The problem of suffering

The problem of suffering

Fr Campion Murray OFM

Rev Dr Campion Murray, O.F.M., President of the Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, since 1986, has lectured there in Old Testament Studies since 1983. Prior to that he lectured at the National Seminary of Papua New Guinea. This article is an edited text of a lecture he gave last June as part of the 1992 "Sunday Nights at the Thomas More Centre" series.

I take a problem to be something you can solve. It is different from a mystery. You don't talk about the mystery of suffering, you talk about the problem of suffering, for it is something we can understand.

Suffering - according to the dictionary - means something that causes us pain, distress or loss. That is clear enough. But pain and suffering are slightly different. Cliff Young, for example, must have felt a lot of pain in running the marathon from Sydney to Melbourne two years ago. But you wouldn't say he was suffering; the pain he endured was something he wanted or expected to endure as a part of the race. He was striving to achieve a goal. The pain was understood as a part of the marathon - hence this is not suffering. Suffering is pain that is not wanted or not understood. Only a human can suffer; an animal simply feels pain.

How many times have we said or heard people say - or in words to that effect - "This shouldn't happen to me - I don't believe I should have to suffer this and when I suffer it, I don't want it".

The classical example of human suffering comes from the Book of Job, which is really a paradigm or pattern of every human life, a point of suffering to which sooner or later every human being will be led. The suffering that Job was led to is expressed in the beginning of the Book in Chapter 2, Verse 10. Job says to his wife, "Shall we not receive the good from God and shall we not also receive the bad?" That is the terrible question we have to ask ourselves.

Job, there is no doubt, believed that, as in Genesis, God saw that everything he had made was good. That was the blessing. The opposite of blessing is a curse - blackness, chaos, disorder, the abyss. Now Job was thrown into disorder. He had received much good from God - family, children, possessions, esteem, good name - but he also received bad. Children were taken, his possessions, his animals and his servants were taken, and he became a person on the dunghill, a person outside society who was publicly regarded as a sinner, someone cursed by God.

And so Job was faced with that terrible question: Is God the sort of person who acts without any reason? For God said to Satan, "You have incited me against him without reason", and job then says, "Does God give us good things without reason? And does God also give us bad things without reason?"

Job had no theology, no way of thinking, that could explain why one life is blessed and another is cursed; why one person enjoys life and another person is tormented. Put in a more technical way, Job experienced a collapse of his theology. His idea of God was blown wide open.

Is God the kind of person who today says, "Alright, I will do good by the world", but tomorrow says, "You're all going to suffer." It's a stark question. That's the question Job was forced to ask himself, and his theology was totally inadequate, as ours is. What answer then can we give?

Job had believed that if you did the right thing, you would be blessed - and how many passages in the Bible say that. "Blessed is the person who keeps the law. That person will grow strong like a tree beside the river" - and so on. Job did good but he was cursed. Who is this God? What sort of God is He?

St Paul spoke about the milk with which we grow up. We learn our religion, we learn about God - and this involves practice, example, teaching, study - but at some point in our lives our ideas of God don't work. For some people that becomes the point when they say religion is stupid, and they give it up. For others it can be as it was for Job, the beginning of a quest: what sort of God is this who leaves me completely confounded?

There are those people today who are swamped by circumstances over which they have no control. The people in Bosnia-Herzegovina can't control the war - their lives are devastated by the terrible reality of war. And there are those who are unemployed, suffocated by the huge reality of the world's economic situation or those who are suddenly told they have some incurable disease like cancer. These are the forces outside ourselves that bedevil our lives. No one wants war, unemployment or cancer. Here is suffering that is unwanted or not understood.

And there are those instances when we are overwhelmed by something for which we feel some responsibility. For example, we talk so much about not getting 'burnout', not to have a breakdown, but to manage our lives. If I were told I had a breakdown, I am sure I would feel a bit guilty. Now multiply that across human experience - marriage breakdowns, personal breakdowns, professional breakdowns, breakdown in the education of children.

What do we do then when our philosophy and theology collapse, when we are swamped by circumstances outside our control, or particularly when this involves circumstances for which we feel a certain amount of guilt or personal responsibility?

