Why Do We Suffer?

Hendrick Goltzius, Man of Sorrows with a Chalice (Christ as Redeemer) (1614)
Hendrick Goltzius, Man of Sorrows with a Chalice (Christ as Redeemer) (1614)

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.


  1. Thanks for the article Joe. Clearly the subject of suffering is one of great importance in the human experience. I hope the following can be a contribution to what you’ve started.

    We might try to better understand that which suffering is actually made of, human thought. Thought is an electro-chemical information medium, which operates by a process of division.

    We can see this division process expressed in language, the primary expression of thought. Consider the noun, the building block of language. The purpose of a noun is to divide the single unified reality (ie. God) in to conceptual parts.

    If we observe nouns closely we can see that while they are very useful to us, they also represent a form of fantasy. As example, we have the nouns “me” and “water”, which implies that these are two different separate things, which seems simple. But as you know, in the real world the situation is far more complex and unified, for example, “me” is made mostly of water. The division between the two is more conceptual than real.

    When you drink your next glass of water ask, “when will this water become me?” The boundary line between “me” and “water” can be reasonably drawn in any number of places, which reveals that the dividing lines are arbitrary human inventions.

    Once we have a collection of conceptual parts in our mind we can re-arrange the parts in our mind creatively and imagine the world in new ways, a process which is the source of the vast powers humans are able to access.

    The price tag for these vast powers is to be psychologically immersed in the experience of division in the most profound way. We experience reality as being divided between “me” (very very small) and “everything else” (very very large). Such a perspective understandably generates fear, which generates conflict both internally and externally, which generates suffering.

    In theological language, the inherently divisive nature of thought creates the illusion that we are divided from God. It is this illusion which gives rise to religions, which attempt in various ways to restore a unity with God which is perceived to have been lost.

    From the Christian perspective, the method of escaping the illusion of division and the pain it generates is the experience of love, which is a process of surrendering the “me”, the primary divisive product of thought. We die to the “me”, and are reborn in God.

    Eastern disciplines often turn to meditation in an attempt to temporarily turn off thought, that which is creating the illusion of division. Some parts of the Christian tradition explore this as well.

    It seems key to try to understand, at the deepest levels we are capable of, that the perceived division from God is an illusion created by the the divisive nature of thought. This can be seen in the Christian doctrine which states that God is ever present everywhere in all times and places. If God is ever present everywhere, there is nothing but God. God is every atom, every quantum fluctuation, God is the very fabric of all reality, including you and me.

    This concept delivers glorious good news, but unity with God is impossible to actually experience within the medium of thought, simply because thought functions by a process of division. Thus, we can use theology to talk about unity with God as I am doing here, but talk is all we can do within theology. Talk about God is experience of God from a safe abstract distance. Theology might be compared to the relationship we have with friends on Facebook.

    In the Christian context, real religion is not talk about love, but the experience of love, for it is this experience which has the power to transcend the divisive filter of thought, by surrendering the thinker. Put another way, real religion is not talk about God, but experience of God.

    And that’s where suffering ends.

    But as always it comes at a price, the death of our most cherished possession, the “me”. Me and my situation, me and my suffering, me and my salvation, me and my good works, me and my relationship with God, me and my theology, and so on. See all those instances of “me” in the above? That’s where suffering is born, in the “me”, in the illusion of division from God.

    Perhaps an examination of the mechanics of suffering might add something of use to a topic which is close to the hearts of all of us. I hope readers will not just agree or disagree with the above, but conduct their own examination of the thought unfolding in their own heads. If you look closely enough, patiently enough, you will discover for yourself that the experience of division is a just a compelling illusion.

    By the way, as I read it, the story of Adam and Eve outlined this reality of the human condition 3,000 years ago, using a different flavor of language that was more common to that time. Pretty remarkable!

  2. I think Augustine gave the best one liner on the subject: “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.”

    The burden is on those who would say the complete lack of suffering is preferable. Try bringing up children, or managing employees, or living your own life without any difficulty. The inevitable result is more suffering. May God make us like Stephen where our physical and emotional suffering is irrelevant as we are so overwhelmed by the love of God.

