Human Suffering and the Suffering of God

by Priest Joseph Lucas

This evening as we witness the betrayal, judgment, crucifixion, death and burial of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and listen to the hymns of Matins of Holy Friday and contemplate the meaning of these events for our life, we can’t help but think of the suffering that we see in the world now. To help us understand this suffering as we continue on our path to Pascha, we offer this reflection by Father Joseph Lucas, Rector of Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami, FL.

As we remain cloistered due to the ensuing pandemic, in the midst of Holy Week, it is apt to consider the meaning of human suffering.  Where does suffering come from?  And why was it necessary that our Lord should suffer for us?

For the ancient Hebrews, all things, good and bad, were attributable to God.  We read in the Psalms, “For those blessed by Him shall inherit the earth, but those cursed by Him shall be cut off” (37:22).  And the author of Lamentations asks, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that woe and well-being proceed?” (3:38).  Several passages in the Old Testament imply that outcomes depend on whether we bless or curse God.  When we experience something positive, it is an act of God’s beneficence towards us in response to our fidelity.  But when we experience something negative, it is God’s way of punishing us for our sins.  Thus, suffering—viewed through this lens—is God’s response to our actions.  It is simple cause and effect.  However, there were exceptions to this rule.  In the Book of Job, God’s servant suffered not in response to his sins, but as a way to test and prove his faith.  Proverbs tells us, “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction” (3:11).  Later, the Apostle teaches us that, without chastening, we cannot be called sons of God (Heb 12:5-10).  Throughout the history of the Church, suffering has often been understood in one of these two ways: either as punishment by God (an opportunity for repentance), or as chastening from God (an opportunity for spiritual growth).

Another way that the Scriptures interpret suffering is as the result of misusing one’s freedom.  When Adam and Eve were placed in the garden of delight, they were forewarned that their own actions could bring about death.  And after they disobeyed, God confirms the results, informing them of the natural consequences that follow:  the ground will be cursed, and the pain of labor will mar the joy of childbirth.  As a result, even “creation itself” is held captive by “the bondage of corruption” (Rom 8:21).  It is likewise humanity’s evil that results in the great flood.  We read, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11).  Man’s inhumanity to man leads to a wicked outcome, and God simply confirms the results.  As we consider our world today, the majority of suffering we experience is the result of others.  Someone may choose to purposely harm another, or they may simply fail to intervene and prevent suffering when given the chance.  In either case, the result is the same.  Even in the event of natural disasters, much of the suffering experienced is the result of human decisions.  Greed, lust, selfishness, hatred, laziness, and indifference lie at the heart of many catastrophes.

A third way of understanding suffering is rooted in the theology of the Church.  The Church Fathers believed that suffering is inscribed in the very order of creation.  Saint Maximus the Confessor taught that only God is free from suffering, according to His nature:  “Nothing that has come into being [including humans] is free of suffering…only what is unique, infinite and uncircumscribed [i.e., God] is free of suffering” (De Ambigua 7).  The very fact that something is created means it is capable of experiencing change, for better or for worse.  Saint Irenaeus of Lyon believed that the original humans were neither mortal nor immortal.  They were created by God with a potential to move in either direction; but their rejection of God aligned them with the mutable world rather than the immutable God. 

Therefore, suffering and death are not intended by God.  As the Wisdom of Solomon states, “God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living; for He created all things so that they might exist; the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them” (1:13-14).  Instead, suffering is the result of interactions within the world.  In theology, this distinction is known as the difference between primary and secondary causation.  The former refers to that which God directly wills, while the latter is the result of creaturely freedom (although permitted by God).  Saint John Damascene referred to these as the antecedent and consequent wills of God.  God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and yet only he that “calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13).  In other words, God does not compel human agency, but allows us to choose.  Later theologians applied this same thinking to the laws God established in the universe.  They are appointed for a good and necessary purpose, but may also cause problems.  For example, the earth’s molten core has made life possible, creating the magnetic field that protects us from radiation and thus stabilizing our atmosphere.  However, this same red-hot core causes convection currents inside earth’s mantle to enable continental drift, sometimes resulting in earthquakes.  It is not that God wants to punish us through the earthquake, but this outcome is made possible by the laws He has established.  Even so, the universe we have is the absolute best of all possible physical worlds God could create.

With these three different interpretations of suffering, how may we, as Christians, reconcile them?  First, it is important that we do not blame God for suffering.  God is infinitely good by nature, and He created the universe to be good.  But He also allows for the possibility of suffering—whether as the result of human action, or of natural laws, or even as divine intervention.  This is simply the reality of our finite, created existence.  What matters is not that suffering persists in the world, but rather what we do with it.  Our Lord Jesus Christ entered into this world to endure its suffering.  He did not simply remove it from us, He shared in it.  And as a result, He transformed it.  Now, when we approach suffering with faith, it can become a source of blessings.  When we introspect through the prism of suffering, rooted in prayer, we learn its meaning for our own lives.  In one instance, it points us toward repentance, and in another it presents us with an opportunity to trust God.  It is in this way that we can respond to suffering the same way St Paul did, that whatever we experience, “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28).