Suffering - A Christian Perspective
By Dr. Jacob Mathew, Chief Editor/Webmaster, Holisticonline.com
From the most ancient days, man has asked again and again why there is suffering in life. If God is loving and compassionate why is there so much suffering in this world? In fact, one of the questions frequently asked of clergy is, "Why is God making me go through this suffering? I had been good. Why do bad things happen to good people?"
In book of Job in the Bible, this question is discussed. Why do innocent people suffer? The orthodox answer in Old Testament times was that all suffering, including death, is the result of sin. Anyone whose life was cut short, or who was afflicted by some disease, must have done something to deserve it.
The book of Job was written in protest against this obviously unjust doctrine, by describing a man who was innocent of any crimes, but who suffered tremendously in mind and body, in spite of the fact that he was not guilty. Despite the book of Job, the view was still widely held in Jesus' day that suffering implied guilt. When a blind man was brought in front of Jesus for healing, Peter asked, "Who has sinned to cause this to this young man? Is it he (that looks unlikely because he was born blind) or is it the sin of his parents?" The implication was that pain and suffering is the end result of someone's sins.
Jesus disagreed with the notion of the relationship of sin and suffering. All of us are sinners. In the second Beatitude, Jesus said:
Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
Christianity doesn't claim that bad things won't happen to us. We are never told in the Old or New Testament that if we live a good life we'll never have any sickness or tragedy. However, we are promised in Isaiah 43:
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters ... they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God"(vv.1-3).
Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
When we read this, it just does not sound right. It goes against the logic. It conflicts with our notion of blessings.
Who will we call blessed, the person who lives comfortably in a
million dollar mansion or the one who lives in the slum? Does anyone go to
the Cancer ward and tell a terminally ill patient, that he is happy and blessed because he is stricken with cancer? So, on first glance, Jesus seems to have made a mistake here. But God does not make mistakes.
When faced with pain and suffering, our first response usually is, "Why me?"
Two years ago, I went to see Dr. Joe Kahl, who was the chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente. Joe was stricken with pancreatic cancer. He went through a set of treatments 5 years ago and thought that the disease was cured. But then found that it was back and this time he was given a few months to live. He was very young - under 50 with kids still in college. It was tough for him to face us. But one thing that is still deeply etched in my mind is his question.
"I often wonder why I got cancer. I had been good. I never smoked. I watched my diet. I exercised. I do not drink excessively. Never did any drugs. I go to church regularly. From all signs I had been living a model life. So, why me?"
There has not been a satisfactory answer to this question. But the beatitudes give us a clue of what Jesus' thinking is on this topic. Man suffers because there is no other way to mature and to grow. Only through suffering can he become more aware. And awareness is the key.
Observe your own life: whenever you are comfortable, at ease, happy, awareness is lost. Then you live in a sort of sleep, you live as if hypnotized, you live as if in a sleep-walk. Whenever there is no suffering, religion disappears from your life. You don't pray to God, because why? There seems to be no reason.
Whenever there is suffering you move towards the church, your eyes move towards God, your heart moves towards prayer. There is something hidden in suffering which makes you more aware who you are, why you are here, where you are going. In a moment of suffering your awareness is intense.
No one fully understands this world. Each of us holds a clue to the answer. But we do not know the clue held by others or how they fit together. Only if you put them all together, then we understand the full mystery. The only person who knows it all is God.
Let me illustrate. Think about this universe as a big novel. Each of us knows a paragraph or sentence of the novel. Taken alone, the sentence or paragraph has no meaning. It does not make any sense. It is gibberish. It is incomplete. But if you collect all the sentences and paragraphs and put it together, it becomes a great novel. It makes sense. So, in the context of the novel, what is held by each one of us has meaning. But put separately, it has no meaning.
Only God has all answers. He only knows the master plan. Every one of us has a key role in that master plan. There is a purpose for our existence. But without God, man can never be meaningful, because God means the Whole and man is just a fragment.
Whenever you are happy, comfortable, or undisturbed, you think you are the Whole. You do not need God. You do not need to depend on anyone else.
When you are suffering, suddenly you become aware that you are not the Whole. Something is wrong and some transformation or change is needed.
Suffering gives you awareness. It gives you the feeling that you have to change, you have to become new, you have to be reborn.
Sanskrit has a beautiful word for suffering. It is called vedana. Vedana has two meanings: one, suffering; the other, knowledge. Vedana comes from the same root as veda. Veda means the source of knowledge. Those who coined the word vedana knew that suffering is knowledge. Hence they used the same root word for both.
If you suffer, immediately you become aware. Think about it. We do not think about our teeth till we have a toothache; we don't think about our leg till we have a sour muscle and we cannot walk anymore. Before, it was there but it was not in your consciousness or "radar screen." My wife Shila can recognize even minute changes in the engine noise etc. of her car to suggest that something is wrong with it. Usually everything is humming, everything is monotonous, everything is okay. A small noise somewhere in the engine, or in the other parts of the car, and you become aware that something has gone wrong that needs to be fixed. We get it fixed. The car is transformed as a result. (We are transformed too. We are out of some cash!)
Jesus on the cross is a symbol of the final suffering, the absolute suffering. When Jesus was on the cross, at the last moment he wavered a little. The suffering was too much. It was no ordinary suffering, no ordinary bodily pain, it was anguish-not only physical, but deep psychological anguish. And the anguish was this: that suddenly he started feeling. "Am I abandoned by God? Why should this happen to me? I have not done anything wrong. Why should I be crucified? Why this pain? Why this crucifixion? Why this anguish to me?" And he asked God, "Why?"