    God bless

    1. I agree suffering in inevitable, because we have to think to function as humans. A complete lack of suffering may be possible for a few way out at the end of the psychological talent bell curve, but such folks are so rare as to be largely irrelevant.

      To quibble a bit, the concept “love of God” implies one separate entity which loves another separate entity. Is this separation really true?

      It seems to me that love of God, or love of anything, implies the temporary end of the lover. So long as it’s “my” love, it’s not really fully love. But, in our daily lives “my love” is surely better than “my hate”.

      1. Welcome back, Phil.

        “Is this separation really true?”

        Yes. Because it’s Divinely Revealed.

        “But, in our daily lives “my love” is surely better than “my hate”.

        Why is that true? Who dictates that? Where is the separation between love and hate? They are both just electrochemical reactions, different for every person and equally valid..right?

        1. Thank you for welcoming me back AK. 🙂

          So are you saying that you don’t believe that God is ever present everywhere in all times and places?

          You’re last challenge is a tad too sloppy for my taste. You’re attempting a clever snarky gotcha, but don’t quite have the knack of it. Worry not though, it could be worse. You could be good at it like me, he said, only half kidding. 🙂

          1. Hit a nerve, did I?

            Sloppy = no answer. Other than **your snark,** which is nothing more than electrochemically-generated bursts of relativism. Meaningless save for their propensity to divide. Last reference I saw to thought as electrochemical impulse, and divisive, was the last decade of posts…from Phil. Proverbs 26:11. Heavily edited by clergy, probably Joe.

            Are you saying God can’t be a separate entity and everywhere at the same time? Wherever do you get your theology? Certainly not Catholicism….

          2. “But, in our daily lives “my love” is surely better than “my hate”.

            Why is that true? Who dictates that? Where is the separation between love and hate? They are both just electrochemical reactions, different for every person and equally valid..right?

            And you STILL haven’t answered me…and I asked the same question, worded a bit differently but essentially the same, in the last SP thread graced by ….you.

            Clever but-nothing-comebacks are still…..nothing. You certainly can do better than that.

    2. Excellent quote, Craig.

      It seems that since there is free will, there will always be some suffering due to the fact that there will always be some souls who choose of their free will not to follow the Good, but to do the opposite and seek evil, whatever that evil may be. And also, since mankind lives in time, there is always the possibility of fluctuating between following good and evil due to the same free will. So, as Augustine says, God chooses to bring good out of evil by attracting the evil doer towards Himself in many ways. We see this when in Genesis, God speaks very tenderly to Cain regarding resisting evil temptations:

      “…and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door?”

      So, God is trying to calm Cain’s passion and anger with reason, trying to ‘bring good out of evil’ as Augustine said. He does this through appeal to both the heart and mind…encouraging him towards ‘doing well’ so that he might ‘receive’. But God also warns him that if he freely chooses to go the other way, to follow or do ‘ill’, then ‘sin will be present at the door, meaning it will be readily available to enter into his soul. And isn’t this also what we find in the story of Judas? It is very similar to the account of Cain. The words that Jesus describes this event are:

      “….He that eateth bread with me, shall lift up his heel against me. At present I tell you, before it come to pass: that when it shall come to pass, you may believe that I am he. Amen, amen I say to you, he that receiveth whomsoever I send, receiveth me; and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me. When Jesus had said these things, he was troubled in spirit; and he testified, and said: Amen, amen I say to you, one of you shall betray me…..And when he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the morsel, SATAN ENTERED INTO HIM. And Jesus said to him: That which thou dost, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew to what purpose he said this unto him.”

      Notice how Jesus is not aggressive towards him, even as God is not aggressive towards Cain when talking and encouraging him not to follow ‘ill’. Jesus respects Judas’ free will to follow ill. And evil enters into Judas, even as God said of Cain…”sin will be present at the door”.

