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Thoughts on Suffering

When we engage the topic of suffering we enter upon sacred ground. As we learn to take responsibility for our lives, loving God and our neighbor, we become secure and balanced. And then something happens. We encounter a form of suffering that is so new and intense it shakes us to the core. Our balance is shattered. At this stage we realize that no matter how committed we are to the moral life, spiritually we are still beginners. According to an honored dictum, no one can become holy without being plunged into the mystery of suffering.

From the moment of shock, striving to find answers or “fix” the problem are normal reactions. Many are tempted to despair of ever being able to enter again into that world known before. Attempting to relate God’s will to the suffering may cause more pain. In fact, this new sort of suffering changes the perspective of the very image of God to the sufferer. Does God cause the suffering or, rather, allow it to happen? What kind of God would allow this to happen, to me, or anyone?

" one can become holy without being plunged into the mystery of suffering."

In the words of the author CS Lewis, the image of God is His image (not ours) and the process of suffering is His process (not ours), whereby our image of Him must be shattered and rebuilt, time after time. This process is not rational to the human mind which, spiritually, must always be growing in understanding. As Lewis discovered through the loss of his beloved wife Joy, the “problem of suffering” becomes the “mystery of suffering” when God is allowed to be present. God alone brings new meaning into our suffering.

The classical treatment of suffering is to be found in the story of Job. Job, at the instigation of Satan, is stripped of his possessions, his children, and his friends. Was this a test to see if he would turn away from God? Throughout the first 37 chapters of the Book of Job, this suffering calls forth arguments from Job’s comforters and wife to question whether an innocent and just man should undergo such a trial. His comforters question whether Job might in fact not be so innocent and deserve retribution. Perhaps he should repent. On the other hand, his wife knows his innocence, and suggests that Job should simply turn away from God and resolve the problem. Job, knowing his innocence, rejects both suggestions.

"God alone brings new meaning into our suffering."

And then, in chapter 38, God Himself breaks through all arguments. God is God, the author of all creation, and who are we, what do we really know, why should we question? For Job, this is the breakthrough into the mystery. God does not answer the previous arguments. God reveals Himself face-to-face. He becomes present to Job and speaks through the next 3 chapters, where the problem of suffering is transcended and transformed into mystery. “. . . Things too marvelous for me, which I did not know,” responds Job to his Creator, “. . . by hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you.”

It is not unique to Job that such an experience is granted. The mystery of transformative suffering is offered to all. We experience this when we turn to the cross. Jesus suffered and died, that our sorrow be turned to joy, the ultimate paradox, irrational to the human mind alone. Jesus’ suffering through death made God most especially present to those who suffer. In those moments He waits, to transcend and transform suffering into new meaning, new life, and finally into the joy of the resurrection. In those moments we turn to faith and there we find our answers.

"Jesus’ suffering through death made God most especially present to those who suffer."

As we continue in our diocesan Eucharistic Revival, I encourage you to participate in the Parish Discernment Sessions which are now ongoing. These thoughts on suffering, above, will be the basis for one of your future sessions where you examine your parish response to the sick, the lonely, and the suffering. I encourage you to join your Parish Eucharistic Revival Team and see how we can work more closely through the Holy Spirit in our mission. How can we more fruitfully minister to God’s holy people? We find our answers in the Eucharist.

+Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg

Bishop of Pueblo

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