We may, paradoxically, experience that suffering has brought us great good, because it was transformed
When soldiers are drafted into an army, they are subjected to a period of `square bashing’. They are made to stand on parade in the icy cold. They are ordered to climb fences, jump from trees, run cross-country races till they almost faint from exhaustion. They are all the time kept under an iron discipline and severely punished at the least provocation.
Military philosophy is that hardship builds character and that demanding tests weed out unsuitable material.
Scripture ascribes a similar function to suffering:
“Accept whatever happens to you
and show endurance in adverse circumstances.
For gold is refined in fire
and the elect in the furnace of suffering.”
Sirach 2,4-5; see also Hebrews 12,5-13.
Committed as they were to their image of an interventionist, supernatural Manager God, Christian preachers pounced on such texts to proclaim that God actually selects suffering to chastise, purify and perfect each specific individual. `When suffering strikes you, render thanks to the Almighty. He sends special crosses to those he loves’. `Your pain is just a shadow of a blessing – it is the shadow of a caring father’s hand.’ `A valiant soldier does not complain about his wounds when he remembers it will grant him victory.’ God was somehow reduced to being a strict parent disciplining his child, a sergeant drilling his troops.
We realise now that God does not plan suffering. Suffering happens as an inherent feature of evolution and growth. God, the Life Force who supports us in all that happens, shares in our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and defeats. Does God do more? Can it still be true that the furnace of suffering does refine us as gold? Can God, from the beyond within us, forge something useful and beautiful in that furnace of pain?
To consider this possibility on a spiritual level is not so far-fetched when we reflect on its occurrence all the time on a physical and biological level. Evolution turns seeming disasters into undreamt of new opportunities.
Violence can be creative
When the sun and the planets formed from a swirling cloud of dust 4.5 billion years ago, the earth rotated with a slow spin, like all the other planets. It spun around its axis only once every 300 days, so that the one side of the earth was completely scorched while the other was utterly frozen. Then a `disaster’ happened. A meteor as large as Mars hit the earth on one side. The impact was so overpowering that a cloud of debris was struck out that later coalesced to form the Moon (see: J.F.TAYLOR, `The Scientific Legacy of Apollo’, Scientific American, 271(1994) pp.26-33). Most of the earth itself was reduced to red hot fluid magma and it took millions of years before the gaseous atmosphere and the dust re-settled. But the impact also jolted the earth, like a whip lashing a top – and it acquired its present 24 hour day-and-night spin.
Because the earth began to spin as fast as it does now, its temperature became moderate – just right, in fact, for life to become possible. The giant impact was a chance happening in cosmic terms, utterly destructive in the eyes of any contemporary observer. But it created a new scene so that the force of evolution could grasp the entirely unforeseen possibility of life!
Many other examples can be given. Sixty-four million years ago another meteor, smaller but still 100 km across, struck the earth, gauging out the present Gulf of Mexico. The dust thrown into the stratosphere caused a `nuclear winter’ that killed off 70% of all animal species. It sealed the fate of the dinosaurs which had ruled the earth until then. It also gave a chance to a small warm blooded forest creature, who became the ancestor of all mammals, including ourselves. What looked like an ecological catastrophe that could wipe out all life, paradoxically created the environment in which our species would flourish.
Eight million years ago our ancestors the apes lived in Africa. Geological upheavals caused the continent to split into two halves: the western half retained lush, tropical forests; the eastern half turned dry and semi-desert. What was the result? The apes in the western part continued in their fixed life style. Today’s chimpanzees in Rwanda and Zaire are their direct descendants. But the apes in the arid savannahs of East Africa were put under increasing duress. No trees to hide in. No fruits to collect. No safety from predators on the flat ground. It was the need to survive such new demands that led to those apes developing the traits that would gradually make them hominid, then human. It was the suffering, struggling, hard pressed apes that, by the unexpected discovery of new opportunities, found the way to human intelligence.
No doubt you may now see the paradox of suffering in a new light. For what happens in physical and biological evolution also happens on the plane of human awareness and religion. You should note, however, that suffering by itself does not bring progress. It only does so when it is redeemed by its being grasped as a new opportunity.
