The Problem of Suffering
by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
In today’s turbulent society there is no one who does not face suffering in his life and taste the bitter cup of afflictions. We see people in distress, miserable, tormented, prostrate under the heavy burden of suffering. Their faces are downcast, but their hearts even more so. They are tormented and afflicted. Because of this suffering, or rather, because they handle suffering in the wrong way, they suffer various illnesses of body and soul. We shall therefore look at some aspects of this vast subject of suffering and pain in our lives.
1. Suffering is Part of Our Life
It is well known that suffering is closely linked with human life. Christ declared to His Disciples that they would have much suffering in their lives. “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). We encounter this truth throughout Holy Scripture and the teaching of the holy Fathers, who are successors to the holy Apostles. The Apostles Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra, Iconium and Antioch together, “confirming the souls of the Disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). St Paul testified to the Christians of Corinth, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed” (2 Cor. 4:8). The necessary comments on the phrase “yet not distressed” will be made later in the chapter. Here we insist on the fact that the Christian life is closely linked with suffering and pain.
The saints lived through many sufferings, trials and difficulties. St Nikitas Stithatos, a disciple of St Symeon the New Theologian, says, “The present life is full of suffering and pain for the saints. They are afflicted by other people and by demons.” We encounter the same testimony in St Isaac the Syrian: “For it is impossible, when we are travelling along the path of righteousness, for us not to encounter gloom, and for the body not to suffer sickness and pain, and to remain unaltered, if indeed we desire to live in virtue.”
The Apostles and saints insist on this fact, because many Christians, like many of our contemporaries, wrongly think that, provided we live Christian lives, we shall be joyful all the time. To be sure, as we shall see below, we have joy and consolation, but this consolation, joy and comfort come through experiencing the Cross. “Through the Cross joy has come into the whole world.” First come trials, then joy follows, and we rejoice inwardly, in spite of external temptations.
2. The Causes of Suffering
It ought to be made clear that suffering has many causes. The holy Fathers, speaking from experience, teach that the three main causes of suffering are the devil, other people and fallen human nature, with all the passions that exist in our heart. Suffering that comes from the devil is very painful, and is experienced by those who do good and attempt to keep Christ’s commandments. Abba Dorotheos describes a case of this sort of unendurable suffering caused by the devil:
“While I was still living in the monastery, on one occasion I was afflicted by an intense and unbearable sadness, and I was in such a state of grief and distress that I was almost on the point of dying. That suffering was due to an attack by the demons; this sort of temptation comes about through their envy. It is extremely severe, but short lived; heavy, dark, inconsolable, with no respite. Distress is all-embracing, and we are hemmed in on all sides. The grace of God, however, comes swiftly to the soul, as otherwise nobody could endure it.”
Suffering is also caused by other people slandering and maligning us. This often provokes us to complain about those who, in spite of being well treated, behave in this fashion. Sometimes people persecute God’s servants, as happened in the case of the Prophets and the holy Apostles, thus creating problems and sufferings. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8)
Then there is the suffering that results from our fallen nature and the passions that exist in our heart, as mentioned earlier. Abba Dorotheos writes that it is possible for us to be in a good state and have inner peace and calm, then our brother says something to us and we become agitated, turn on him, and accuse him of causing us distress. “This is ridiculous, completely unreasonable. Did the person who spoke implant the passion in him? Quite the opposite: he [the speaker] revealed the passion in him [the hearer], so that the latter could repent of it if he wished.
So these are the three basic causes of the suffering that befalls us in life: the devil, other people and our fallen nature. The first two types of suffering are experienced by the saints, whereas the third type usually affects those of us who have not yet been purified from passions. Sufferings due to the first two causes do not touch the inner state of the soul, so with a little patience the sufferer receives abundant grace. The third cause, however, can, if we are not careful, create a dreadful state. There are therefore two types of suffering: external and internal.
Obviously spiritual fathers [and mothers] who have been granted the gift of discernment can distinguish which suffering is caused by the devil, which by other people and which by us ourselves; which is according to God’s will or permitted by Him. They will then help us accordingly. This is why spiritual fathers [and mothers] can heal us more effectively than psychiatrists, who cannot make this distinction and regard everything as due to a person’s poor psychological state.
3. The Benefits Derived from Suffering
Suffering and pain are essential in our lives because they are a participation in Christ’s Passion. In Orthodox teaching much is said about imitating Christ. This imitation, however, is not external or ethical but mystical. We have to go through what Christ went through, including of course the temptations and afflictions that He suffered. The Apostle Paul writes, “I…rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” (Col. 1:24). According to the commentary of St Theophylaktos, Archbishop of Bulgaria, “This statement means: If perhaps Christ needed to suffer still, but He died before paying the whole debt of His suffering, I, Paul, pay off this debt of Christ’s and undergo those sufferings which Christ had to undergo for your sake and for the sake of the whole Christian Church.” This whole theology of our participation in the sufferings and death of Christ is set out again by St Paul in one of his Epistles: “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:10-12).
