In a world filled with seemingly pointless and random pain and suffering, Joseph Anthraper looks into whether there is meaning and value to human suffering.

As part of the International Women’s day, I read a heart-wrenching news article about a young woman who had acid splashed all over her face as well on her baby by a man whose sexual advances she had rejected. Spurned by her husband, coming from a poor family trying to make ends meet with the cost of medicines and ongoing treatment, it was impossible not to cry reading about her physical pain, mental anguish and her daily, seemingly futile battle for survival. In moments of pain, sorrow and loss, we often ask Him, “where are you God? And do you not care?”. By the time you finish this article, hundreds of people would have died of starvation and abortion, and hundreds more children abused one way or other. St Thomas Aquinas believed it to be possibly the only real argument against the existence of God – if God is all powerful and all good, why is there evil (and suffering) in this world that He created?

ISRAEL, THE PROTOTYPE

This is a question that has vexed humanity since time immemorial. Buddha formulated his four noble truths by meditating on the problem of human suffering and pain. Profound as they are, one of the greatest explorations of this Mystery in the West comes from the book of Job. The author of Job is grappling with the question of why bad things happen to good people, for there is no one better than Job on the face of the earth. Israel was a tiny nation and people specially chosen by God to reveal the glory of God to the whole world, yet their history is a history and catalogue of sufferings. The Pharaoh, Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Caesar & Rome, Hitler & the concentration camps – it seems as if God chose them specifically, only to suffer!

Job’s friends are adamant that his suffering doesn’t come from the good God, but from his own mistakes, while Job on the other hand refutes this and wants an answer from God, questioning God. The same Job who at the start of his misfortunes made the profound statement of faith, ¨The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord¨, is driven to breaking point by the end of the discussion with his friends. Often in our own life and in the life of people around us we see this happening. For each person whose faith is strengthened through suffering, there are at least 10 who slip into depression, dejection, bitterness, anger and faithlessness because of suffering. And when finally God does come, he answers Job with a series of questions starting with – ¨where you there when I laid the foundations of the world…¨, none of which Job had a clue about. God doesn’t answer the problem of suffering in a way we would have wanted.

Over the subsequent centuries after the Babylonian exile, Israel doubles down on the Torah and the temple sacrifices, yet prophet after prophet now identifies a bit more of the problem – the prevalence of sin all around and deep within the people, and the profound truth of ¨how all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God¨. And they yearn for a second exodus – when God would lead the people of Israel from the slavery of sin to freedom.

JESUS, GOD’S ANSWER

Christianity’s answer to the problem of suffering is not a thing – but a person, Jesus Christ. God became man, the creator of Mary’s womb became creation in Mary’s womb, as ridiculous as it sounds, not in a palace, but in a stable in a remote corner of the world 2000 years ago. God himself entered into the world of sin, suffering, pain, greed, evil and selfishness – out of love for you and me. He so loved us, yet he was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Is 53:3-5), even his family saying he was out of his mind (Mk 3:21); with no possessions, posterity, and nowhere even to lay his head (Mt 8:20). In the end he was convicted as a blasphemer, carried the cross to a hill outside Jerusalem the holy city, to die on the cross among brigands and thieves, “so marred in appearance, beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of mortals” (Is 52:14). Christians up and down the centuries have proclaimed the great truth that Christ has destroyed sin and death – indeed he has, precisely by embracing the depths of sin, suffering and death. In a mysterious way, God through entering into the depths of suffering has transformed suffering into a life-giving river, not just for a few, but for the whole world.  Through his death as a convict outside city gates, he has brought forth salvation for the whole world, for his death was not the end of the story, he was raised on the third day. Suffering and death were defeated at their own game and hence St Paul can say, “O death, where is your sting? O death, where is your sting?” – for through Christ, Paul knows that death doesn’t have the last word, but there is something beyond even death.

Jesus asked his disciples to follow him and that is what they did. Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the new Kingdom and this is the way to this new Kingdom – just as Christ through his suffering and death transformed suffering and death into life-giving redemption for the whole world, each of his disciples is called to offer his/her suffering with Christ’s suffering, so that each Christian’s suffering will also become life-giving. The early Christians understood this and hence Paul could boast in his weakness and sufferings. The saints live this and hence St Francis had lady poverty as his bride.

In the end, suffering for a Christian is more than an inconvenience or a tragedy, but the very passport through which he/she enters and progresses in the new Kingdom. This is not sadism or depravity, but a profound act of love – for as God once entered into man’s suffering 2000 years back, he is there in the suffering of each man. He is there is Auschwitz, he is with each person in his/her tears in Sinjar and Hiroshima and Darfur. In the end, suffering is more a psychological, flesh and blood problem rather than an intellectual question. And as God came down to be with Job, Jesus, the Love Incarnate has come down to be with us in our suffering, crying with us, being God’s tears and promising to transform our suffering to be redemptive, if we allow him.

Where is God in all the seemingly pointless suffering? Right there in it, ready to take up the seemingly random violence, evil and pain into his cross and making it life-giving.


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Joseph Anthraper lives in Southampton with his wife Mahima and kids Anna-Claire, John-Paul and Samuel-Joseph, and loves reading, movies and theology. He is part of the Kairos Global Editorial Council.