ViewpointHow Christians can deal with the experience of suffering

Crossed Ingrid Taylar Ingrid Taylar via (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford (U.K.), wrote a book some years ago entitled Art and the Beauty of God, which has become something of a classic.

Hidden away in the book is one of the best (if incomplete) summaries I know of the problem of suffering and how the Christian can deal with the matter and live through it. 

Harries begins by saying, "The almost overwhelming objection to believing that there is a wise and living power behind the universe is the existence of so much pain and anguish in the world." Christians can live with this objection by recognizing that the problem of suffering can never be answered in this life. But, for non-believers the problem is insurmountable.

Harries' first explanation of suffering is that God has given humanity genuine independence. "We are genuinely free, within limits, however narrow, to shape our destiny; and that means being free to choose what is harmful to others and oneself, as well as what is beneficial." Given God's overall purpose in creation to bring about free, rational beings like us, it could not be otherwise.

Think about it: If all of a sudden, human beings were to change fundamentally for the good, exercising their freedom for good purposes only, how radically different the world would be.

Harries' second explanation concerning suffering is that "in the person of Jesus, God himself has come among us and shares our anguish to the full, even in the darkness of the Cross." This is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so consoling to Christians. "Christ," said French philosopher Blaise Pascal, "dies until the end of the world."

God is not absent in the experience of suffering; he is in the midst of it. God is not distant, in a remote heaven, apathetic to human suffering. He is the God who, in Christ, carries the Cross through history.

Harries' third explanation is that "in the Resurrection of Christ we have a sign and promise that in the end God's purpose of love will prevail; will overcome all that is destructive and evil, all suffering and death. There will be a "glorious consummation" of the whole creation. The whole human and physical world will find its proper fulfilment.

Harries quotes Romans 8:21, the fullest biblical statement about the end of the whole created order: "Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God." All will be "transfigured and irradiated by the glory of God in Christ; all will be translucent to the divine beauty."

I add my own additional "explanations" to Bishop Harries' list. First is the truth that God is present in suffering and illness through doctors, nurses, healthcare  personnel, and hospice workers. Their healing power is the creation and gift of God. The sacrament of Anointing before surgery is profoundly connected to the gift of medicine; it complements it. 

When a person dies in or after surgery, we should not imagine that God's gift in the Anointing rite has failed. It has to be placed in the context of God's gift of eternal life offered to the deceased person.

A final principle: God is present and active in the sickness and dying of a friend or relative through us, through our being at the sick or dying person's bedside.

We are participants in God's gift by being with the sick person, not primarily by talking or offering explanations of sickness and dying, but simply "being there" in loving compassion and solidarity.

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