The story of Job, history’s most famous sufferer, raises questions that never go away. We naturally turn to religion to help us respond to these questions, but religion does not offer uniform answers, and people do not always respond to their religious background in expected ways. If religion is a genuine resource to sufferers, we need to clarify its role and acknowledge its limitations. Although we often speak of “the meaning of pain and suffering,” that’s not something religion provides. The real concern of religion is not suffering; it is the sufferer. Pain and suffering have no meaning in themselves. But we can find meaning in our sufferings.
On two occasions, according to the Gospels, Jesus had the opportunity to explain why tragedy strikes (John 9:1-3; Luke 13:1-5). Why do some people suffer, while others go free? And both times he turned the discussion in another direction. The important thing, he said in effect, is not the reason for suffering but our response to suffering, not why we suffer but what we do when suffering comes.
The experience of suffering presents us with a number of perplexing paradoxes. For most of human history, disease and death were part of everyday experience. People faced the pain life brought, did their best to cope with it, and moved on. Ironically, however, the more effective our attempts have become to resist disease and death, the more perplexing they seem to be. Now, thanks to medical science, people suffer much less in life than they would have in the past, yet they are more upset by it than before. The less we have to suffer, it seems, the more our suffering bothers us.
Another paradox is the fact that suffering always seems to take us by surprise. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that everybody suffers. Yet nothing seems more incomprehensible than my own suffering. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says of death, it comes to thee and to thee, but not to me. The writer William Saroyan said, “I knew that everybody died. But in my case I thought there would be an exception.” And the fact is, there are no exceptions. Not even for nice people. Not even for religious people.
And this brings us to another paradox—the strikingly different effects that suffering has on religion. On the one hand, suffering poses a tremendous challenge to faith. Philosophers and theologians regard it as the greatest challenge to religious belief. One says it is the only atheistic argument that deserves to be taken seriously. Another says that undeserved suffering is a greater obstacle to faith than all the theoretical and philosophical objections ever devised, all put together. It is the “rock on which atheism rests.” At the same time, suffering sometimes has a positive effect on religious belief. Many people find themselves drawing closer to God when they suffer. A young woman I know who spent several years as a hospice worker said that in her experience nobody died an atheist. Everyone she knew came to terms with God in the end.
Of course, the greatest paradox suffering presents us with is the apparent discrepancy between the power of God and the realities of life. If God is all-powerful, why does anyone suffer? An omnipotent being has power to create any kind of world he wants to and to change anything in the world he wants to instantaneously. If such a being exists, surely he would eliminate suffering, or prevent it, or at least limit it?
Historically, people have responded to this problem in two principal ways. One is to move suffering outside God’s will, to maintain that God is not responsible for suffering. The most popular version of this approach appeals to free will. God endowed his creatures with the capacity to obey him or to disobey. They disobeyed, and the world now suffers the consequences. So, it was human rebellion that ultimately accounts for the sorrows of the world. God did not cause it or will it. It was never God’s plan that we suffer.
The contrasting response to the problem of evil is to place suffering inside God’s will. Things may appear to be out of control, goes this line of thought, but God is nevertheless completely in charge of creation. And everything that happens has a place in his plan. We may not understand why God does things the way he does, but we can be sure that it is all for the best. Everything we go through, even the darkest chapters of our lives, is just what we need. God uses this painful process to develop our characters and bring us to moral perfection. In time, we will see that God’s will is perfect.
Now each of these responses generates a long list of questions. Some people cannot understand how creatures who were perfect at the moment of creation could ever rebel against their maker. Others wonder why an all-powerful creator could not create beings who are free yet always use their freedom to do the right thing.
As for the other response, the idea that everything happens for the best seems contradicted by our experience. The soul-making, or character development, God is bringing about does not seem very cost effective. Is it really necessary for us to suffer this much in order to learn the lessons we need to learn? History’s horrendous evils hardly seem to justify whatever lessons we learn from them—if indeed we learn any.
There are responses to these questions and further questions about these responses, and so on, in an endless cycle of philosophical point-counterpoint. I admit that I enjoy such discussions. I think they serve an important purpose. But their value in showing the meaning of suffering is limited. Each one gets us part way down the road, but none of them goes the distance and provides a satisfying solution to the problem of evil. And the obstacle that brings even the best of them to a halt is concrete human suffering. All the theories in the world cannot stand up to the misery of a single sufferer.
One of the most powerful expressions of this insight comes from Dostoyevsky. In one passage in The Brothers Karamazov, the skeptical Ivan is challenging his brother Aloysha, a tender soul who has become a novice monk. “Imagine that you are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, … raise [the universe] on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.” “No, I would not agree,” Aloysha said, and neither would we. Theories founder on the shoals of human suffering. No explanation makes it intelligible.
There are times when religious beliefs seem to make suffering even worse. I once heard two physicians agree that their religious patients had a more difficult time coming to terms with a serious illness than non-religious ones. The believers had all sorts of why-me and why-God questions that did not perplex unbelievers. Unbelievers had fewer expectations, so they were less inclined to feel that life had let them down.