      So, of all evils and suffering, this is the greatest… to “lift up ones heel” against God. Since ‘God alone is Good’ what are the consequences of this action and attitude …but evil and sin.

      Fortunately, even when men choose to follow evil, since we live in time, we are able to repent of sin and evil and again follow good. This is indeed ‘good news’, that our free will can lead us to repentance and penance, and we can obey Jesus when He says ” Pray…lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil”. That is, if evil has entered us in any way, we ask God our Father to deliver us from it…to kick it out of our house…and ‘off of our door step’ also.

      And Christ also teaches another beautiful defense against sin, temptation and evil, when He teaches us:

      “For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him? And he was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb: and when he had cast out the devil, the dumb spoke: and the multitudes were in admiration at it:”

      This is a perfect example of God bringing good out of evil. But a man needs to ‘seek’ to find, and ‘ask’ to have it opened to him. So, this is the free will part that man has to offer….he needs of his own free will to ask God for help. But Jesus also gently instructs us that Our Father is much more compssionate in this regard than our own miserable selves, for even we evil ones, will still do good things for our children when they ask things from us. And Jesus gives us great confidence in “Our Father”, when He says “how much more will your Father from heaven give the GOOD SPIRIT to them that ask him?”

      So, this is how God brings ‘good out of evil’: by gently appealing to his wayward children, and waiting for them to come home to His kindness and care, such that the wandering and lost sheep would only ask their Father to give them the ‘Good Spirit’…and He would do so. and they would return to His friendship and familial love.

      1. Hi Craig and Al,

        I agree, Craig. You have summed up the evil of the cross leading to the glorious good resurrection.

        Al, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (John 13:18) “He that eateth bread with me shall lift up his heel against me….” reiterate God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: “He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”(3:15).

        Presumably Judas knew Scripture. Jesus spoke the words prior to offering Judas the bread. The words should have cut Judas to a quick if his heart were open to love, his mind amenable to reason, his will resolved to do good.

  3. Pain and suffering is often very beneficial for the spiritual life, as it leads to many virtues including interior introspection, patience, a pleading and prayerful attitude, humility, love for others in their times of pain; ultimate reliance on God; care for physical health; repentance for ones sins and vanities, etc….

    Excessive pleasures, on the other hand, can be very dangerous to the spiritual life, as it can lead to: a spiritual self sufficiency wherein God is not needed; a neglect or abandonment of prayer; meditation and holy study; a slavery to gluttony, lechery, alcoholism, drugs, etc…; An attitude of pride and superiority over others; a lack of concern and understanding of those who are weak, sick or suffering; An addiction to fame and popularity; an addiction to money so as to procure and increase sensual pleasures; a ‘spoiled attitude’ wherein common pleasures are not sufficient or satisfactory, etc…

    Pleasures often lead souls to neglect God, and enter into worldliness and sin. We see this described in the parables taught by Christ, such as in: The Prodigal Son’, The ‘Parable of the Wheat and Weeds’, ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ and ‘The 10 Wise and Foolish Virgins’.

    Pain and suffering can lead one to follow Christ more closely, obeying His teachings and ‘watching and praying at all times, lest he enter into temptation’. And this is why, I believe, Jesus recommends repentance in ‘sack cloth and ashes’ to those addicted to excessive pleasures in this world; and also recommends ‘pulling out your right eye if it scandalizes you’, and ‘cut off your right hand if that causes you to sin’.

    So, at least as is taught in the Gospel, excessive pleasure is to be guarded against…much more than pain and suffering to be avoided.

    1. That suffering can enhance one’s character and faith, is just a fact of God’s Universe. Anyone who has ever been in any sort of boot camp will attest to that.

      Now….I know some self-inflict suffering, some of the Saints, and I will not question their piety. However, I recall from the Diary of St Faustina, upon expressing her desire to self-mortify with a hair shirt, she was told “why would you despoil the body you were given?” I see the wisdom in this…if suffering is circumstantial, extant, and unavoidable without denying Christ or passing the suffering onto someone else (re: St Maximilian Kolbe in his death cell) then accepting and even welcoming is one of the highest forms of imitation of Christ. All IMHO…..

