On Suffering

"For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."(Dt 30:11-20)

You have suffered, precious reader. I know you have suffered. Everyone has suffered. Some suffered little, some suffered great. Its impossible to be human without suffering at some point. And when we suffer, we all ask the same question: why? When we see those who suffer greatly, we ask: why? We ask why a loving God who could so easily take away the suffering still allow it to happen? This is the famous Problem of Evil and it is the favorite weapon in every atheist's arsenal.

The usual Christian answer to this question is that God allows evils to happen to people so that a greater good can occur from it. That is, the evil is the means to some end, which is good. This answer is unsatisfying, as well as un-Christian and therefore wrong. The correct answer is also unsatisfying, especially if you are suffering right now. Bottom line from all who suffer: "God, save me right now; nothing is worth this." And God does not respond.

We can start by looking at an analogous situation. A mother takes her infant child to the doctor for a medicine that is only indicated as an injection. From the point of view of the infant, mom is wonderful and provides me with love and everything I could possibly want. All I have to do is ask. But now the doctor causes me great pain and mom does nothing. The pain is horrible; why doesn't mom stop it? Why did she allow the bad doctor to cause such pain? Could it be that mom doesn't care? Maybe she's not a real mom after all. This is how we see suffering; God allows it and does nothing. But, from the mother's point of view, something wonderful is happening: needful medicine is being given to my child. It is unfortunate that the method is painful, but the pain is temporary and the effects long-lasting. The illness is beyond my control; the pain of the medicine is beyond my control. But I know the illness is worse than any injection pain, so it's worth it; my infant hasn't yet learned language, so I cannot explain what is happening. There is nothing I can do to sooth this moment of pain.

From this, we can understand something about suffering from God's point of view. First, there must be some illness in my life that requires medicine. We know the illness is our fallen state, which will lead to an eternity of unhappiness. We also know the medicine is God's covenant; if applied, then it will change our unhappiness to happiness. Frankly, this is all most people know; some Christians accept this on faith, others have trouble with it. So what is the pain and suffering part? It has to do with our will. Suffering is not simply the experience of pain. Suffering is our desire to not experience the pain, for the pain to stop. It is one thing to recoil from the feeling of pain; it is another thing to desire to be pain-free. Suffering is always the denial of a thing desired. Happiness is, in contrast, the reception of a thing desired. Many religions say that if we stop desiring things, we will stop suffering. It is true, but it is also extremely difficult, even impossible, to stop desiring things. It is our nature to desire those things we judge to be good. Our will reaches out to those things desired, to acquire them. Our will also recoils from things we judge bad. Philosophy calls the desire for good things love.

If I judge chocolate as good, I will desire it; I say, "I love chocolate." But the way I love chocolate is quite different from the way I love God. The thing I really love most of all is me. Every person loves themselves first (we are speaking of the philosophic sense of love, not the psychologic sense). When I love chocolate, it is really me that Iím loving; the chocolate is merely a good gift to give to myself. When I love chocolate, I'm not really doing the love that Christianity speaks of; I'm not reaching out of myself towards another. I'm merely letting my self-loving will dominate and I'm taking. I can even apply this self-love to people and claim I love, for example, my spouse; in reality my spouse is simply attractive or wealthy or kind or some such quality that I want to give myself as a gift. I can apply this self-love to God and see in Him a provider, my relationship with Him more of a possession. In all of these self-love scenarios, I am not giving, not sacrificing; I am taking and possessing. The true love of Christianity is always self-giving, self-sacrificing. Humans normally experience this kind of love best towards their children.

So, we tend towards self-love instead of other-love. Correcting this is the part of entering into God's covenant that hurts, that results in suffering. The correction involves humility, which is the heart and soul of suffering. Humility - self-abnegation of an existential level - is needed to love another. We can't love without it and love is the essential element to our existence and the path to happiness. There is no hope for union with God without it. So, how do we get it? By denying the will its desire. This is the shot in the arm; this is suffering. Losing someone close, poverty, illness, disfigurement, imprisonment, anxiety - these are all examples of things we hate; when faced with them, we desire their elimination and we are denied. This denial of desire, this suffering, is the one thing needed to follow a path of true love.

And this explanation is unsatisfying - right? Right. It sounds logical, but to one who is suffering there can be no satisfaction. Why did God give us such a nature to suffer, an existence that demands a painful transformation from self-love to true love? For the same reason the mother gave her child an injection - because there was no other way. Not even God can do the illogical. Only a rational nature can enjoy happiness, but a rational nature can also experience suffering. And a rational nature has a will and under the regime of original sin tends towards self-love. This is the nature of rationality; not even God can invent a person capable of only happiness. God is that mother who knows there is no other way. He would explain it to us, but we don't understand the language of God. All He can do is to hold us close to Himself, but that doesn't take away the pain.

How can this explanation help those who suffer? It can't. This is just a bible blog. Rather, how can WE help those who suffer? This is our calling, dear Reader, this is the mercy to which God calls us to participate. Even in spite of our own sufferings, we are called to help others cope with their own sufferings. In our time, a great saint showed us this path: Mother Theresa. She suffered much, but she still devoted every waking moment to humbly helping the poorest of the poor.

So what does all this have to do with Dt 30:11-20? The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially the Law of Moses. God gave His Law in Exodus and Leviticus. Thanks to the rock incident in Num 20:7-13, Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is his farewell address to Israel just before they cross over into that Promised Land. It includes Mosesí legal prescriptions, plus the famous blessings and curses: worship God and obey his commandments and you will be blessed and happy; worship pagan gods or do not obey Godís commandments and you will be cursed and miserable. In this summary statement of 30:11-20, Moses equates life and good and he equates death and evil. Considering our belief that we share the Life of God Himself in the covenant, this is understandable. Moses exhorts Israel to ďchoose life.Ē But notice of what this good/life consists: obedience to the commandments. In contrast, evil/death consists of disobedience. Why is obedience to God so important? Because it is an alternative to suffering. Obedience provides for that humility that we otherwise must suffer to get. Moses is telling Israel: choose between obedience or suffering. They both lead to a breaking of the will, of self-love. They both lead to God. Moses strongly recommends they choose obedience as the preferable path. The rest of the Old Testament is a series of stories proving him right; when Israel obeys God all is well, but when they disobey, they suffer.

Christians believe that obedience to the Law of Moses is not possible, so it canít be the way to God. This is the core message of St. Paulís longest work, his epistle to the Romans. But that work begins and ends with a curious phrase:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:1-6)

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith -- to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27)

The phrase is underlined in these quotes: the obedience of faith. This is our new covenant obedience. What does it mean? It means that our Faith, which is the truth revealed by Christ, is to be obeyed, as any truth is to be assented. I know the Earth revolves around the sun Ė that is not some opinion to which some may agree and others disagree. Itís a reality, a fact; my mind is to assent to its reality. My job is to obey the truth of this reality. Likewise, we must obey the reality of divinely revealed truth. I donít merely believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, I know it. I obey that fact as reality. Likewise, I know the moral law of Christianity, which is the law of loving others, of doing to them what I would want done for me, of giving of myself instead of taking from others. These are also reality. This obedience to revealed truth, to the Faith, is a substitution for suffering. We note, finally, that Jesus obeyed the Father in all things, perfectly, as an example to us.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:1-11)