Suffering is … ?

Bad theology keeps us up at night!

I’ve spent years sorting through the reasons given for suffering. Several years ago I wrote briefly about what I called a child-like theodicy. I described how my older, disabled sister and I tried to make sense out of why she was born with cerebral palsy. We knew in our heart, even at our young age, that the reasons given for her condition were inadequate, presenting a dangerous misunderstanding of God, the Creator. Was she really born disabled because God decided to chastise our parents?

Such is the heavy theology we two little girls wrestled with – while lying together in the bed we shared on the first floor of our two-story Four-Square built in 1922 by Grandpa Nuss on a farm in Nebraska.

But that’s how bad theology works. It keeps us up at night! Peace is elusive when God is presented as the culprit who punishes and shames the innocent for the wrongs of the guilty.

Called to suffering?

I’ve often wondered if I’ve been called to do this work, to think through the challenges of evil, suffering, pain, and loneliness, on account of our relationship. It is true – her presence in my life keeps the questions of suffering and of understanding God’s role in light of evil and suffering in the front of my mind.

Over the course of my life I’ve asked the following questions:

  • Why do we suffer?
  • Who or what causes suffering?
  • What is the purpose of suffering?
  • Why doesn’t a good God intervene?
  • Is God the author of evil and suffering?

No doubt you have asked these questions as well. When personally experiencing an episode of immense suffering or when observing the profound suffering of others we tend to ask these questions.

Welcome to the club. We are all in good company.

All in all, though, great minds from antiquity, gifted thinkers of today, and scientists – secular and religious alike – have invested and continue to invest enormous amounts of time, research, and currency in hopes of discovering that one rationale, that one cure, that one theory or ideology that will resolve this question: Why does pain and suffering exist in our world?

That question, Why do people suffer? seems to be universal question. Seems to be, and I hesitate to say ‘is’ because there may be a rare occasion of some who never concern themselves with the issue.

Does a disability cause suffering?

But is she suffering? Doesn’t that seem like an insensitive question! Of course she is suffering, right? After all, she is dependent upon others for her existence. So much so – that without others in her life, her life would come to an end.

But I’ve never asked her directly – if she herself thinks she has suffered in any way or is currently suffering. I’ve assumed she has, but this could really be an incorrect assumption on my part – especially if suffering is reconsidered in light of the definition that follows below.

So, why does pain and suffering exist in our world?

By inserting the concept of pain into the subject of suffering I’ve muddied the waters quite a bit.

Should pain be defined in a way that sets it apart from suffering? Are the two equivalent? We tend to use the words pain and suffering interchangeably – as synonyms – words that communicate the same meaning. But do they?

I can hear rumblings from readers who wonder why we bother getting so technical when speaking of pain and suffering. Sorry to say, it is important to understand the difference between the two in order to get a handle on suffering. Hopefully that becomes clearer as you read further.

Defining suffering

Definitions really matter. It is important when reading others works on the subject that we have a clear understanding of the terms used. In this case, the term is suffering.

I’ve been reading, Raging with Compassion, this summer, by John Swinton. He discusses pastoral theology and ways the church can come alongside those who suffer and experience evil in this world. In the midst of their pain and suffering, as many of us may already know, few want to have a rationale or explanation of why they are suffering. What they really need is compassion — not a theological treatise that explains why they happen to be suffering.

While vacationing later this summer we stopped at a Barnes and Noble bookstore. My mind was itching for another book. The captivating title of one book, “Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us,” in the Christian section caught my eye. It might give a counterpoint to Swinton’s book.

It was the audacious claim – promising the answer for why all humanity suffers – that convinced me to exchange some cash so I could solve the mystery of suffering once and for all.

After a light supper we returned to our hotel room. It had been a long day of driving through stormy weather on mountainous roads, so we were more than ready to settle down for a quiet evening of reading.

I opened my book. On page three, Dr. Paul Chaloux, wasted no time and got right to the task of answering the question asked above about pain and suffering. How simple, I thought, and wondered why I hadn’t read or learned of these differences before now.

Have I been misusing the terms of suffering and pain all these years? Curious to learn more, I continued reading.

Chaloux claims suffering is the “term we use to describe the worst experiences in our lives … [even though] physical pain is the primary image formed by people when they think of suffering.” 1

Evidently, according to Chaloux, there is a “growing consensus that true suffering must consist of more than just physical pain, but must also cause psychological distress and social isolation.” 2

Did you catch that? There is pain, there is suffering, and then, there is true suffering.

When we claim to be suffering are we referencing a plain-everyday-kind-of-suffering in which some pain is involved? Or are we speaking about true suffering – the kind that involves deep psychological distress and serious social isolation?

Frequently my disabled sister calls on her FB portal to talk about the ongoing pain she has in her shoulders and knees.

“Pain,” she says, grimacing while lifting her arm to make her point.

“Shoulders hurt! Me need more pain cream!”

Her painful expression registers. I don’t want her to suffer any more than I want to suffer the pain of the arthritis I have. Watching her suffer motivates me to order up another batch of Emu Pain Reliever Gel.

But Chaloux’s definition of suffering begs the question – is the presence of pain evidence of suffering?

Pain vs. Suffering

In the wee hours of the morning one Sunday in December, my husband tapped me gently on the shoulder and startled me from a deep sleep.

“I don’t think I can preach today,” he whispered. “I’m really hurting.”

He continued, “I think I need to go to the hospital.”

