Why does suffering exist? Sometimes, the question is raised as a theological objection, as part of the problem of evil: if an infinite and all-good God existed, “there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.” But other times, it’s more of a cri de cœur. We see suffering on the news, amongst those we love, and in our own lives. We feel it, we experience it, and we cry out “Why, God?”
Pope St. John Paul II, who died twelve years ago yesterday, explored this in Salvifici Doloris, his encyclical on “the Christian meaning of human suffering.” It’s worth working through the encyclical to come to a deeper understanding of this critical question.
St. John Paul II begins the encyclical by noting something fascinating (even bizarre!) about Christianity – an embrace of suffering. Consider Buddhism’s four noble truths, which teach that all life is suffering, that this suffering is caused by human desire, and that the path of freedom is to rid ourselves of desire. In other words, all of life is suffering, and suffering is an evil to be fled, even if it means fleeing from all craving and desire in the process. That’s an understandable response to suffering. But contrast it with the Scriptural message found in places like Colossians 1:24 (SD 1):
Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”(1).
These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”(2). The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.
Mind you, this is how John Paul opens his encyclical: a bold statement that suffering isn’t simply something to run away from, but actually has meaning, even salvific meaning. Indeed, our Redemption “was accomplished through the Cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering” (SD 3).
So where does he go from here?
I. Suffering and Evil
Suffering is at once a universal and an intensely personal problem. Suffering is felt most profoundly within the sufferer. Within each of us, suffering presents itself as “a finite and unrepeatable entity” (SD 8). Your suffering feels differently than does my suffering, even if we’re suffering from the same thing. And yet, there’s also why John Paul calls “the interhuman and social dimension”:
The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists “in dispersion”, at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity.
So suffering is both individual and communal, interior and exterior. Therefore, John Paul II wrote (SD 5):
Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man’s concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its “objective reality”, to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.
Some types of suffering, like physical illness, are obvious. Others, like mental and spiritual wounds, may be hidden and hard to put into words. Scripture, which John Paul describes as “a great book about suffering,” describes several different types of sufferings, from the death of one’s children, to nostalgia for one’s homeland, to the experiences of mockery, loneliness, and guilt, Always, suffering has a psychological component: whether you’re struggling with a broken leg or a broken heart, that pain is present to you internally.
In considering suffering in all of its countless forms, John Paul points to a significant insight (SD 7):
In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.
Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: what is evil?
In other words, we can’t understand suffering without understanding evil. At first blush, it seems like John Paul is just making the problem worse – it’s hard enough to understand one of these, without trying to grapple with both. But in fact, he’s starting to show why Christianity is uniquely equipped to deal with this question, and it explains why our answers sound very different than, say, Buddhist answers (SD 7):
This questions seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he a ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.
This is a critical point: evil doesn’t possess its own existence. Goodness can be understood on its own. Evil can’t be understood apart from good. If good is the donut, evil is the donut hole, and it doesn’t exist without goodness to frame it. This is why we can imagine a perfectly-good world, but a perfectly-evil world is literally unimaginable. Why is that? Because when we say that something is evil, we’re saying that something different ought to be. That’s how John Paul can say that all evil is “a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good.”
All of this leads to John Paul’s first conclusion, that “in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good” (SD 7).
II. The Old Testament Answer to Why We Suffer
At this point, we get to the real heart of the question of the human experience of suffering: why? (SD 9)
Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? It is a question about the cause, the reason, and equally, about the purpose of suffering, and, in brief, a question about its meaning. [….] only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and wonders why; and he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil. Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we are always, at least to a certain extent, asking a question about suffering too.
Interestingly, “man does not put this question to the world, even though it is from the world that suffering often comes to him, but he puts it to God as the Creator and Lord of the world” (SD 9). And it’s when we don’t feel satisfied with God’s answer that we’re tempted to despair or deny. So what does God reveal by way of answer?
The first answer is suffering as punishment. Several Old Testament Books present “suffering as punishment inflicted by God for human sins” (SD 10). If your neighbor is suffering, he must have deserved it. It’s a simple (and thus temptingly attractive) answer. It’s the answer televangelist Pat Robertson gave in response to Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti: the victims (or at least their countries) must have done something to merit God’s wrath.