Something is obviously wrong when solutions turn out to be problems, and our attempts to make things better wind up making them worse. When we are not getting good answers to our questions, the problem isn’t always the answers. Sometimes it is the questions we are asking.
The Christian Story
The cross and the resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian story, and they are indispensable to a Christian perspective on suffering. According to the Gospels, Jesus approached the cross with fear and apprehension. During the last night of his life, he asked his closest friends to watch with him, and he fervently prayed that God would spare him the bitter cup that lay ahead. His hopes notwithstanding, he endured the agony of the cross. And his cry of desolation, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me!” reveals the depths of anguish to which he sank. With his resurrection, of course, Jesus broke the power of death, reversed the condemnation of the cross, and reunited with the Father.
The cross points to the inevitability of suffering in this world. Jesus did not avoid suffering, and neither can we. At the same time, Jesus’ anguish confirms our basic intuition that suffering is wrong. There is a tragic abnormality to our existence. We know that we are susceptible to suffering and death; we also sense that we were not meant for them.
The cross also affirms Jesus’ solidarity with us in our sufferings. It reminds us that we are never alone, no matter how dark and oppressive our situation may be. Because Jesus endured the cross, nothing can happen to us that he has not been through himself—physical pain and hardship, separation from family and friends, the loss of worldly goods and reputation, the animosity of those we try to help, even spiritual isolation—he knew it all.
If the cross reminds us that suffering is unavoidable, the resurrection assures us that suffering never has the last word. Jesus could not avoid the cross, but he was not imprisoned by it. The empty tomb is our assurance that suffering is temporary. From the perspective of Christian hope, the time will come when suffering will be a thing of the past.
For Christian faith, cross and resurrection are inseparable, and we must always see them together. Without the resurrection, the cross would be the last sad chapter in the story of a noble life. Jesus’ death would simply illustrate the grim fact that the good often die young, with their dreams unfulfilled and their hopes dashed. In light of the resurrection, however, the cross is a great victory, the central act in God’s response to the problem of suffering. So, the resurrection transforms the cross. It turns tragedy into triumph.
In a similar way, the resurrection needs the cross. Standing alone, the resurrection seems to offer an easy escape from the rigors of this world. It would lead to us to look for a detour around the difficulties of life. If God has the power to raise the dead, then surely he can insulate us from pain and sorrow; he can prevent us from suffering. But before the resurrection comes the cross. And this forces us to recognize that God often leads us through perils, rather than around them. He does not promise to lift us dramatically and miraculously out of harm’s way. Just as Jesus had his cross to bear, all his followers have theirs as well (cf. Matthew 16:24). Jesus’ promise to be with us in our sufferings also calls us to be with him in his sufferings.
There is a small chapel on the Appian Way a short distance from Rome whose front wall bears the inscription, “Quo vadis, Domine?” According to legend, Peter was fleeing Rome during a time of persecution when he encountered Christ heading toward the city. “Where are you going, Lord?” he asked. And Jesus answered, “I’m going to Rome, to be crucified again.” With that, Peter realized he was traveling in the wrong direction, so he turned around to be with Jesus.
How shall we face suffering?
People who are suffering need to know, first of all, that suffering is real and suffering is wrong. Suffering involves the loss of good things. Our instinctive response to suffering is “Oh, no. This isn’t right. This is not supposed to happen to me.” We should affirm that insight. We were not meant to suffer.
We add insult to injury when we tell people their problems are not so bad, compared to what others have gone through, or that their difficulties are all for the best, or that this was supposed to happen for some inscrutable reason—because they need it, or deserve it, or will somehow benefit from it, or perhaps worst of all, that they are being punished through it.
If there are any benefits that accompany suffering, they come not because suffering is good, but in spite of the fact that suffering is bad.
The biblical book of Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, gives full expression to the depths of human woe. In fact, more than half of these ancient religious songs concern what one writer calls “the wintry landscape of the heart.” There is great comfort in these poems because suffering people need to know their sufferings are acknowledged.
Church historian Martin Marty describes losing his wife to cancer after nearly thirty years of marriage. During the months of her final hospitalization, they took turns reading a Psalm at the time of each midnight medication. He read the even numbered psalms; she read the odd numbered psalms. “But after a particularly wretched day’s bout that wracked her body and my soul,” he writes, I did not feel up to reading a particularly somber psalm, so I passed over it. 'What happened to Psalm 88,' she said. 'Why did you skip it?' 'I didn’t think you could take it tonight. I am not sure I could. No: I am sure I could not.' 'Please read it for me,' she said. 'All right: I cry out in the night before thee. For my soul is full of trouble. Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.' 'Thank you, she said, I need that kind the most.'
“After that conversation we continued to speak,” Marty recalls, “slowly and quietly, in the bleakness of the midnight but in the warmth of each other’s presence. We agreed that often the starkest scriptures were the most credible signals of God’s presence and came in the worst time. When life gets down to basics, of course one wants the consoling words, the comforting sayings, the voices of hope preserved on printed pages. But they make sense only against the background … of the dark words.”