  4. Al, your comment seems to teeter on the edge of worshiping pain and suffering. And you seem to be saying that joy is only valid if experienced within the context of YOUR ideology. At least, this is what one reader was hearing in your words, feel free to correct that impression.

    It’s true that pleasure can be a place to hide from one’s suffering, and to the degree that is true, it seems wise to be aware of what’s happening. I agree it is often wiser to be brave, and stand and face the suffering than to try to sweep it under the rug.

    But c’mon, let’s have some compassion. The human condition can be a quite challenging experience, and life is very short, even if in the midst of suffering it may seem eternal. We all find relief from suffering where ever we can, and it seems a tad arrogant to assume that such someone else’s relief is invalid and wrong if it doesn’t come in the exact same form that we have chosen for ourselves.

    Isn’t Christianity supposed to be a vehicle for the surrender of “me”, and not a method for making everything in all of reality all about “me and my situation”? Some people are Christian because that works for them, that’s great. Some people are not Christian because that works for them, and that can be great too.

    The finest person I know is not Catholic, not Christian, not religious, not even philosophical. She’s too busy serving to have time for any of that. And because love is universally available to all human beings, and not an asset owned exclusively by the Catholic Church, it works in relieving suffering for her just as it works for us.

    We should be happy about this, joyful. We should be grateful that God is so generous as to make the medicine of love available to all human beings in all times and places, and not just one particular group of folks with a weaknesses for declaring themselves superior to all others.

    1. “We all find relief from suffering where ever we can, and it seems a tad arrogant to assume that such someone else’s relief is invalid and wrong if it doesn’t come in the exact same form that we have chosen for ourselves.”

      If someone finds relief from suffering in excess drinking, should we say that, “Oh well, I wouldn’t choose this sort of relief, but it helps him, so I guess it is good”? Or if one finds relief in just repressing the idea of suffering, imagining everything is hunky dory, should we applaud them for finding a way to alleviate the pain of suffering?

      I take it no. But isn’t that arrogant? Isn’t saying the only real, the only lasting comfort, that isn’t a “diversion” from the problems of life (to use the language of Pascal) can be found in Jesus Christ? To use the analogy from St. Augustine, it is no more arrogant than a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

      We Christians claim that Christ made us for Himself, that we each have a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts (Pascal) that only He can fill; that our hearts are restless till being able to truly rest in Him. (Augustine) Can people find ways to make the hole seem filled? Can people go after different things which seem to satisfy the desire (even noble, beautiful things like self-sacrificing love)? Sure. But if they don’t find the Source, if they don’t find the One Who can fill that hole, can satisfy that hunger, they can never really find fulfillment.

      1. Yes Anthony, it’s arrogant for any of us to assume and proclaim that only our little club knows where nourishing spiritual bread can be found. Such sentiments are simply the ego expressing itself in theological language.

        Most of the people on Earth are not Christian, and never will be. If we state that only Christians have access to God, what we’re really saying is that God is a stingy fellow who only shares the goodies with a few. Not a flattering story that.

        I can see how feeling oneself to be one of the special chosen few can be a rewarding experience psychologically, and I do sincerely experience some reluctance at trying to wake readers from such a happy dream. But then I realize that to assume readers can’t handle challenges to their world view would be condescending, and that’s really not what I feel about readers here.

        1. “Not a flattering story that.”

          So, Christ’s purpose in coming to Earth was to …spread flattery.

          First time I have heard that one. Original even for you.

          1. ” Such sentiments are simply the ego expressing itself in theological language.”

            Opinion = thought = electrochemically generated relativism = division. The World according to Guru Phil.

            “…and I do sincerely experience some reluctance at trying to wake readers from such a happy dream.”

            Very good gut instinct, Phil. I suggest you act on it.

        2. “I can see how feeling oneself to be one of the special chosen few can be a rewarding experience psychologically, and I do sincerely experience some reluctance at trying to wake readers from such a happy dream.”