But the Old Testament, and particularly the Book of Job, actually upends this simplistic answer (SD 11). When Job’s friends, the Pat Robertsons of the days, came along with their haughty self-assurance that Job’s suffering must be a result of his own sins, they’re wrong. Job is ultimately vindicated as having been innocent – and he’s never given an explanation for the sufferings he underwent. So how do we fit this piece into the puzzle? (SD 11):
The Book of Job does not violate the foundations of the transcendent moral order, based upon justice, as they are set forth by the whole of Revelation, in both the Old and the New Covenants. At the same time, however, this Book shows with all firmness that the principles of this order cannot be applied in an exclusive and superficial way. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. Revelation, which is the word of God himself, with complete frankness presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt. Job has not been punished, there was no reason for inflicting a punishment on him, even if he has been subjected to a grievous trial. […] And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter’s righteousness. The suffering has the nature of a test.
So we can’t simply say that suffering is a punishment or the result of our own bad acts. Job was being tested, not punished, and it was his righteousness, not his wickedness, that led to his suffering.
So far, Job has shown us that “suffering strikes the innocent, but it does not yet give the solution to the problem” (SD 12); left on its own, the Book of Job seems “even seems to trivialize and impoverish the concept of justice which we encounter in Revelation” (SD 11).
But there’s one more element to the Old Testament treatment of suffering: suffering as discipline. In 2 Maccabees 6:12, the author writes, “Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people.” Commenting on this, John Paul said (SD 12):
Thus the personal dimension of punishment is affirmed. According to this dimension, punishment has a meaning not only because it serves to repay the objective evil of the transgression with another evil, but first and foremost because it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.
This is an extremely important aspect of suffering. It is profoundly rooted in the entire Revelation of the Old and above all the New Covenant. Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God.
Discipline sounds like simply punishment, but it’s much more than that. It carries with it a personal dimension, a concern for the person being disciplined, as is described beautifully in Hebrews 12:7-11:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
So part of the explanation for why God permits suffering is to punish, to test, and to discipline. But to get to the fullness of the answer, we need to meet Jesus Christ.
III. Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Answer to Human Suffering
Perhaps the most famous passage of the Bible is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” As John Paul says (SD 14), these words express “introduce us into the very heart of God’s salvific work. They also express the very essence of Christian soteriology, that is, of the theology of salvation.” And since salvation entails liberation from evil, “it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering.”
This revelation dramatically expands the scope of how we understand suffering. First, it shows just how far we’ve gone beyond “the search for the meaning of suffering within the limit of justice.” The redemption offered by Jesus Christ isn’t something we’ve earned. None of us, no matter how good we think ourselves, has earned eternal life with God in Heavenly glory. Second, it shifts the conversation from “why is this-or-that person suffering” to what John Paul calls “suffering in its fundamental and definitive meaning” (SD 14). And third, it presents the problem of suffering in the ultimate terms of Heaven and Hell:
The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection.
Thus, in Jesus Christ, we have a grounded hope in both our liberation from the ultimate suffering (Hell), and from all of the lesser-and-related forms of suffering, like pain and death. But Jesus doesn’t come as some sort of Messianic Buddha to simply wave suffering away. Instead, He takes suffering upon Himself.
Voluntarily, “he experienced not only fatigue, homelessness, misunderstanding even on the part of those closest to him, but, more than anything, he became progressively more and more isolated and encircled by hostility and the preparations for putting him to death” (SD 16). And of course, this leads to one place:
Christ goes towards his Passion and death with full awareness of the mission that he has to fulfil precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life”. Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character.
At this point, John Paul pauses to reflect upon Isaiah 53:2-6, which forms part of the First Reading for Good Friday:
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The pope points out how each aspect of Christ’s Passion is prefigured by the Prophet Isaiah: “the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion and the agony” (SD 17).
