The Aching Grace of Suffering (A Reflection for Good Friday)

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Pain, sickness, accidents, death, and natural calamities are a part of daily life and they raise questions that cause people a great deal of personal anguish. The existence of suffering is an undeniable reality of life, and hardly anyone escapes from the clutches of this painful mystery. It makes many of us, if not most of us, question the very existence of a good and omnipotent God. Many have lost their faith and even turned out to be hardcore atheists on account of suffering. There have been loud protests from time and again even in the form of books entitled “Where is God When it Hurts?” or “Why Do Good People Suffer and Bad People Prosper?” and the like. This gripping puzzle of human woundedness has been formulated by David Hume in the following manner: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then God is impotent. Is God able to prevent suffering and evil, but not willing? Then God is malevolent. Is God both willing and able to prevent evil? Then why is there any evil in the world?”
To those who ask despairingly, “Why doesn’t God just stamp out evil?” we may have to ask another question: “If at midnight tonight, God decreed that all evil would be stamped out of the universe, how many of us would be here at 12:01?” God could obliterate all evil and suffering in the world by one single stroke, but all that would prove is how much bigger and stronger he is! God has not created puppets, but dynamic free beings, endowed with the freedom of choice, which undoubtedly involves serious risks. However, God’s ways are not our ways. Perhaps God allows pain and suffering to remain, in order to demonstrate not merely the attribute of his power, but those of his wisdom and grace, and he is able to work through even evil and suffering and transform them into grandeur and grace. Or it may be the paradox of the power of powerlessness. In the course of centuries many people and various theories have tried to answer the problem of suffering. Doubtless, these have thrown considerable light on the mystery of suffering and evil; yet, whenever we come face to face with raw and actual suffering, none of these can ever totally dispel the darkness of this inscrutable puzzle.
Suffering may be destined to remain an ever-elusive mystery that we shall never fully comprehend in this life. In itself it is something not good and every effort is to be made to alleviate it. At the same time, suffering cannot be totally abolished or explained. But we can do one thing: to have a healthy attitude to suffering. There remains the possibility of realistically accepting it as an inevitable part of human life and then seeking to transform it and integrate it into human life in such a way that we come to see that life would be ‘poorer’ without it. It becomes easier to face it, if we can find some meaning or sense in it, for as Nietzsche has said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost anything.” Victor Frankl makes the same point when he observes, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
The Bible gives certain piercing insights into this mystery, which provoke reflection: Job and Jesus. The Book of Job is an outpouring of human agony, which also explores an important situation: Can a right relationship with God exist in suffering? Job is a just, righteous and blameless man. He loses everything: family, property, and health. Afflicted with leprosy, he sits on a dung heap. He is ready to accept this suffering, as his past good fortune, as a gift from God. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” But his friends, and even his own wife, seek to attribute his sufferings to some unconscious transgression of divine law. Job protests vigorously and challenges God to prove that he has been guilty. He speaks out in anguish, and comes ultimately to rail in fury against God. God then gives an answer that is no answer. God asserts God’s authority and power as Creator and questions Job for questioning God. Job answers the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know!”
We are creatures. God knows best what we are and what we need. We recognize our total dependence on God and accept from God’s hand good things as well as bad. We may not always find it meaningful. But we trust God. We have to give up our idea of God who always does what ‘we think’ is good for us. All that we can do is to trust in God’s love and accept everything as coming from God, especially when we do not understand.
The earthly life of Jesus was an arduous pilgrimage to the Father carried out in silence, worship, and suffering. Jesus’ lifetime of love is climaxed in the most powerful kenosis of his crucifixion. The self-emptying of Jesus reaches its peak on Calvary. He prays that the suffering may pass him by. His suffering was great and unmerited. Why a life of suffering and why an existence that led to the hard bed of the cross? Why the shedding of the last drop of the blood? For something like the same reason that there are more birds than are necessary for the needed song of man, more grains of sand than are necessary for a seashore – because of the superfluity of love, the superabundance of love, the non- logical logic of love.
Where there is true love, nothing is too costly, not even one’s own life. St. Augustine affirms the truth of it: “Where there is love, there is no hardship. If there is hardship, that hardship itself is sought after and embraced lovingly and willingly for the sake of the beloved.” Love, which is real, loves even to the point of sacrifice, in fact, loves even to the end, which is the offering of one’s own very life. Christ loves to that extent, for “a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Indeed, at the heart of the deepest fulfilment lies the greatest sacrifice!