          According to Christians this is no ‘happy dream’ but an ontological reality. Neither is the Gospel of Christ a ‘happy dream’, however it might appear to an anti-Christian.

          And, one of your error’s is calling the club ‘little’, and composed of a ‘special chosen few’. On the contrary, the whole of Western Civilization has been highly influenced by this ‘little club’ called Christianity, with about 2.5 billion present adherents. And then again, many elements of Christian belief and spirituality has been incorporated into the religion of Islam, and so we might add about another 1.6 billion souls that were highly influenced by this little ‘club’.

          So, what really…is this ‘little club’? St. Paul describes it like this:

          “Now concerning spiritual things, my brethren, I would not have you ignorant. You know that when you were heathens, you went to dumb idols, according as you were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man, speaking by the Spirit of God, saith Anathema to Jesus. And no man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; And there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord; And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; To another, faith in the same spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; To another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another, diverse kinds of tongues; to another, interpretation of speeches.” (1Cor.12:1)

          So, this statement above is a very brief explanation of what the ‘little club’ of ‘happy dreamers’, that you describe, are occupied with in this world.

          1. BTW…you and I have been here before. I am guessing Phil’s purpose is to clog these threads and drive people away.

            I think we have sufficiently shown the ‘congregation’ here what he is and his intent. I am ceasing to respond to him out of respect for Joe.

          2. Al, not even all Catholics agree with YOUR CHOICE of interpretation, let alone all Christians, let alone most of humanity. I agree there are many who feel as you do, but you are a minority as compared to the whole. Jesus came to serve humanity Al, not some exclusive group of special people intent on declaring themselves superior to everybody else.

            The highly predictable problem that is starting to emerge here in our discussions right on schedule is that some are VERY attached to their membership in the imaginary superior club, and they don’t like having that “dream” interrupted. I remind us all, Jesus deliberately sought out and hung out with very very ordinary humble kinds of folks. Christianity is not an exclusive theological country club one joins so as to be in a position to look down one’s nose upon the poor commoners who are just too clueless to get the special message from God which only you are capable of decoding. The name for that club is….

            The Islamic State

            I believe they have some websites you can visit, and some volunteer opportunities available.

          3. Al – just a bit more validation for my ‘don’t feed the troll’ exhort.

            Allah Akbar, y’all… 🙂

    2. My comment on the place of suffering and pleasure in the human experience is not based on my ideology alone, but rather on ‘my ideology IN LIGHT OF the teachings of Christ and the whole Judeo Christian universe of teaching, which includes teachings not only from Sacred Scripture, but the whole history of thought and theology found the Christian Church as well. That is to say, my own deficient analysis and understanding of psychology and philosophy is not a sufficient vehicle to satisfy my craving for a true understanding of my life. If we consider the example of a jigsaw puzzle, I need others to fill in the pieces of the puzzle of ‘wisdom and understanding’ that I do not yet have. And this is where the ‘body of Christ’, the Church, comes in. United to Christ, the various members of the ‘Body of Christ’ whether they be present or historical, offer pieces to fill in the gaps of my deficient spiritual gifts, wisdom and understanding. That is to say I am only a ‘part’ of the ‘Body of Christ…and not the ‘whole kit and kaboodle’. And I am overjoyed for these additional parts provided by others of the Christian faith.

      So, an understanding of the reason for pain and pleasure, for me, must come with the light of both my own reason and understanding (my pieces of the puzzle), as well as the reason and understanding taught by the Church (the other pieces). Jesus, moreover, taught that “salvations comes from the Jews. And, so a Christian incorporates all of the ‘pieces of the puzzle’ provided by the history of Judaism, especially via the Old Testament scriptures, into his equation of understanding as well…even as the Lord taught “You have a double treasure, the old and the new”.