The sufferings and trials in our lives bring many benefits. Pain is a new revelation of Christ to man. Through pain a new being is born. Pain creates the right conditions for another world, previously invisible to us, to open up.
St Maximos the Confessor repeatedly speaks in his writings of the beneficial presence of suffering and pain, or, as he describes them, “involuntary afflictions”. For St Maximos these “involuntary afflictions” are a powerful means of purification from “voluntary passions”. This pain of “involuntary afflictions”, which comes from sufferings and trials, defeats the power of the passions. “All suffering, whether voluntary or involuntary, brings death to sensual pleasure, the mother of death”, provided the sufferer accepts it gladly. Apart from the patient endurance of involuntary afflictions, we can equally well fight voluntary passions by means of godly suffering.
The same Saint writes, “Trials are sent to some in order to take away past sins, to others so as to eradicate sins now being committed, and to yet others so as to forestall sins which may be committed in the future. These are distinct from the trials that arise in order to test men in the way that Job was tested.
St Gregory Palamas shares this same perspective when he says “Misfortunes help the faithful to put right sins, to become trained and experienced, to apprehend the wretchedness of this life, and to desire fervently and seek diligently the eternal adoption as sons, redemption and truly new life and blessedness.”
David the King and Prophet says in one of his Psalms, “Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress” (Ps. 4:1). According to St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, “The more troubled and distressed a person is in the present world, the more his nous transcends the narrow confines of this world. He goes beyond the height of heaven and finally arrives at an immeasurably wide open space. Once there, he rejoices and finds repose in the sweet theoria of God. Even before the dissolution of his body, he lives a blessed and happy life. The Lord indicated this when He said ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). And Habakkuk, revealing the repose that comes from suffering, sang in his song, ‘that I might rest in the day of trouble’ (Hab. 3:15).”
Through suffering we remember God, we turn to Him and thus the precious gift of prayer develops, provided that we con-front suffering with the appropriate seriousness and within the at-mosphere described by the Orthodox Tradition.
The saints were aware of the benefits derived from suffering. That is why, according to St John Climacus, they thirsted for afflictions. St John Climacus says that the characteristic of those who have reached perfection in godly mourning is “thirst for dishonour, voluntary craving for involuntary afflictions…blessed are those who hunger for hardship and thirst for dishonour, for they shall have their fill of food that does not cloy.” They longed for suffering because the greater the suffering, the greater the consolation. The Apostle Paul writes, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
4. Dealing with Suffering
It was stated earlier that the important thing is not so much the presence or absence of suffering, as whether we deal with it well or badly.
If we are spiritually healthy, we shall do what the Apostle Paul himself did and recommended to Christians: “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:3-5). We should glory in the Lord because we have been counted worthy to endure every kind of suffering and misery, whether it comes from demons because we are striving for virtue, or from evil men because we want to walk in the path of God’s commandments.
We should also consider that we deserve not only the suffer-ings that afflict us, but even more and greater sufferings. This is part of repentance. “A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgement that we deserve all the troubles, visible and invisible, that come to us, and even greater ones” (St John Climacus). Repentance remedies the distress that may be caused by external pressures and suffering.
As for suffering due to other people, we ought not to turn against those concerned, but patiently endure the suffering, in the knowledge that much good will come of it.
Unfortunately we behave like the dog that Abba Dorotheos describes:
“Someone throws a stone at him, and he leaves the person who threw it and goes off to bite the stone. We do the same. We leave God, Who permits these calamities to befall us for the purification of our sins, and we turn against our neighbour saying, ‘Why did he say that to me? Why did he do that to me?y Although we could derive great benefit from such troubles, we work against our own interests, ignoring the fact that by God’s providence everything happens for the good of each of us.”
Self-accusation is also linked with repentance. Each of us should blame himself, reproach himself and regard himself as deserving his suffering and as being its sole cause. Because we do not reproach ourselves we suffer inwardly and inflict suffering on others. As for the man of God, whatever should befall him, “whether harm or dishonour or any kind of suffering, he immediately regards himself as deserving it and is not at all disturbed. Is there any greater freedom from anxiety than this?” (Abba Dorotheos).
Suffering is not the same as sorrow. Outward affliction is different from inner depression. The sadness and depression that often engulf us are a substitute for godly sorrow, which is repentance. Nowadays we suffer not so much because we have temptations great or small, but because we lack repentance. We are obsessed by a sense of self-sufficiency. This is the source of many psychological illnesses and even physical sufferings.
We should always bear in mind the Apostle’s words: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
"The science of Spiritual Medicine" by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos