Suffering and pain in the Christian perspective…

by Rev. Fr. Jaroslaw Buciora, Parish Priest,
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor of St. Mary the Protectress,
Winnipeg, Manitoba

It has been very important to me at each seminar to begin my presentation with a short reflection about the subject of the seminar which in this case is suffering and pain. Just recently having visited one of our parishioners who was facing the ultimate challenge of our life-death, I looked into her puzzling eyes. Although she was looking at me, I knew that she was also looking for something beyond me and this world. Remembering her face full of life, I wanted to say something which could explain this moment of pain, suffering and eventual separation. Although I desperately tried to find words of comfort, I could not say one word except the words of prayer. It was impossible and it is impossible for anyone to explain the reality of this moment for the one who is being challenged by waves of pain and suffering. Only silence and prayer to our loving Father permeated in this room full of loneliness and pain.

The question of pain and suffering is a very complex theme, which can be discussed from so many perspectives. For us it is important to discuss this subject from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, which is inseparable from Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, writings of the Fathers and the liturgical prayer of the church life. In the context of this seminar let me just introduce this theme in a very short form which cannot be taken as a full presentation of the subject from the Orthodox perspective.

The question of pain and suffering is an universal phenomenon which penetrates everything that exists and lived in the history of creation. This theme challenges the faith in God of the entire humanity from the very early Church. It is also a question that faces other monotheistic religions including Judaism and Islam. Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam has to answer a question: “How can we believe in the all powerful God where there is so much pain and suffering in this world”.

In the history of Christianity there was a traditional separation of the answer for two equally important answers. The first one is based on the physical suffering and pain of everything in the world. It might be a fight for the health of our body, or it might be a fight of the entire creation of God for its existence.

The other answer is based on the moral aspect of our free will which is based on faith and cause. The answer based on faith is very important for our discussion. According to this argument based on the aspect of faith we will never understand the reason why God allows for so much suffering in our world. The best example is given in the Book of Job of the Old Testament. Following this argumentation, we will never understand the concept of pain and suffering. There might be some moments when we will be able to explain curtain aspect of pain and suffering in the world, but we cannot explain the suffering of small children or suffering and pain of those who spend years bedridden. From this perspective where faith is the only basis for an answer, we can say that God is a God of providence. This means that God not only maintains our life but also He protects those who suffer. In this context, Christianity stands before a trial to develop faith and trust in God regardless of the pain and suffering in the world. This thesis is very similar with the explanation given by one of the contemporary theologians of this century Carl Rahner. According to him, before developing our hypothesis about God and suffering, we have to develop the teaching of impossibility to explain or to understand the concepts of pain and suffering. (Karl Rahner, The Context of Faith: the best of Karl Rahner‘s theological writings, edited by Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt, New York, Crossroad, 1993, p. 143.)

To develop this concept in a proper way we have to include the concept of pain and suffering in the teaching about the impossibility to understand God. According to Karl Rahner, we never explain the concept of pain and suffering to the very end. God, according to this teaching, allows pain and suffering for the reason known only to Him. Pain and suffering exist but their explanation we leave as part of the impossibility of the knowledge of God.

To understand this concept correctly we have to turn to the Books of the Old and New Testament which, in fact, is an attempt to find the answer for this very difficult question. Based on the Holy Bible and Holy Tradition we have to affirm quite strongly, that we cannot find one definite place where we would be able to find the final and definite answer for this question. What is more interesting, in the Bible we find a lot of different explanations regarding the question of pain and suffering which is connected with a very strong warning. Because there are so many different answers in the Bible regarding pain and suffering, it is impossible to absolutize any of the answers in a particular situation. For our discussion we will present only two of such explanations .

1. On the basis of Holy Scripture we can say that God leads our life. Everything that we have in our life is a gift from God. As soon as we say this, we are facing a very challenging question. If God manages our life and the life of everything that lives in the world than we can say that suffering and pain also come from God. If we follow this assumption we can say that suffering and pain are punishment from God. But there is also a contradiction to this statement which emphasizes the aspect of our free will. Very characteristic in this context is the history of Adam and Eve. Because of the free choice given to Adam and Eve, the consequences are found in pain and suffering. St. Maximus the Confessor attributes suffering to the Fall. Pain and suffering as the evil consequences of the Fall became the main explanation of most Orthodox theologians. We may say that pain and suffering are present in this world because of our free choice. But pain and suffering were not in the original plan of God’s creation. It is an unwilled and unintended intrusion of everything that lives.

Continue this line of thought in Christian theology, some of the conservative theologians say that on the basis of the Book of Genesis we can see that the devil-Satan is the source of all evil, pain and suffering. This kind of explanation for the problem of pain and suffering in the world is strongly criticized by modern Orthodox theologians who see in this kind of explanation the influence of scholastic theology. According to V. Lossky, one of the representatives of this trend in Orthodox theology, Satan became the personification of the dark powers of the apocalyptic literature. (Vlodimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s seminary Press, 1976, pp. 128-129)

The paintings and images from the XVI-XVII centuries representing a hideous caricature of satan is a very simplistic and educational representation of the reality of suffering and pain in the life of humanity. (Walter Kasper, “The Theological Problem of Evil”, in his book “Faith and Future”, New York, 1982, pp.)

But more and more of the contemporary theologians remove themselves from this kind of interpretation emphasizing the aspect of our free will.

