Of late I’ve had occasion for considerable reflection on the nature of suffering. What does it mean? Where did it come from and why is it here, haunting our lives and our dreams? How does one endure it? How did great figures of the past endure it? What different philosophical and theological accounts of suffering exist, and how do they compare? Which account is the most satisfying in light of one’s actual experience of horrific, unwanted pain? Is suffering an inexplicable yet natural feature of our world that simply is and always will be, or is it an evil and unnatural intrusion that will one day be eradicated once and for all? Is all suffering meaningless (per the likes of Richard Dawkins) or can some deeper meaning and hope be found in the midst of it—hope which the inevitable fact of death does not destroy (per most world religions)? What is the best way to handle suffering when it comes crashing down upon you without warning or relief?
Here are a few passages on the subject I have been pondering. Given my faith as a Christian, most of these are theological in nature, though there is a smattering of non-religious quotations thrown in between.
1. Views on the Reality of Suffering
“[…] I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.”
“We could (some people do) believe that the purpose of life here is to be comfortable. Enjoy yourself, build a nice home, engorge on good food, have sex, live the good life. That’s all there is. But the presence of suffering complicates that philosophy. It’s much harder to believe that the world is here for my hedonistic fulfillment when a billion of its people go to bed starving each night. It’s much harder to believe that the purpose of life is to feel good when I see people smashed on the freeway. If I try to escape the idea and merely enjoy life, suffering is here, haunting me, reminding me of how hollow life would be if this world were all I’d ever know.”
~Philip Yancey, ‘The Gift of Pain’ (published in ‘Be Still My Soul,’ edited by Nancy Guthrie)
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation … In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
~Richard Dawkins, ‘River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life’
“It is God’s law that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our down despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
“For the man of antiquity… the external world was happy and joyous but the word’s core was deeply sad and dark. Behind the cheerful surface of the world of so-called merry antiquity there loomed ‘chance’ and ‘fate.’ For the Christian, the external world is dark and full of suffering, but its core is nothing other than pure bliss and delight.”
~Max Scheler, ‘The Meaning of Suffering’
“The Enemy allows … disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of human life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy [i.e., God] takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls his “free” lovers and servants—“sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world with unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them. He leaves them to “do it on their own.” And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”
~C.S. Lewis, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (A bit more context: The demon Screwtape is writing to his subordinate, Wormwood, on how to tempt humans during suffering and hardship.)
2. Endurance in Suffering
“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Return of the King’
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
~Viktor E. Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘
“There is nothing which is quite so sad and so tragic in the life and experience of a minister as to find people whose religion does not seem to give them anything, or to be of the slightest value to them face to face with the greatest needs and crises of life such as illness, bereavement and sorrow, disaster or threatened calamity, or a war. They had appeared to be such excellent examples of religious people. They had never been guilty of any heretical statement or of any gross violation of the moral code. They seemed in times of normality to be the ideal type of religious person. And yet, when their religion was put to the test and needed most of all, it suddenly seemed to mean nothing and to be quite useless.”
~Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘The Test of a Crisis’ (published in ‘Be Still My Soul,’ edited by Nancy Guthrie)
“It seems there’s so much strength in me now that I can overcome everything, all sufferings, only in order to say and tell myself every moment: I am! In a thousand torments—I am; writhing under torture—but I am. Locked up in a tower, but I still exist. I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, still I know it is. And whole of life is there—in knowing that the sun is.”
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘The Brothers Karamazov‘
“[The book of Job] is a mystery. A mystery satisfies something in us, but not our reason. The rationalist is repelled by Job, as Job’s three rationalist friends were repelled by Job. But something deeper in us is satisfied by Job, and is nourished … It puts iron in our blood.”
~Peter Kreeft, ‘Three Philosophies of Life‘
“Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference in the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what the ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment omits a fragrant odor.”
~St. Augustine of Hippo, ‘The City of God’
“It is not the glowing prospect of a happy afterlife, but the experienced happiness of being in a state of the grace of God while in throes of agony that released the wonderful powers in the martyrs… The Christian doctrine of suffering asks for more than a patient tolerance of suffering… The pain and suffering of life fix our spiritual vision on the central, spiritual goods of … the redemption of Christ.”
~Max Scheler, ‘The Meaning of Suffering’
3. Hope in Suffering
“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
~Dorothy Sayers, ‘Letters to a Diminished Church’
“‘Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ There has never been an understanding of suffering that is more helpful or encouraging.
But to understand it, you have to ‘fix your eyes on it.’ That’s a discipline. Think about it until it pulverizes your discouragement. Let the glory of it hit you.
Don’t just accept suffering—because God doesn’t want it.
Don’t just avoid suffering—because God can use it.
Don’t just embrace suffering—because it is evil.
Instead, enjoy the hope that suffering is going to be engulfed, swallowed up. The evil that hurts us now will be the eventual servant of our joy and glory eternally.”
~Tim Keller, ‘Suffering: The Servant of Our Joy’ (published in ‘Be Still My Soul,’ edited by Nancy Guthrie)
“I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men.”
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘The Brothers Karamazov‘
“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”
~C. S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’
“Let there be this difference between the servants of Christ and the worshippers of idols, that the latter weep for their friends, whom they suppose to have perished forever… But from us, for whom death is not the end of our nature but of this life only, since our nature itself is restored to a better state, let the advent of death wipe away all tears.”
~Ambrose of Milan, ‘On the Death of Satyrus’