Four Theological Approaches About Suffering

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Blessing in Suffering

Suffering is an inescapable trait of the human condition. For centuries, scholars, philosophers, kings, holy men and women have examined this intrinsic aspect of the human circumstance. Suffering, in one form or another, is an aspect of daily life and manifests itself in a number of ways: spiritual, physical, emotional and social, to name a few. The sources of suffering abound throughout literature and history: disease, death, loss, abandonment, unfaithfulness and longing.

In every circumstance, experiencing suffering prompts people to question its value to our situation. Why do we suffer? What can we learn from suffering? Is there any meaning to suffering? Why would God allow us to suffer? Are we contemplating a situation where an omnipotent, omniscient God is limited in some way, unable to help alleviate our suffering? In many cases, this outlook is considered risqué, bordering on the line of blasphemous.

There are more questions than answers, and all of them are legitimate and part of a healthy circumspection of the topic. A number of theological approaches address the need to suffer. Many major religions tackle these issues in some form or another. Although by no means an exhaustive discussion of these approaches, below is a brief synopsis of several explanations.

The Roman Catholic Exploration

Pope John Paul II explored the theme of redemptive suffering in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Latin for “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering”).

In this analysis, as Pope John Paul II points out, Jesus Christ is present in each member of his body, the Roman Catholic Church. Through the suffering of each member of the Church, Christ suffers. In this way, each person participates in the passion of Christ by taking up his or her own cross and challenges.

Pope Paul II argues that God could have chosen any infinite number of ways to redeem us, but it is through suffering that we are able to participate in the redemption of the world.

“In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul deals still more fully with the theme of this ‘birth of power in weakness’, this spiritual tempering of man in the midst of trials and tribulations, which is the particular vocation of those who share in Christ’s sufferings. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Suffering as it were contains a special call to the virtue which man must exercise on his own part.” (Salvifici Doloris at 75 and 76) (emphasis in original).

In this way, human suffering becomes salvific. That is, through offering their suffering to Christ, Christians are becoming part of the redemption of the world.

The Buddhist Exploration

Buddhism explores aspects of suffering in the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Comprehensively, the belief states that suffering exists. It has a cause and an end. It has a cause to bring about its end.

In Buddhism, ignorance and desire are the source of all human suffering. Desire is seen as the craving of pleasure, material goods and immortality – all of which can never truly provide satisfaction. As a result, pursuing these things leads to only more suffering. Ignorance is seen as the mind left undeveloped and unable to grasp the true nature of things. From ignorance, vices such as greed, envy, hatred and anger cultivate. Buddhists address suffering through learning, meditative contemplation and tolerance.

The Exploration in Judaism

According to the Torah, people of the Jewish faith have a special relation with God established during the covenant at Sinai. In this covenant, the Israelites agreed to abide in the Torah in exchange for the protection of God as His chosen people.

The Torah does not recognize suffering as a problem. Instead, strict covenant theology states that there can be no such thing as “innocent sufferers.” Instead, suffering is something imposed upon the Jewish people as a punishment for abandoning their covenantal obligations.

However, history and experience shows that there are innocent suffers. Thus, biblical and rabbinic literature was forced to address this difference between the covenantal approach and reality. In essence, the conclusions come to a similar understanding that present life is not fair or always just, but that regardless of suffering, all will be equalized in the next stage of our growth. Suffering in our life on earth leads only to a more deserved reward in the afterlife.

The Islamic Exploration

The origin of the word “Islam” comes from the root “Salema” meaning peace, obedience, purity and submission. Many followers of the Muslim faith view suffering as a way to submit to the will of Allah as a safeguard for man’s peace and harmony. Suffering is viewed, at times, as Satan’s work or that of his collaborators in the spirit world. Suffering is often viewed as a test of faith, passion and humility. Many who practice the Islamic faith believe that suffering and adversity fortify their faith, and that pain leads to repentance, forgiveness and good deeds.

Other religions deal with the concept of suffering as well. Hinduism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Confucianism have addressed this universal challenge. Regardless of the approach to contemplating suffering, it is unavoidable in life.

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