2. The second explanation found in Holy Scripture and emphasized by non-orthodox theologians is based on the association of pain and suffering with Divine punishment. According to this kind of explanation of the question of pain and suffering, God punishes humanity for their choice of separating themselves from Him. What is very characteristic in this kind of explanation is the fact that people became stronger in their faith. Divine punishment has a very positive attitude of people towards God. The life of the saints is the best example where suffering and pain are considered as a part of their spiritual trial. Divine punishment becomes the ability to grow spiritually in the image and likeness of God. It seems that the passage from the letter to the Romans is the best expression of this kind of approach: “We rejoice in our suffering, 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”. [Rom. 5:3-5] According to John Breck, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, if pain and suffering are experienced within the limits of human tolerance, they can be decidedly beneficial to foster the communion with God and others. (John Breck, The sacred Gift of life; Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics, Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, p. 216.)

The other example might be found in the history of Israel-a chosen nation where any tragedy was understood as a punishment from God. In other words, this kind of explanation of the question of pain and suffering has a purpose in correcting ourselves and it encourages people in a time of suffering. The best example might be found in the Book of Job where we can assume that God acts in this way to achieve the ultimate purpose.

To analyze this question from a pastoral perspective of this theological explanation, we have to be quite careful. We cannot absolutize the punishment of God in regard to every pain and suffering in the world. The punishment of God has a divine intention which we cannot use in concrete circumstances of our daily life. From the Orthodox perspective, we have to say that God does not inflict suffering as revengeful retribution or vindictive punishment for our sins. According to John Breck, although God uses pain and suffering as part of a “divine pedagogy” (or in other words, divine teaching), we cannot simply assume that God wills tragedy in human experience. (Op. cit., p. 218.)

In the Bible we can also find another very interesting explanation regarding pain and suffering. According to Holy Scripture, we can say that pain and suffering are impossible to explain in this life. It can only be properly understood in the age to come also known as Orthodox eschatology.

According to this explanation all theories and hypothesis introduced by theologians lose their credibility. All those who suffered and still suffer in this life will be rewarded in the life to come.

On the basis of what has just been said from a theological perspective, we can make a partial conclusion which will be very important in our approach to those who are suffering. Anytime we have to deal with the suffering of a human being, we need to be very sensitive. Joseph J. Allen writes in his article, that we have to become a source of humility who puts themselves into the suffering of the other person. (Joseph J. Allen, The Orthodox Pastor and the Dying, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 23, No. 1, p. 23.)

Again from the theological perspective, we can never absolutize this or other explanations of pain and suffering. Because the question of pain and suffering is a very complex subject, it is better for us not to hurry with an explanation to this problem. According to Carl Nighswonger, the best explanation for the question of pain and suffering might be our silence and presence with the one who is in pain and suffering. (Carl Nighswonger, “Ministry to the Dying as a Learning Process”, in: Journal of Thanatology, l (March, 1971), pp. 101-108.)

It is silence with prayer where we together with the entire Church say “Let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life to Christ our God”. We have to know our pastoral and theological limitations. Very characteristic is in the Book of Job, where the only answer we find is the silence of the presence of God. As soon as we try to explain the question of pain and suffering based on theological speculation, we lose our trust and truthfulness in the person who is suffering. We have to say, that there might be a time that we will be put to the test where there is no explanation at all. Because there is no systematic teaching on pain and suffering our speculation is not the final answer for the question. It is not, as some would say, our theological weakness, but a part of our faith as Christians. According to Walter Kasper, we have to accept the reality of pain and suffering as a mystery which we cannot grasp. (Walter Kasper, The Theological Problem of Evil, op. cit., p. 108.) It is a mystery which goes beyond our comprehension and human limitations. If George Florovsky calls death a mystery we can assume that pain and suffering which precedes death also becomes part of this mystery. It is our conviction of faith, that if there is life after death, it is impossible to find the final explanation for the question of suffering and pain. Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh introduces us to the image of the Mother of God, who being present at the moment of the death of her Son accepts this mystery in silence and faith. (Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh, The Suffering of Children, in: Eastern Churches Review, vol. VIII, 1976, p. 107.) It is also impossible to find the final answer for this question without contemplating the mystery of the cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is very important to analyze the suffering of Jesus Christ who went through suffering as the most innocent. Because the cross and suffering are not final in themselves, suffering and pain are not eternal but temporary. According to Nicholas Arseniev, the death and suffering of Jesus Christ are the only and true explanations for the question of pain and suffering. (Nicholas Arseniev, The Suffering, in: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Fall 1953, p. 30.)

Of the same opinion, is the contemporary Orthodox theologian Vaselin Kesich who says that because suffering of Jesus Christ belongs to God’s plan, our explanation of pain and suffering belongs to the future of God. (Vaselin Kesich Hypostatic and prosopic Union in the Exegesis of Christ’s Temptation, in: St, Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 1X, No. 3, p. 123.)

But as long as there is suffering in the world, according to the french catholic philosopher Pascal, “Christ is in agony until the end of the world”. (John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life, op. cit., p. 221.)

The Risen Lord remains forever the crucified One. This means that God assists us in our suffering. He is not only aware of it, but He shares it to the fullest. One of the indications of the kingdom of God is the aspect of perfection towards which all of us are moving. This process of transition is characterized by pain and suffering which all of us experience. If we Orthodox Christians are waiting for the age to come, then the future becomes the final explanation of the reality of our life. Because our life is a dynamic reality, we are in a constant battle with pain and suffering to achieve our perfection.