Marty’s experience affirms the right of people to face their suffering openly. People need to know that their trials are appreciated.
In a book responding to the loss of his son, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes the struggle to “own his grief,” as he put it. “The modern Western practice is to disown one’s grief: to get over it, to put it behind one, to get on with life, to put it out of mind, to insure that it not become part of one’s identity.” To see his point we have only to think of the facile way newscasters talk of “healing” and “closure” just hours after some terrible tragedy has occurred. “My struggle,” Wolterstorff said, “was to own [my grief], to make it part of my identity: if you want to know who I am, you must know that I am one whose son died.”
In a similar vein Gerald Sittser speaks of embracing the sorrow that engulfed him when he lost three members of his family in an automobile collision. To deal with the tragedy effectively, he found he could not go around his grief; he had to go through it. He had to penetrate its depths.
Although it is important to acknowledge that suffering is real and suffering is wrong, it is equally important to insist that suffering does not have the last word. Suffering may be an inescapable part of our story, but it is not the whole story. We can be larger than our sufferings.
People transcend their sufferings in several ways. One is courageously refusing to let suffering dominate them. This is the central point in Viktor Frankl’s well-known book Man’s Search for Meaning. When every freedom is taken away, one freedom always remains—the freedom to choose our response. When we cannot change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. And of course, the greater the challenge, the greater our courage must be. Frankl quotes Dostoyevsky: “There is only one thing that I dread, not to be worthy of my sufferings!” No matter how desperate our situation, we can surmount it by refusing to let it define our significance. We can be greater than our sufferings.
This call to courage rests on the conviction that our suffering does not diminish our value as human beings. This is a message that caregivers can provide. This is especially important when we remember what our society relies on as the basis of personal worth. We glorify the young, the healthy, the athletic.
We also honor productivity, or usefulness. In fact, we identify people with what they do. Have you noticed, whenever a newspaper mentions a person’s name, it always follows it with an occupation? We ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We describe older people in terms of what they used to do. We speak of them as retired schoolteachers, bus drivers, or dentists. It is as if children are not yet fully human and older persons are fully human no longer. One of the biggest concerns of people who are suffering from illness or injury is the fear of losing their usefulness. My father-in-law underwent bypass surgery for the second time last summer. One of his post-operative complaints was the fear that he could no longer be useful. If he couldn’t be productive, life was not worth living.
We also transcend our sufferings when we realize that we do not suffer alone. God is with us in our sufferings. According to Christian faith, the story of Jesus is God’s own story, and its great climax is the crucifixion—a moment of indescribable anguish. Some people believe that Christ suffered so we won’t have to. But the cross represents solidarity as well as substitution. Christ not only suffers for us, Christ sufferswith us.
From the Christian perspective, this is a testimony to the fact that God is with us in our suffering, that everything that happens to us makes a difference to him. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the ringing assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—not trouble, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—nothing can separate us from him (Romans 8:35-39).
I used to believe that nothing could separate us from God because he is always there for us on the other side of the ordeal, no matter now bad it gets. But there’s another way to look at it. None of these things can separate us from God, not because he is waiting for us after they are over, but because he is with us while they happen. In the words of the most famous passage in the Bible, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Suffering does not have the last word for those who have confidence for the future, so a final element in the Christian perspective on suffering is hope. One form of hope is the conviction that suffering counts for something, that it contributes to the achievement of some worthy goal. We have an instinctive desire to redeem tragedy by using it for some good purpose. Think of the good things that families often do to respond to the loss of a child, for example. We have an inherent desire to make our suffering and the suffering of those we love count for something. They must not lie there, gaping holes in the fabric of life. We must somehow mend them, learn from them, grow beyond them. And religious faith sustains this hope with the assurance that in everything God works for good (Romans 8:28).
For many people, hope also takes the shape of a future beyond death, a realm of existence where suffering is a thing of the past. It is possible to claim too much here. And it is possible to claim it in the wrong way. Any assurance of life beyond must take into account one's own faith stance and that of the patient. *But Christianity offers the assurance of a love that is stronger than anything, a love from which not even death can separate us.
My uncle died of Parkinson’s disease and was bed-ridden for the last four years of his life. My aunt cared for him day and night during that entire time, with the exception of a one-hour visit each day from county caregivers. The other night I asked her the questions that form the title of our conference—What hurts? What works? One of the things she mentioned was the fact that his caregivers allowed him to contribute to them. In spite of his situation, his good nature, his faith, his sense of humor, came through, and they made an impact. In fact, not long after he died, one of the caregivers made a life-changing decision in part because of his influence.
What is the meaning of pain and suffering? Suffering has no meaning. But we can find meaning in, through, andin spite of suffering. And religious faith is our greatest resource for doing so.
Loma Linda University
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
 Martin E. Marty, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), pp. xi-xii.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, "The Grace That Shaped My Life," in Philosophers Who
Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Eleven Leading Thinkers, ed. Kelly James
Clark (InterVarsity, 1993), pp. 273-275.
 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington Square, 1985), p. 87.