Hymn to wisdom

Let me give an example of how Job is directed towards a solution. In Chapter 28 of the Book you have that famous hymn to wisdom where we are reminded of all the treasures that lie hidden in the earth. All the treasures that we know - gold, silver, sapphires - don't lie on the beach. If we want treasure, we have to go into darkness; we have to search in the depths of the world. The presumption in the Book of Job is that if there is a solution to suffering it will be in the suffering, it will be in the darkness. Don't look somewhere else, don't fight it - look in the suffering, in the dark place.

In the ascetical and mystical traditions of the Church - e.g., St John of the Cross - it is said that if you want to find a treasure of prayer and life with God, you must go into a dark night of the senses, and a dark night of the spirit. That is exactly the same thing. The treasure of wisdom and prayer and the treasure which is God will be found only in darkness.

So the first guide towards a solution to suffering is to accept it, and to move into it and embrace it - to move into darkness. To use the language of metaphor and the language of faith, the darkest moment in human history was when the sky was darkened on Calvary and the sun stopped shining, as represented in the Gospel texts. The fullness of God's love was revealed in an act of murder. In the blackness of Calvary, the wisdom and love of God were revealed. If we want to learn about God, we must learn about wisdom, we must take up the cross and move into the darkness of faith as it is presented in the Gospels.

Let me give three real life examples.

One was a friend of mine, a Franciscan missionary in China before, during and after the Second World War, who died a couple of years ago. He was an old man when I was privileged to live and work with him for three years in Rome. This man had had charge of the finances for all of the dioceses in China - a very responsible job - and he was subsequently put into a Communist prison for five years. He was brainwashed, interrogated, tortured, locked on his own; sometimes for three or four days at a time he was deprived of a sequence of light and darkness.

They said he never talked about it afterwards, but one day we were washing up and someone said, "Cyril what was it like?" He said, I'll tell you what it was like. When I was released across the railway yard [26 June 1954] where you walk out of China into the New Territories in Hong Kong, the first thing I wanted to find was a calendar and there on the wall was a big calendar. I was so relieved because I had the date right."

No animosity

Now that seems trivial, but if you go through five years of brainwashing and accept that as five years of your life, this is truly extraordinary. He never said that it was a lost period, not a real part of his life. He accepted it, lived it, and felt no animosity towards the Communists nor towards God. He lived in the dark for five years and came out and said: "That was the greatest thing; I was right: today's Thursday and tomorrow's Friday. That's five years of my life". And that same life then continues.

The second example comes from a book called The Canticle of [lie Creatures written by a French Franciscan friar, Veloi Leclerc. I quote him because I have met him, know him, and have listened to him. He was a prisoner with other friars taken from France to Germany during the Second World War. They were not kept in concentration camps but made to work in factories. At the end of the war the Germans didn't want them and put them into an open cattle trucks. They were in them for about a week in the cold and wet with practically no food and water, and of course many of them died. In one of the open trucks there were about 7 or 8 friars. As one friar lay dying, with the rest standing around, for some reason or other they all began to sing the "Canticle of the Creatures", St Francis' song of praise to the God of creation. There they were, standing in a truck in the cold and wet, singing a hymn of praise to God. Indeed, how the light shone in the darkness. And so these symbols in the "Canticle of the Creatures" became the basis for Father Leclere's subsequent book of the same name.

The third example is taken from the famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who on one of his expeditions in 1914 had planned to cross Antarctica. However, the expedition ship was crushed in pack ice and the twenty members of the expedition ended up drifting on ice floes for five months and forced to spend the southern winter under an upturned whale boat. At the end of the winter they turned the boat over and Shackleton and five of the men sailed 1300 kilometres to South Georgia to seek aid for those left behind. He eventually walked into the settlement with just his log book and wet clothes - all that he had to show for all his efforts eighteen months after commencing an Antarctic expedition with ships full of equipment and high hopes. These were the only tangible things.

But he later wrote, - and I don't know whether he had any religion; I guess he was a Christian - `We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had seen God in His splendours, had heard the text nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man." What an extraordinary mystical statement!

Since Christ died for all people, I do not think it out of order to expect that God meets each person during the weakest and darkest moments. Everyone has a lowest point of life and that's where God can be met. There in that darkness which we can call the problem of suffering, God meets the person who can then say with job: "Now my eyes have seen Thee."

I believe that we will not see God unless we allow God to lead us into that darkness.

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