So here, we come to see the most profound formulation of the problem of suffering imaginable. None of us, not even righteous Job, are wholly innocent. But Christ was, and He suffered worse than any of us. Think about it this way. There’s a temptation in suffering to look at your neighbor – the one who is wickeder than you, and yet who seems to suffer less – and decry it as unfair. But Christ could pose that question about any one of us: each of us is unspeakably worse than the perfect God-Man, and yet none of us can relate to the profundity of His sufferings. John Paul put it this way (SD 18):
Christ suffers voluntarily and suffers innocently. With his suffering he accepts that question which—posed by people many times—has been expressed, in a certain sense, in a radical way by the Book of Job. Christ, however, not only carries with himself the same question (and this in an even more radical way, for he is not only a man like Job but the only-begotten Son of God), but he also carries the greatest possible answer to this question. One can say that this answer emerges from the very master of which the question is made up. Christ gives the answer to the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering not only by his teaching, that is by the Good News, but most of all by his own suffering, which is integrated with this teaching of the Good News in an organic and indissoluble way. And this is the final, definitive word of this teaching: “the word of the Cross”, as Saint Paul one day will say(44). [….]
Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning. The Cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers of living water(52).
So what are we to make of this radical revelation?
IV. What Christ’s Suffering Means for Us
Some Christians want to buy into a model of atonement in which Christ suffers so that we don’t have to. But that’s not qhat the Gospel says. Instead, Jesus’ message is more radical: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Or at 2 Corinthians 4:8-14 puts it:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
Ultimately, this call to participate in the sufferings of Christ is a couple of important realities: first, that “the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.” Christ suffered for all of the evils and sufferings of human history, including whatever you’re dealing with right now. You’re suffering redeemed suffering. So you can either suffer those same suffering alone, or you can suffer them with Christ (SD 19):
The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.
The second important reality to bear in mind is that the sufferings of Good Friday aren’t the end of the story (SD 20):
Saint Paul speaks of various sufferings and, in particular, of those in which the first Christians became sharers “for the sake of Christ “. These sufferings enable the recipients of that Letter to share in the work of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. The eloquence of the Cross and death is, however, completed by the eloquence of the Resurrection. Man finds in the Resurrection a completely new light, which helps him to go forward through the thick darkness of humiliations, doubts, hopelessness and persecution. Therefore the Apostle will also write in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”(59). Elsewhere he addresses to his recipients words of encouragement: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ”(60). And in the Letter to the Romans he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”(61).
So Christ suffering for me, for all of my sins and struggles, provides a remedy to those struggles but it also gives a meaning to them. Suffering isn’t pointless if you’re suffering with the One whose sufferings were for the life of the world.
There’s much more to say here, of course. John Paul talks about how Christ’s sufferings show us the power of weakness, since Christ “descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross,” and it was precisely in this weakness that He is “lifted up.” “In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ” (SD 23). He also reminds us that the Blessed Virgin Mary is present at the Cross, present at the redemption of every one of our sufferings, where Christ actually points her out to His Beloved Disciple (John 19:25-27) (SD 25).
It’s here that John Paul unpacks the mysterious Colossians 1:24, in which Paul says “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” The Pope comments (SD 24):
Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so. Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed.
So what’s “lacking” wasn’t something Christ forgot to do on Good Friday. What’s lacking is our union with, and participation in, Christ’s completed and perfect offering.
V. The Gospel of Suffering
What does this Gospel message mean at the level of individual human suffering, though? SD 26 lays out an answer to that question beautifully:
Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of his suffering. For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.
God doesn’t sit back idly from Heaven watching (or inflicting) our sufferings. He enters into our suffering, and transforms it from within, both with the death of Jesus upon the Cross, and with the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And He doesn’t just do this back in the first century. He’s continuing to transform our suffering from within:
However, this interior process does not always follow the same pattern. It often begins and is set in motion with great difficulty. Even the very point of departure differs: people react to suffering in different ways. But in general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question “why”. He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level. Certainly he often puts this question to God, and to Christ. Furthermore, he cannot help noticing that the one to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering. Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived.For Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ.
We want, like Job wanted, all of the answers to why we suffer, and we simply are not given those answers in full. We’ve seen some of the reasons (punishment, testing, discipline, and redemption), but we’re hardly given an exhaustive answer. But we’re given more than what we asked for instead: we’re given a vocation to suffer with Christ and to join Him in His task of saving the world:
The answer which comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!”. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.
God does not respond to the question of “why suffering?” by sitting back in Heaven and sending down some revelation; He instead enters the scene, He joins Himself to our sufferings. And if we’re going to understand the meaning of that answer to its fullness, it can’t be by us sitting back on Earth and merely complaining, but entering the scene ourselves, responding to His call. It’s in action that He answers, and it’s only in our active response that we will comprehend.