Why Do We Suffer?
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday). Fr Peter Hunter reflects upon the nature of suffering.
There is something deeply mysterious about suffering. One thing is certain: ultimately, God does not want suffering for us. In Heaven, every tear will be wiped away, and when God came among us as a man, he relieved suffering. So why do we still suffer?
One possibility is that suffering is a punishment, but Jesus in today’s Gospel makes it clear that at least in the case of this man born blind, that is not so. And of course, Jesus himself will suffer and die, and yes, as a punishment, but not a divine punishment but a human one. Those who crucify Christ are not executing the divine will. Indeed, Jesus prays for their forgiveness. When we think about it, in the world we’ve made, it’s often the innocent who suffer the most.
So if God does not ultimately want suffering for us, but the joys of Heaven, why does He allow us to suffer? Jesus gives a reason in the case of the man born blind, namely that his being cured of his blindness is so that the works of God might be shown in him.
I think it’s important to see that Jesus is not just talking about the physical cure, which is an important result of Jesus’ actions, but not the most important. As so often in the gospels, sight is a sign of faith, and the more important consequence of this whole event is that the man comes to faith in Jesus.
A great part of the way this event is told us by St John is to show us the contrast between the faith of the man, and the blindness of the Pharisees. They refuse to believe the man. They refuse to believe the evidence before them. They are blind to the works of God, even though the Jewish Scriptures ought to have prepared them for the coming of the Messiah, who would open the eyes of the blind.
It seems to me that an awful lot of the time, we too are blind to the works of God. Or we can be. God is doing remarkable things in our own lives, bringing us to faith, feeding us with His Word and with His very body. And yet I suspect we all find ourselves disappointed. Couldn’t God do more? Couldn’t He give me a clearer sign? Why does He not resolve the trouble in my life? Is God somehow punishing me?
Part of the mystery about suffering is that it is deeply connected to love. Ask yourself: is suffering good? Well, not in itself. Of course it isn’t. But would you prefer not to suffer? That’s a harder question, because suffering is the natural reaction to having lost something or someone that I love. To prefer not to suffer, in a life marked by loss (as all our lives are in this world), is to prefer not to love. So suffering isn’t good in itself, but the alternative would be a stony-hearted indifference.
Some of our suffering comes from a foolish attachment to things that are not important. We suffer when we break a treasured possession or have something stolen, and that might make us realise the unhealthy extent to which the things in our lives possess us, rather than us possessing them. But equally, sometimes we suffer, truly and deeply, because of the loss of something, or more usually someone, who is precious to us.
I think even those losses can show us the works of God in our own lives. They can make us aware of the love that God has sown in our hearts. Suffering can call us to forgive. It can make us humble and aware of our dependence on the love of God. We can be blinded by our pain, but equally, it can open our eyes to what ought to have been clear all along.
Probably the deepest part of the mystery of suffering is that when God became a human being, He did not shrink from suffering, but took it upon Himself. God doesn’t just know our suffering by loving us in our suffering. He knows it from the inside, as it were. And by taking on suffering, He has brought us victory over it, not by giving us a stony-hearted indifference, but by giving us a love which can overcome every loss.