At the heart of both atheism and religion, there is a search for the meaning to the question of suffering.
Perhaps that claim sounds too strong, so consider the following. When St. Thomas Aquinas was compiling the best objections to every aspect of Christianity in the Summa Theologiae, he saw only two important objections to the existence of God: that nature (or science) disproves the need for God, and that suffering exists. Consider all of the arguments presented by atheists over the 750 years following the Summa: How many of them are really arguing something other than one of those two points?
But religion, no less than atheism, has been interested in this problem of suffering. Indeed, it’s one of the basic things that people look for in religion. Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on non-Christian religions, observes that “men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition,” including the question, “Where does suffering originate, and what purpose does it serve?”
This is not to say that the religions of the world all answer the question of suffering in the same way. For instance, the Four Noble Truths at the heart of Buddhism are built on the idea that everything is dukkha (suffering), and that the quest for enlightenment is to find a way out of this suffering. Understood in that way, suffering has an origin (our selfish desires), but no purpose. It’s an evil simply to be avoided or overcome.
The Christian response is much stranger, but also much richer, than the Buddha’s. It starts in a strange but beautiful book. A seminary professor who I know would read through the entire Bible with his students, but he would begin with the Book of Job, rather than Genesis. Why? Because the Book of Job does an unparalleled job of presenting this question of suffering. Strangely, the book ends without any clear answer to Job’s questions. As G.K. Chesterton observed, Job’s doubt is “I do not understand,” to which God answers, “you do not understand.” Yet Job leaves this divine encounter heartened by this mysterious response, with “the sense of something that would be worth understanding.”
Instead, it’s the rest of Scripture, from Genesis down to the New Testament, that slowly reveals the answers to Job’s questions, helping us to see both where suffering comes from and what purpose it serves. And perhaps the most profound contrast can be seen in this: that Jesus Christ doesn’t run away from suffering, but freely (and even joyfully!) enters into it. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own” (Jn 10:17-18). Suffering is not something that God waves away or explains away, but something that he enters into and redeems.
This mystery of “redeemed suffering” is part and parcel with the mystery of the Incarnation, that Jesus becomes fully human in a way that enriches and ultimately redeems mankind. Summing it up in one line, St. Gregory Nazianzen famously wrote that “what has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” Put more positively, St. Irenaeus wrote that “the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” In other words, Jesus becomes like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15), so that we may be freed from our sin and become like him.
But the Fathers of the Church were emphatic that “all things” meant everything. Gregory’s words were directed against a heresy called Apollinarianism, which claimed that Jesus had a human body but not a human mind. Gregory’s point was simple: if Jesus’ incarnation doesn’t include a human mind, then our minds aren’t redeemed. Jesus Christ takes on every part of our humanity, body, soul, spirit and he redeems it.
One of the things that Jesus takes on is (and therefore, one of the things that he redeems) is our suffering. Suffering, this great and seemingly meaningless part of our human experience, even becomes how Christ redeems the whole world. On Good Friday, in the beautiful expression of the French philosopher Simone Weil, Christ uses the Cross as a lever upon which “a body which was frail and light but which was God, lifted up the whole world.”
In doing this, Jesus not only wins our salvation, and not only shows us the meaning of his suffering. He shows us the deepest meaning of our suffering. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “in bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” The well-worn maxim to “offer it up” in the face of suffering isn’t a call to grit your teeth and move on. It’s a call to “be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5). The heart of priesthood is sacrifice, and the heart of Jesus’ priesthood is his total self-sacrifice on the cross. When he says that “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23), he’s calling us to live out our own baptismal priesthood, and to sacrifice ourselves in imitation of him and in union with him.
Practicality of suffering
In case this sounds too lofty and theoretical, let’s get practical. Suffering exists, and there’s no getting around it, and no escaping from it. But suffering doesn’t have to be pointless. Because God is good, we know that he will only permit suffering if he can draw some greater good out of it. That can easily be reduced to trite clichés like “everything happens for a reason,” but it’s truer to say that God can use everything. And one of the ways that he uses our suffering is by making us more like Christ, and letting us drink more from his cup (cf. Mt 20:22-23, 26:39). This means that we shouldn’t run from our suffering, but neither should we exaggerate or glamorize our sufferings, as if they were themselves the point of Christianity. On the contrary, St. Paul reminds us that “the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). That is, we don’t suffer for the sake of suffering. We suffer for the sake of divine glory. And that’s why we can rejoice in our sufferings.
The meaning of this mystery plays out each year in the life of the Church. Lent is the great spiritual journey toward Easter. On the one hand, St. Paul says that we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). If we want to rejoice with Christ in the resurrection, we need to get there with him through the cross. There are no shortcuts to Easter morning that go around Good Friday. But on the other hand, a journey exists for the sake of the destination. Lent without Easter misses the point of Lent. St. Peter called us to “rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pt 4:13).
We would do well to think of all of our sufferings, big and small, as little Lents, spiritual journeys toward the ultimate healing and redemption that God has in store for those who love him. Perhaps for the suffering in your own life, that’s a difficult thing to envision because the suffering doesn’t seem like a journey, because it seems endless. But the Christian promise is simple and beautiful: even if the sufferings in your life don’t change, you can. And you do so not alone but with and through Jesus Christ, who shares in your sufferings just as he invites you to share in His.
As we come to the end of this Lent, and as we continue in whatever Lenten journeys we may be on in our own lives, we do so with our eyes fixed on “Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). The risen, glorified Jesus is the true ending to the Book of Job, showing the meaning of his cross and ours.
Joe Heschmeyer blogs at shamelesspopery.com and is the author of “Who Am I, Lord: Finding Your Identity in Christ” (OSV, $16.95).