The Calvary becomes the Academy of Love, the suffering love, revealed and manifested to us in human terms in Jesus crucified. The Calvary event is recorded with the blood of Christ and nowhere has God’s revealed love reached a greater peak of self-giving to us than in the image of Jesus on the cross, totally broken, rejected and poured out for love of us. The example of Jesus is the example of absolute unquestioning obedience, and his love was like a clear flame without the slightest wavering before the winds of fear or self-seeking. Jesus accepted his mission and life in all its fulness, with all its pains and pathos.
Christ does not explain suffering, but fills it with his presence. He shows us how to transform and give meaning to suffering by accepting it for a greater cause. The cross therefore is not an answer. The cross rather is an assurance, the assurance that suffering can be salvific, redemptive. To use the very instruments of defeat as the instruments of victory – this is the great triumph. He accepted, with all the adoring love of his heart, to lay down his life. When Christ bowed his head in the death-hour, love solemnized its triumph. He became our fellow-sufferer, and the crucifixion became the most perfect way of expressing the eternal love of God for us.
Jesus accepts the suffering as a sign of his faithfulness to God. He makes it an occasion for total self-surrender. He suffers in solidarity with the people. The catastrophe and the shattering weight of disillusionment that Calvary had brought gripped the minds of even the staunchest followers of Christ. Jesus was, however, sustained by the hope that God will vindicate him. That vindication comes only after death, when God raised him to life again and enables him to share that life with others. Furthermore, the mystery of Jesus condemned to an ugly death and enclosed in a borrowed tomb was not closed either with his death or with the tomb. Suffering and death could not choke the divine love. The pierced heart quickened to the throb of life. The resurrection counteracted the catastrophe of the cross. It was a ratification of his life, love and teaching. Death was not the end, but it was the inauguration of his resurrection. The resurrected Christ showed those who experienced him that God’s Kingdom is more powerful than death. It reveals that love conquers everything, every suffering, even death! Through suffering to glory: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Death is not only a passage to life; it is the very condition for its fruitfulness.
What lessons can we draw from Job and Jesus? The Book of Job offers a challenge to the modern mind: it views life without illusion, but not with despair. It punctures the traditional beliefs in God, but not in faith. It points to a God beyond the God of the philosophers and of ethical concepts – a God who transcends all human interests and human cataloging. Job teaches that any attempt of man to justify God would be an act of arrogance. It also challenges any attempt on our part to reduce the mystery of human life to simple equations. Just as Job, we who read ‘Job’ may likewise find a gain in the loss of self-sufficiency. We are totally dependent on God. We have to accept what comes from God even when we do not see its meaning. We are sure, however, that God will not abandon us. The fulfilment of this hope may not happen in this life, but only after death. In this sense it is a ‘blind’ trust in God. This hope makes us realize that no catastrophe is ultimate. There is always a beyond for us and for all.
Our scientific and technological achievements may puff us up with our own sense of power. Tragedies, sufferings, and natural calamities cut us down to size and make us humble and vulnerable before God, and even nature. Our faith in a God who is merely there to meet ‘our needs’ is purified. Rather than expect God to do ‘our will,’ we learn to mean what we pray: “Your will be done..” At times wisdom comes to us through the awful grace of God. Pain may be required for our recovery. And the deepest enlightenment may result from the greatest shock! An appropriate attitude in the face of suffering may be a willingness to surrender to God’s mystery and to trust in God with the hope that everything will work out for the good of everyone everywhere in ways unknown to us.
There ‘is’ suffering in human life and we do not totally know why it should be. The denial of God does not alleviate the suffering one whit; all it eases is our inability to comprehend. Railing against God does nothing to help. Instead there is the encounter with mystery: the mystery of human life, which in its vulnerability and frailty can be infinitely precious and treasured; the mystery of human love, which can surmount extraordinary pain and suffering; the mystery of divine love which must suffer and grieve with us in our hurt and misery, but which – as we can say to each other – says also to us: “You are precious in my eyes, and honoured, and I love you.” Love is gift. We really know not its why or wherefore. How much more the love of God! The ultimate mystery of our world is not that ‘we are,’ or that ‘we love.’ It is not that ‘we suffer.’ Nor is it faith that ‘there is a God.’ The ultimate mystery of our world is that its Creator God should deeply love each human being, nay, each and every creature, individually and eternally. And that is the incredible and ineffable mystery of God’s everlasting love. Such mystery calls forth unfathomable wonder. Such love can only be met with unconditional acceptance.

Fr. T.C. Joseph SDB
Bosco B.Ed. College,
Dimapur