Suffering is an inescapable aspect of human life in the present world. Suffering, affliction and tragic experiences disclose the vulnerable nature of human life; it enables us to recognize our limitations as human beings and our dependence upon others and upon God for sustenance in life. Suffering has the potential to lead human beings either to despair, misery and self enclosure or to transcendence through hope and faith, trusting the benevolence of God and His covenant relationship with His people.
There is a strong instinct in humans to seek reason(s) for their suffering. Why? Why me? These questions emerge from every human experience of suffering. The need to search for the causes of suffering is deeply engrained in us. Sometimes we find the answer and modify our behavior in the light of bad experiences. But, sometimes the causes are beyond our knowledge or control, and the search leads to increased frustration, misplaced guilt or blaming others. Yet, we find it hard to accept that we may never know the real reason for our suffering. We resent the inexplicable mystery, especially when we feel helpless and numb in the face of meaningless suffering. Thus, our search for meaning and explanations employs all our rational capacities to find intelligible causes for the inexplicable.
Every act and any reflection on suffering and death must begin by doing justice to actual human experience. Not all suffering is meaningless. Suffering can be an opportunity for maturation; an occasion to direct one’s life to the essential. Nevertheless, the suffering which one most often encounters is deadening, barbaric, and meaningless. The concrete experience of human suffering continues to call for a response, continues to raise the issue of its meaningfulness or, alternately, its meaninglessness. Suffering can never be kept at a distance: I am always involved in it; I share in it, either personally or insofar as I share in the lives of the others.
Undeserved suffering makes suffering intolerable in a world which is not ruled by irrational fate but by the just and powerful God. In Scripture, we find multiple responses and interpretations of what suffering means in a theocentric structure of reality. All of them, however, are worth understanding and may help in dealing with our own suffering and that of others. Yet, none of these approaches is fully satisfactory taken on its own. Each one of them is a helpful resource to cope with suffering since escape from suffering as long as we live in history is impossible.
Suffering is not a problem, but an unfathomable, theoretically incomprehensible mystery. We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky's own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection. When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story.
The Suffering of Jesus
The suffering and death of Jesus were the outcome of his public ministry, his preaching and making present the reign of God. The death of Jesus cannot be an isolated act of redemption detached from what transpired in His life. The crucifixion of Jesus was the intrinsic historical consequence of both His message and His lifestyle. The cross is salvific only in light of what God has accomplished in the Resurrection. The Crucifixion of Jesus should be envisioned as the ultimate expression of human rejection of salvation-from-God offered in Jesus. God, who according to Leviticus ‘abominates human sacrifices’ (Lev. 18:21–30; 20:1–5), did not put Jesus on the Cross. Human beings did that. Although God always comes in power, divine power knows no use of force, not even against those who had crucified Christ. But the kingdom of God still comes, despite human misuse of power and human rejection of God’s love.
The fact that Jesus in the last supper with His disciples offered the cup to His disciples for one last time, with the trust that He will drink it anew in the reign of God (Mk. 14:25), indicates Jesus’ trust that His communion with God and with His disciples was stronger than death. Jesus’ cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” taken from the opening line of Psalm 22, should be interpreted in light of the entire psalm. Read as a whole, this psalm is a prayer of anguish but also a confession of trust in God. And it concludes with an expression of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance by God. These words reflect Jesus’ persistent trust in God even amidst the experience of darkness and the apparent failure of His mission.
God does not intervene to save Jesus, but neither does God abandon Jesus. Jesus’ life ends with an open question to God, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God answers to the crucified Jesus by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him. The resurrection signifies that God is present in the suffering of Jesus and of every human person. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, this could lead to the mistaken impression that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer. This silent presence of God to Jesus becomes manifest in the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus confirms and completes all that Jesus was about in His life. The bottom line of the Christian faith is that God will be victorious over evil and suffering, as exhibited and effected in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
God’s relation to suffering has practical consequences for Christian life. It means that Christians are called to be people of memory and action. First, believers in Christ keep the memory of human suffering – the memory of the ongoing passion of humanity. Christians are summoned to live in solidarity with suffering people and to enable suppressed stories of suffering to be told, whether they be the stories of individuals in pain or stories of peoples who are victims of systematic oppression. Christians also keep the memory of another story– the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is this story, remembered and lived out, that speaks to us about the God of the kingdom who overcame the death of Jesus in the resurrection and who is on the move to overcome all evil and suffering. The story of Jesus assures us that entering into communion with suffering people and acting to bring life out of death is what God is doing for all people. Being attentive and hearing the stories of the afflicted and oppressed people and responding to their needs with compassion, care, and love and actively working against the causes of suffering provide opportunities to participate in God’s mercy and become true icons of His presence in the world. As Christians, we see the presence of the suffering Christ in our suffering brethren.