It must have been a very deep moment of anguish, when all the foundations are shaken and even your faith is tested. The pain was so much--the humiliation of the whole thing! The same people for whom he had lived, for whom he had worked, whom he had served, to whom he had been a healer-they were murdering him, and for no reason at all. He asked God, "Why? Why is this happening to me?" Then suddenly he realized why; at the moment of crucifixion he came to the perfect awareness.
Many scholars suggest that before that moment he was Jesus, after that moment he became Christ. At that moment the total transformation happened. Before it he was coming nearer, nearer, nearer, coming closer and closer and closer, but the last jump happened at that moment: Jesus disappeared and was transformed to Christ.
What happened? He said, "Why this suffering to me? Have you forsaken me? Am I abandoned?" And immediately after this anguish he said, "No! Thy will should be done." He accepted it. The why was a rejection, because questioning means doubt. Immediately he understood and he said, "I accept, and I understand. Thy will should be done, not mine." Then he relaxed, there was a let-go, the final surrender. At the moment of death, he accepted death also. In that acceptance, he became Life Eternal-the key was found. That is why for
Christians, the important date is Easter and not Christmas. The death of Christ is more important than the birth of Christ.
Billy Graham said:
"Suffering is often the crucible in which our faith is tested. Those who successfully come through the "furnace of affliction" are the ones who emerge "like gold tried in the fire."
The Bible teaches unmistakably that we can triumph over difficulties. The Psalmist said:
"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
In business, we often say that:
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade out of it.
So, if you have the right attitude you can overcome pain, disease and suffering. You can turn disadvantages to your advantages.
Rev. Robert Schuller said:
"Trouble never leaves us where it finds us; sorrow will change our tomorrow. But God inspires us to become better people, not bitter ones. He shows us that the negative can be turned into a positive, a minus into a plus, and that's what the cross is all about."
So, what is the cross? It is a minus turned into a plus!
And what happens to good people when bad things happen to them?
They become ... better people.
I noticed that when my children Madhu and Seena were young, they may get hurt occasionally, falling out of the bike, cut their hands, get hurt while playing etc. When this happens, they will cry and run to my wife Shila. Very often Shila will hug them; sometimes blow on the injury and apply a bandage. If they are really hurt, they will sob out their pain sticking beside her; otherwise they will go away. The crisis is over. Mothers know how to lovingly caress their children and to tenderly kiss the hurt away. They impart the magic of healing. The children go their way half healed and wholly comforted. Love and compassion contain a stronger balm than all the salves and ointments made by man. If earthly mothers can do such wonders, how much can our heavenly father do to comfort and heal us at time of our need. We can take solace in the companionship of Jesus when we are sick or hurt. It is worth being sick.
Jesus said, "let not your heart be troubled. Believe in me." (John 14: 1)
When faith is strong, troubles become trifles.
This kind of comfort is the kind that enabled a devout Englishman to look at a deep, dark hole in the ground where his home stood before the bombing and say,
"I always did want a basement, I did. Now I can jolly well build another house like I always wanted with a basement."
There is comfort in suffering because God can use our sufferings to teach us and make us better people. Often it takes suffering to make us realize the brevity of life, and the importance of living for Christ. Often God uses suffering to accomplish things in our lives that would otherwise never be achieved.
The Bible puts it succinctly:
"Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4).
Some of the godliest people who lived in this earth were men and women who had been called upon to endure great suffering-perhaps even being invalids for many years. Many people would have grown bitter and resentful if they had faced such circumstances-and yet because they knew Christ and walked in the joy of His presence every day, God had blessed them and turned them into people who reflected Christ.
Some of us can recall the story of Andre Thornton, the legendary hitter of Cleveland Indians. In 1977, Andre, his wife, and their two children were driving from Cleveland to Pennsylvania to take part in her sister's wedding. As they started their journey that evening, it began to rain. Then it snowed. As they wound their way through the Laurel Mountains of Pennsylvania, the winds became very strong, caught the back end of their van, and caused it to spin, turn it over and hit a guard rail. Andre was knocked unconscious.
When he woke up, he was lying in a hospital bed next to his son. A short time after he regained consciousness, a nurse came over and said, "Andre, I'm sorry to have to tell you this." She began to cry. Then she said simply, "The coroner is with your wife and daughter."
Later, recollecting the events of the day, Andre said to Rev.
"It was a very difficult time. I felt as though the insides of my body were being torn out. But even at that moment I could count on the Lord's Word. The Lord said in His Word, 'I will never fail you nor forsake you.' (Heb. 13:5)
"I knew that Christ was there with us in the midst of our most difficult moments. The Lord's strength upheld my son and me and allowed us to go on. I think the greatest thing I learned at that point is that our God is faithful."
"I know that whatever plan God had set down, was a plan that was going to glorify Him. When I look back at the tragedy today, I see the lives that were touched by what the Lord has done through our lives. And so I see no longer a tragedy, but a joy, as other lives are brought back out of a living death to abundant life!"
"Psalm 23 says, 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.' (v. 61) When you cannot see the goodness of God, you can experience His mercy.
Dr. Edward Judson once said, "Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding without suffering, it is because others before you have suffered; if you are suffering without succeeding, it is that others after you may succeed."
We will conclude with a quote from Billy Graham:
Blessed (happy) are they that mourn. They are happy because they know that their aim and their distress are the beginning of a new creation, the birth pangs of a better world.
They are also made to glory in their infirmities, to smile through their tears, and to sing in the midst of their sorrow because they realize that in God's economy, if we suffer, we shall also reign with him. (2 Timothy 2:12)