What’s the point of suffering?

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My friends, whether helpful or not, this monthly column is meant to lend some insight into the liturgy for Sunday. So, let us get right to it: On Sunday, Feb. 8, you are likely to hear about the biblical question of human suffering? What, actually, is the answer to a phenomenon that practically every person on this planet experiences at some point in their life? You will hear the author of the Book of Job struggling with it, as was Saint Paul and the author of Saint Mark’s Gospel.

Now, let me first steer you to an answer offered by Albert Camus, the French novelist and philosopher: “The role of the Christian,” he said, “is to get away from abstractions and confront the blood-stained face that history has taken on today. The role of the Christian is to speak out clearly and pay up personally.”

One can assume from Camus’ words, at least in part, that we have brought much human suffering upon ourselves and others. Think of the suffering that refugees bear around the world today. Suffering, seemingly, is an inherent part of the human condition. There are so few matters in life that are under our control. We are earth creatures and we know what that means on the personal and global level.

The author of the Book of Job, however, makes it clear that suffering is not something simply to be endured, nor is it merely punishment for evil. The good and the innocent suffer not as a punishment for sin.

A profound writer who explored the mystery of suffering was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and victim of Nazi torture in 1945. From his Flossenberg prison he wrote: “What bothers me incessantly is the question about what Christianity really is or indeed who Christ is for us today?” Bonhoeffer struggled to understand how Christ’s suffering and death helps one understand the Nazi holocaust and all the other forms of torture that exist in every age. Bonhoeffer agonized over the question about what influence Christianity has in a world that has gone mad.

How do we understand Christ in the midst of such suffering?

To answer that question, we need to turn to the Gospel of Saint Mark, cited for this Sunday. Here we read of Christ continually facing and confronting suffering — both personal and global. He healed individuals, but it was not sufficient for Jesus to stop at addressing situational suffering. His entire life and especially his preaching were devoted not only to a vision where individuals were healed but also to a vision in which all suffering could be confronted, pain shared and healing made common. In Bonhoeffer’s words, Jesus came among us as “the man for others,” the man who did not seek personal adulation but rather to offer his life, works and preaching to inspire and elevate others.

Finally, for this Sunday we have the model of Saint Paul — not a soft, retiring person — who also must have asked himself the question: “Who is Christ for me today?” He answered that question by traveling the deserts of the Middle East proclaiming Christ’s vision of the kingdom, even in the midst of great suffering.

Summing it all up, we affirm that while suffering may be a constant in this world, our response is not to shrug or to become resigned. Our response comes from understanding Christ and his work of confronting suffering.

Scriptures for Feb. 8

Job 7: 1-4, 6-7

1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23

Mark 1: 29-39

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.


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