His calm voice hid the pain that was increasingly getting worse. When I found him slowly pacing throughout the house without registering any evidence of pain or groaning, I took time for a quick shower and changed into decent clothes before heading to Columbia.

“You’re taking way too long,” he politely groaned. Yes, one can groan politely – he’s proof. I know now it was the intense pain making it difficult for him to speak.

“I’m afraid we need to call the ambulance!!”

Now fully awake, I noticed the pinched look on his graying face and grew concerned. Visions of a heart attack came to mind! There was no time to wait for an ambulance so we drove directly to the local emergency room a few blocks from home.

I was relieved when a heart attack was ruled out.

When the nurse asked about his pain level, he seemed to minimize it. But, after turning his attention to the pain assessment tool on the wall, we discovered his pain level was more intense than we could observe. Honestly, that expression surpasses a ten, don’t you agree? By all appearances this guy is clearly suffering!

According to Why All People Suffer – and I’m not sure if I agree yet with this view – he wasn’t truly suffering, but he was simply suffering and experiencing pain.

He was rushed by ambulance to a larger University hospital and diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a condition that is considered to be one of the most excruciating to endure.

We spent our anniversary, Christmas Eve and Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Years Day in the hospital surrounded by all four of our children who rushed home to stay by his side.

More suffering was around the corner. The acute pancreatitis turned into a life-threatening necrotizing pancreatitis – where the pancreatic enzymes begin to devour itself. Few recover fully from necrotic pancreatitis, but miraculously he did.

I briefly share his story to highlight the question: Was he truly suffering or merely suffering in pain?

His experience with intense pain and suffering, of course is different than that of my sister’s disability. Yet, the two raise the same questions. As I continued to read I held these two images in mind.

“Suffering is …”

While reading I noticed I was becoming more and more perturbed by the author’s repeated declaratory statements. The statements, “suffering is fill in the blank,” were clear cut, no-questions-allowed types of responses to the problem. This bothered me so much I decided to make a list of his claims.

After reading through that list – some of which I’ve shared below – I recognized how John Swinton’s claim – that sufferers need companions, not explanations – made perfect sense. This surely is not the book to share with an individual deep in pain and suffering. I agree with some of the statements, but others caused me to cringe.

Suffering is …

… a term to describe the worst experiences of our lives (p. 3).

… a gift from God (p 11).

… our innate ability to sense the presence of evil; or more accurately, it is the absence of a good (p. 13).

… directive … causing us to avoid the things that make us suffer (p 14).

… is the stick that is used to guide us to where the Master wants us to go (p. 14).

… a call to conversion by God. (p. 18).

… a gift of a loving and generous God (p. 18).

… uncomfortable … to motivate change (p. 19).

… not something to be overcome; it is … to be heeded (p. 23).

… is to make us virtuous … to bring humanity to the highest level of perfection that is possible (p. 23).

… is required to enforce justice (p. 25).

… a catalyst to conversion (p. 36).

… is present in the world in order to release love, … give birth to works of love toward neighbor … to transform whole human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’ (p. 46).

… to lead the sufferer to realize his suffering is for the good of another (p 51).

… a grace bestowed on people to bring them back into alignment with God (p. 55).

The longer I read the more uncomfortable I became. I realized the reason why after I read the following paragraph:

“It requires grace to see the good in such a situation, even more so to undergo suffering willingly for the benefit of another, whom you may not even know, because you love God and want His plan to succeed. … this could apply to any suffering situation, from that of a child with a debilitating birth defect, to a young mother with breast cancer, to a severely injured soldier, to an elderly patient with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. If that person can see past his own suffering to grasp that his situation is providing opportunities for others to practice the virtues that are required for salvation, and if he can embrace his suffering for the good of others and the love of Christ, then suffering will be redemptive for that person, leading to eternal salvation. At the same time, this recognition of the salvific opportunity that the suffering provides, for both the sufferer and the people who help, will also provide meaning for their suffering.” (italics are mine)

Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us,” pg. 58.

In my haste to find a book at Barnes and Nobles I failed to do what I normally do when purchasing a book. I neglected to read the back of the book to get a brief synopsis of its contents. I didn’t realize I had selected the work of a Catholic scholar – which in a way worked to my favor. I stumbled upon a theory of suffering unknown to me – that of redemptive suffering – and one now that requires more investigation.

I wondered how, if possible, disability and disease, natural disasters, and what we call evil, factors into the work of redemptive suffering. Does this view imply that the suffering of Christ on the cross is not enough to bring redemption? I had my view in mind, but wanted to see what others might say.

I made a quick trip to my local Christian college library and came home with a handful of books.

One book -“Acts of God: Why Does God Allow So Much Pain?” – is written by a preacher of one the largest churches in the Restoration church movement. I wonder if Bob Russell has something original to say! I’m curious to see how his insight into the concept of pain and suffering differs from that of the Catholic view.

I’m glad I came to Chaloux’s work with an open mind, instead of one filled with presuppositions that would have hindered my reading. I tend to read everything with a critical eye, trying to discern if what is said can be substantiated in the scriptures.

I must admit, a bit of suffering and pain took place in my heart and mind as I continued reading. I am nearly finished with the book. But, all in all, I still would have purchased the book as I believe it is important to study and read the differing viewpoints of people of faith and those who claim to be non-religious — regardless of the struggle, or suffering, some of these works present to us.

  1. Dr. Paul Caloux, “Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us,” (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2021), 3, emphasis mine.
  2. Ibid. 3

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