      I might add that the result of all Judeo Christian teaching, in relation to mankind’s experience of both pleasure and suffering, includes the places that both sin, and eternal peace, play in the whole dynamic. That is to say, pleasure and suffering can’t be analyzed adequately without the ‘eternal perspective’ in mind. And this is why I provided my quote from the Lord regarding ‘pulling out the right eye if it causes you to sin’, and ‘cutting off the right hand if it scandalizes you’… as this is Jesus, the ultimate Christian Teacher, relating both pleasure and pain to the evils of sin from an eternal viewpoint.

      1. Al, you keeping confusing your interpretation of Christian theology with “the” Christian theology.

        Have you noticed that there are numerous Christian denominations with differing interpretations? Have you noticed that the Catholic community is no where near agreement on many important interpretations of the message of Jesus? Do you understand that if there was only one “the” Christian theology, there’d be no need for either theologians or clergy? What is it that you think all of the Christian theologians have been doing for 2,000 years if not juggling many different interpretations of scripture?

        I have no argument with what you choose for yourself, as you’d be the expert on what serves your needs the best. I sincerely wish you the best of luck, however you go about it.

        But that is an entirely different matter than declaring _Al’s interpretation_ of the Christian message to be “THE” Christian message. What ever happened to humility Al? Do they mention that in YOUR interpretation?

        1. “Have you noticed that the Catholic community is no where near agreement on many important interpretations of the message of Jesus?”

          …And, have you ever heard of the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ which authoritatively and clearly teaches ‘the message of Jesus’, or The Nicaean Creed which every Catholic professes on a weekly basis, or the Code of Canon law, or the 21 Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church detailing doctrinal discipline and authoritiy?

          Everyone can believe what they want, but to be a true Catholic one must be in line enough to profess the Nicaean Creed at Mass, every week, and hopefully not be lying about what they profess.

          1. “And, have you ever heard of the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ which authoritatively and clearly teaches ‘the message of Jesus’..”

            Note, CCC 1521: “Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the redemptive work of Jesus.”

            I might use one of my favorite examples, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who accepted the gift and crowns both of purity and martyrdom, and whose suffering and death at the hands of the most evil of oppressors, in the place of another condemned to die, was a most proper imitation (and example) of the life and death of Christ, and in full union with Catechism 1521.

          2. To argue over who is a true Catholic is to fight for ownership of a word that doesn’t appear in the Bible even once.

          3. Hi Al and AK,

            Ever heard of St. Vincent Lerin? He died around 450 AD.
            His famous maximis: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

            Here he defines a Catholic (and speaks of heresy):

            ,“….he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who set light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time;
            but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine he shall find to have been
            furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all, or contrary to
            that of all the saints, this, he will understand, does not pertain to religion,
            but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the
            blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians,
            ‘There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you:’ as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not forthwith rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.”

        2. Margo, if you were an Olympic markswoman of Catholic theology, I’d say you cut the center out of the X-ring.

          About to finish my 4-year Denver Catholic biblical School, and studying the Early Church Fathers. Next….Lives of the Saints. It’s a wonderful journey….

          1. How do I send emojis? Smiles to you. I’m not certain cutting that particular bull’s eye is a good thing…. I simply found the right guys at the right time. Jesus and His Holy Spirit, now and forever!

            After you study the Early Church Fathers, you’ll be talking more to Craig, right?

          2. Margo, believe me, the offer is sufficient….but if you type either a semicolon or colon, followed immediately by a right paren (smiley mouth) it magically turns into an emoji smiley 😉

            Craig? He is one of the big reasons I am studying the Church Fathers. Craig, I hope you are reading this….you are an inspiration!

          3. Ditto that! …very appropriate quote for the purposes..definitely one to keep on file.

            Thanks, Margo. There’s nothing quite like Catholic History. It’s a taste of Heaven. 🙂

        3. “To argue over who is a true Catholic is to fight for ownership of a word that doesn’t appear in the Bible even once.”


  5. Joe wrote, “Always, suffering has a psychological component.”

    Yes, and another way to say this is, suffering is made of thought.

    It seems important to observe that all human beings suffer, no matter what their philosophy may be. Clearly some philosophies manage suffering better than others, but no philosophy has the ability to end suffering.

