A while back I was reading an article on the life of St John of the Cross. One of the things it mentioned was the fact that he suffered a number of hardships during his childhood. Then came a comment, more or less an aside, which perhaps does not seem all that remarkable, but which caught my attention and even ended up forming an element of the homily I gave during Vespers on Good Friday: “He learned that suffering was a part of life, and he sought God in it.”
Everyone knows that suffering is a part of life, yet most people rebel against that, or try to flee from it, or do everything in their power to ensure that suffering will not be a part of life. But all this is futile, for suffering will always be a part of life as long as we are still on this side of Paradise. One of the last things that people do when confronted with suffering is to seek God in it. Some may ask God to get them out of it, but few seek Him in it.
As I reflected on this mystery, I realized that suffering belongs to our nature as fallen beings. It is inescapable and can even be considered as a constituent or inevitable feature (or at least a potentiality that will necessarily be actualized) of our very bodies and souls, like hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc. It would be helpful for us to treat it as such.
When we are hungry or thirsty or tired, we don’t go into a fit because of it, wailing: “Why is this happening to me? Why this now? What did I do to deserve this? Woe is me!” But that’s the usual reaction when some suffering enters our lives, when some hardship or sacrifice is imposed upon us. If we’re hungry or thirsty, we eat or drink; if we’re tired, we rest. We don’t see these things as disasters, as alien intrusions into our lives that have no place there. They are just a part of life, part of the human condition. But if eating corresponds to hunger, and rest to fatigue, what corresponds to suffering? The answer is in the above quote: seeking God in it. That’s what we’re supposed to do when we suffer. It’s part of dealing with life in a fallen world. In Heaven there will be no suffering, just like there will be no hunger or thirst or fatigue. All those things belong to fallen man, not to glorified man. But while we’re still on earth we ought to know what to do about the conditions we find here.
You might say that turning to God in the midst of suffering does not solve it quite as quickly and easily as eating solves hunger. This may be true, but suffering generally has a spiritual component that is absent in mere physical hunger, so the solution is more subtle and complex. But seeking God in the midst of it does offer a certain kind of relief, one which is not as fleeting as the noontime sandwich. This is primarily because seeking God in suffering produces hope—and hope, says the Apostle, does not disappoint, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 5:5). Hope doesn’t wear out in a few hours like your last meal or your last night’s sleep. Hope is for the long haul, and it is one of the few things in life that can meet the challenge of suffering. So the presence of God is the only real remedy for suffering. Paul Claudel once said that Christ did not come to take away our suffering, but to fill it with his presence. If we are to discover the Presence that gives us hope in suffering, that gives meaning to suffering, we have to seek it.
We can learn something from Job about seeking God in suffering. In the Byzantine tradition, there are several readings from the Book of Job during Holy Week, primarily because he is a “type” of Christ since his sufferings were not the result of his personal guilt, but were something that God imposed upon him for his own inscrutable reasons. But in the context of our own sufferings (for which we cannot claim innocence as Job could), we ought to follow Job’s example in blessing the Lord whether He gives or takes away. Blessing God in suffering is seeking Him there, accepting His will, refusing to be a mere fair-weather friend. We don’t want to prove the devil right—for he provoked God by saying that of course Job blesses Him in his prosperity, but when adversity struck he would “curse You to your face.” The devil, despite all his vile malice and consuming hatred, is a shrewd observer of human nature and behavior, and in many ways he’s “got our number.” It is only through divine grace that we can prove him wrong, that we can overcome our natural (fallen) tendency to “curse God” (or at least to complain or resent the sufferings and trials).
It also says in the Book of Job that not only did he not curse God, he refused to “charge him with any wrongdoing.” So it was not a matter of forcing himself to bite his tongue and keep all his indignant rage bottled up. He simply said: We accept the good things from God; should we not accept the bad as well? He didn’t blame God for allowing him to suffer. He did maintain later on that he was not thus being punished for sin, but he did not dispute God’s right to test him, and in the end he realized that God’s ways are far above our own, so the only appropriate response is humble acceptance of God’s wisdom and will.
This is what it means, in part anyway, to seek God in suffering. This is an important element of dealing with suffering—which is an inevitable part of life—in a way that is fruitful, or at least that keeps us from falling into despair. When we’re tired we don’t despair of ever sleeping again; we just apply the natural remedy and go to bed. When we are confronted with the hardships and sufferings of life, we should apply the supernatural remedy and turn to God for succor and peace and strength to persevere, blessing his name and his wisdom and providence, and going forth with hope to that which God has prepared for those who love Him.
It will never be easy to endure suffering, and sometimes it may seem to take us to our breaking point. But since it is a part of life, there is no way to escape or eliminate it. Now we know, however, that there is one healthy response to it that has the power to transform it: Seek God in it.