Suffering and the spiritual life
M. Scott Peck, the author of the book, The Road Less Travelled says: “Life is difficult.” I dare say, if you do not have a story to tell and support the assertion above, then there is something very significant that is missing in your life! At any rate, you cannot be God, because God experienced suffering in Jesus Christ. St. Paul describes Jesus as a Being “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Thus, the truth is that there is human suffering with its different forms and degrees. We have many figures of human suffering in personalities like Job of the Bible, Jesus Christ and His Apostles, the masters of the spiritual life, you and me.
Job for instance asks: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of a hireling? … So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been told off for me. If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My flesh is clothed with worms and scabs; my skin cracks and festers; my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope” (Job 7: 1-4, 7).
To begin with, there is need to quickly make a distinction between two terms that are frequently misconstrued. That is pain and suffering. The two are not the same. Pain is simply a sensation or signal to the body of an unpleasant situation but suffering is the meaning or interpretation accorded to pain. Moreover, Pain is inevitable while suffering is optional. We can experience pain in the forms of losses, changes, illnesses, diseases and different challenges of life. However, the aforementioned forms of pain ceases to be pain and transcends into suffering when our thoughts, beliefs, convictions interpret them to be meaningful. Such meaning (s) may not immediately appeal to us and our neighbours but with time they will begin to unfold. So, after some mishaps or life threatening situations and if they were translated from pain to suffering, you would hear people say: “I thank God for that illness, it made me to know how vulnerable I am” or “If not for that retrenchment, I wouldn’t have been an entrepreneur.” Take for instance the Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ (i.e. His passion, crucifixion and death); it was painful but because He was able to translate it, it became suffering and a source of merit and graces in perpetuity which culminated in the salvation of humankind. Interpretation, translation and transcendence of pains into suffering can come through when we are able to attach meaning to pain and meaning too can become real if we have a why for every painful experience and a why to live. Here comes a favorite expression by Nietzsche as quoted by Viktor Frankl: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Again, when in pain we ought to assess ourselves – am I an egg or a ball? This is where Robert Schuller’s book title comes alive “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
To this end, many have asked a very important question: “Is suffering necessary for the spiritual life?” or put differently “Must we suffer because we love God? “Why should the just or the righteous suffer? How would you approach this question if you were asked?
For M. Scott Peck here is his own response: “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” What is your own reaction or response?
Reflective questions in need of your comments
What is your understanding of the place of suffering and your spiritual life?
Must we suffer because we love God? Why do the just suffer?
How have you been handling your spiritual life in relation to your suffering experiences (if any)?
Fr. John-Mary Atep.