    What this tells us is that suffering arises from a level deeper than the content of thought. Suffering has it’s roots in the nature of thought itself.

    I respectfully dissent from the idea that suffering is the experience of evil. It seems more accurate to label suffering as the experience of ignorance. Jesus himself momentarily experience this ignorance on the cross when he cried out, “God, why hath thou forsaken me?”

    Finally, the best remedy Catholicism has to offer for our suffering is to shift the focus off of our suffering on to someone else’s suffering.

    Me and my suffering, me and my beliefs, me and my theology, me and my situation, me and my salvation, me and my correctness, me and my superiority, me and my questions, me and my spiritual journey, me and me and me and me.

    A wise priest would listen patiently and attentively to this very human “all about me” story, and when it became his turn to speak he would…

    Look down at his watch and say, “Gosh, the time has really gotten away from us, hasn’t it? It’s time to eat, let’s go serve some free lunches in the homeless shelter soup kitchen, whaddya say?”

  6. “Jesus himself momentarily experience this ignorance on the cross when he cried out, “God, why hath thou forsaken me?”

    Is that what you think is going on? Ever occur to you, you might be wrong? And that something else, a fulfillment of Scripture, specifically Old Testament (which St. Thomas Aquinas said, is revealed in the New, and in which the New is hidden), is what’s really happening?

    “A wise priest …”

    Wise, defined by…..?

      1. HAH.

        I devolve to Eric Hofer’s quote about ivory-tower thinkers like our own Phil: “I would give them everything they want, except power.”

  7. Joe,

    Thank you for this moving and appropriate topic as we approach Passion Sunday and Holy Week. Succinct and complete review and explication of SD. I would add only the words of St. Paul to Romans (5:3-5).

    ” …we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

    Best of hope to you as you pass through next week, recalling and entering into the sufferings of our dear Lord.

  8. Returning to the topic of suffering…

    It seems important to address suffering at it’s source. I propose there are two levels that can be investigated, the content of thought, and the nature of thought.

    Philosophy and theology concern themselves with the content of thought. Various ideas are examined, compared, contrasted and tested etc. Typically such thought content is measured against some standard, such as the rules of human reason, or perhaps scripture which an examiner judges to be authoritative.

    We can observe that some thought content is clearly superior to others in terms of managing suffering. For example, few would dispute that Christianity and some other religions are more helpful than say, Nazism. Thus, philosophy and theology have a role to play.

    We can also observe that no philosophy ever created in any corner of the world over thousands of years has succeeded in eliminating suffering, except perhaps for a few individuals who, if they exist, are so rare as to be largely irrelevant. By and large, the overwhelming majority of the time, suffering is a universal fact of the human condition, irregardless of geography, history, culture, genetics, gender, age, religion or philosophy etc.

    The universality of suffering is an important clue, as it demonstrates that suffering arises from something that all human beings have in common. The shared experience argues that suffering arises from something deeper than thought content, which varies widely from person to person and place to place. And so it is proposed that suffering arises from the nature of thought itself.

    To put it simply, suffering is made of thought.

    This insight may open new opportunities for managing suffering. If it is true that suffering is made of thought, then when we aren’t thinking, it’s not possible to suffer. Or, to put it more realistically for most of us, as we lower the volume of our thinking we are withdrawing resources from the suffering, and so it becomes weaker.

    A piece of good news is that thinking is a mechanical operation of the body, like breathing, eating, sleeping, sex etc. And because thinking is a mechanical operation, we can manage it by mechanical means. Simple exercises applied patiently over time can give us some control over the volume of our thinking, and thus over our suffering. We might compare this process to doing situps to get a flat stomach. Doing situps consistently is not always that easy, but the matter is simple. We do the situps, or we don’t. If we do the situps we get a flatter stomach. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

    Such simple direct solutions will have their appeal to those who are serious about managing their suffering. Those who aren’t serious will find a million ways to complicate the simplicity of this, as it their right.

    What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, those who are suffering less will find it easier to shift the focus off of themselves and on to the needs of others.

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