make deliberate sinful decisions, and these decisions do in fact spawn suffering in ourselves and in others. But to acknowledge this is quite different from claiming that suffering is a punishment from God. Once again we are thrown back on the incomprehensibility of this mystery.

The message of these first two readings has little or nothing to do with the why of suffering. Rather, they focus on the value that might be derived from it. This theme is developed in the Gospel. James and John realize how privileged they are to be numbered among Jesus’ closest friends, and they seek the glory that they presume accompanies such privilege. Much to their surprise, Jesus offers them a share in his own cup of suffering. They are told that the way to exercise authority over others is through service to them. Jesus’ words should alert us to the reversal of perspective that following him so often requires. If discipleship and leadership are to be understood in a new way, perhaps the same is true for suffering.

“Offering for sin,” “tested in every way,” “give [one’s] life as a ransom for many”—this is not the kind of theological language that we normally use today. But we do understand unselfish service, the willingness to risk one’s life for another and commitment to others beyond the call of duty. In such circumstances, a heavy price is usually exacted, even though we might not give a second thought to the suffering involved.

Suffering of various kinds and intensities explodes in the life of every human being. We cannot stave it off, regardless of how innocent we may be. If we are to be true followers of Christ, we will have to learn how we might use it to accomplish something good. When we make this decision, we might find ourselves saying, “Take my arm; lean on me; let me help,” or “I will not retaliate; the anger and violence will stop with me,” or “I will do whatever I can so that no one else will have to endure what I have endured.” The grace of God helps us see that there can be a point to suffering.

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