Saturday, March 1, 2008

A few more thoughts on suffering

With yesterday, we have leapt over leap year in a single bound and with a little help from the Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies. The problem of suffering, which is really not a problem, but a reality, is worth re-visiting. By stating boldly that there is nothing intrinsically good about suffering, the word intrinsically bears a lot of weight. To wit: suffering is not a good in and of itself. It is quite the opposite. Sticking with Loxterkamp's paraphrase of Rahner, suffering is a void, with a negative definition, what is not God. This seems theologically non-controversial; it is quintessentially Augustinian. We never revel in suffering, or in causing others to suffer. We are not sadomasochists, which would constitute an utter perversion. God does not hurt us to help us. We do not hurt each other to help each other, we do not give or receive pain for the purpose of pleasure. Nothing I can think of would be more devilish.

With all that, pain and suffering of the worst kinds are real. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, in what can only be characterized as a very dense and difficult passage: "In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will. We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified" (Rom 8,26-30-underlining and emboldening mine). Without getting into the whole issue of predestination (I tend to take the Barthian stance of universal election, at least as filtered through von Balthasar). It bears noting that a better translation of verse twenty-eight is: "all things intermingle for good for those who love God". The Revised Standard Version probably renders this verse best: "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." In other words, God goes about the work of bringing life from death and hope from despair, making prime rib out of a bucket of s***. God can certainly make something of nothing. After all, God created the world ex nihilio. If suffering were a positive good, then God would not only permit it, but actively cause it.

Therefore, it is important to understand that God is not in any way the cause of evil or suffering. Death, pain, evil, suffering, natural disasters, etc. result from a fallen world that it still in the process of being redeemed. Earlier in this same chapter the apostle writes: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (Rom 8,19-25 NRSV). Hence, it becomes the mission of the children of God to cooperate in the world's redemption through the specific manner in which we are called, be it as cloistered contemplative interceding for the world, or a person on the front-lines of dealing with the scourge of AIDS, or working with people in recovery from debilitating addictions, etc. All of this is diakonia, which, along with leitourgia and kerygma-martyria, expresses the Church's "deepest nature" (Deus Caritas Est par. 25).
Madeleine Delbrêl


We still must tread lightly and be aware that when we insistently assert this truth (i.e., that God can and does make all things intermingle for our good) we often fail to take into account the magnitude of suffering that many people experience. In other words, this assertion can and often does comes across as glib and is usually the luxury of the fortunate, of those of us for whom suffering constitutes but a minor annoyance. The key, as with the moral life, is bringing the understanding of God's love in whatever way we can, by serving and standing in solidarity with the anawim, Jesus' beloved little ones, who are nothing in the eyes of the world, but are precious to God. This is complicated because "[n]o one has ever seen God" (1 Jn 4,12; Jn 1,18). "Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us" (1 Jn 4,12). In other words, it is incumbent upon us, God's daughters and sons by virtue of our baptism, to make God visible by our love, which is the concrete way others experience God's love. "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4,19).

We are not passive by-standers in the intermingling that brings about good and that creates something from nothing. We are God's co-workers in the redemption of the world, rejoicing, like St. Paul, in our suffering, which we do not seek or cause and for which we do not blame God, but accept as the consequence of living in a broken world, for the sake of others, "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church" (Col 1,24-27).

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