Drawing good from evil
W. Somerset Maugham has described his observations in a hospital ward:
“At that time there was a school of writers who enlarged upon the moral value of suffering. They claimed that it was salutary. They claimed that it increased sympathy and enhanced the sensibilities. They claimed that it opened to the spirit new avenues of beauty and enabled it to get into touch with the mystical kingdom of God. They claimed that it strengthened the character, purified it from its human grossness, and brought to him who did not avoid but sought it a more perfect happiness . . . . I set down in my notebooks, not once or twice, but in a dozen places, the facts that I had seen. I knew that suffering did not ennoble; it degraded. It made people selfish, mean, petty, and suspicious. It absorbed them in small things. It did not make them more than human beings; it made them less; and I wrote ferociously that we learn resignation not by our own suffering, but by the suffering of others.”
Quote in D.Z.PHILLIPS, `The Problem of Evil’, in Reason and Religion, ed. S.BROWN, London 1977, p.114.).
Left to itself, human suffering is degrading. But Somerset Maugham overlooked the element of redemption. As history shows, the awakening religious consciousness of human beings discovered that suffering does offer new opportunities, provided one has the right attitude. Hindu yogis saw the potential of suffering for self discipline. Buddha taught that suffering can lead us to detachment, and Lao Tzu that it changes our priorities. But the fullness of redemption came when Ultimate Reality, in Jesus Christ, used human suffering to express God’s nature of LOVE and to transform, once for all, the potential of all human suffering for some higher good (see: M.McCORD ADAMS, in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, ed.R.AUDI, New York 1986, pp.248-267).
We Christians believe that, through Christ, God offers redemption in many ways. If we repent, God wipes out the guilt of our past sins by total forgiveness. God allows us, through the sacramental sign of the Eucharist, to align ourselves with Christ’s act of resignation and Love, thus making our life part of his sacrifice for the world. Whatever hardships we endure, Christ gives us the grace and comfort to bear them with a sense of meaning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his opposition to their regime, experienced deep comfort from Christ’s suffering:
“Herein lies an essential difference with all other religions. People’s natural religious sense brings them in their need to turn to God’s power, to expect help from him as from a deus ex machina. But the Bible refers people to God’s powerlessness and passion; only the suffering God can help.”
D.BONHOEFFER, Letter of 16 July 1944, in Prisoner of God: Letters and Papers from Prison, London 1951.
Victory of the Spirit
To stay with the Nazi concentration camps, a Jewish doctor, Victor Frankl, has left us a valuable testimony of what helped people face and overcome their suffering in the most appalling and humiliating conditions. After describing his horrific experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau, he comes to the following conclusions:
- It was people’s inner resources that saved their dignity. “Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of oneself – mentally and spiritually.” (see V.FRANKL, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York 1959, p.87).
- The death camps offered new opportunities.“There was a danger of overlooking the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. People forget that it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives us the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond oneself.” (see: V.E.FRANKL, ib. p.93).
- It was religious meaning that gave him the strength to survive. “We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “YES” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose!” (V.E.FRANKL, ibid. p.60; see also his The Unheard Cry for Meaning, New York 1978.).
I cannot close this chapter without remembering another victim of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Father Maximilian Kolbe. On July 31 1941 the guards discovered that a prisoner had escaped. In retaliation ten inmates of his block were to be sent to the starvation bunker. While the inmates stood on parade, ten of them were taken at random.
When Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish sergeant, was chosen, he shouted in despair: `What about my wife and children?!’
At that moment Kolbe stepped forward. `Take me instead of him’ he said, `I am a Catholic priest. I have no wife or children’.
The guard agreed. The ten were then driven naked into the bunker. After fourteen days the guards found four were still alive, including Father Maximilian Kolbe. They were executed on the spot.
Fr. Kolbe’s life is described by D.DEWAR in Saint of Auschwitz, London 1982. Compare also the heroic death of Dr.Janusz Korszak who refused to leave Jewish orphans entrusted to his care in the Warsaw ghetto. He accompanied them to the death camp; B-J.LIFTON, The King of Children, London 1989.
Kolbe died a horrible death. Yet I am sure that, in spite of all his agony, he died with a sense of fulfilment. Redeemed suffering can, paradoxically, bring us good that we could otherwise never obtain.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love