Commentary: On suffering, finding meaning, divine love and eternal life (Part 2)
Medical workers screen patients for possible COVID-19 before admission at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI) in Quezon City on April 18, 2020.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman

Commentary: On suffering, finding meaning, divine love and eternal life (Part 2)

Jove Jim Aguas (Philstar.com) - April 2, 2021 - 2:53pm

St. John Paul II, who was himself a victim of atrocities in his native Poland and had to suffer the successive loss of his loved ones, first his mother, then his older brother, and finally his father, and found himself without a family for all his adult life, and had to suffer from Parkinson disease for the remaining years of his life tackles in Salvifici Doloris (SD) the intimate relationship between suffering, divine love and eternal salvation. 

According to St. John Paul II, the field of human suffering is wide, complex and multi-dimensional; man suffers in different ways. When we look closer at suffering, we can see that it is more deeply rooted in humanity itself. It is man who suffers and it is also man who wonders about the meaning of suffering. 

Human suffering can be distinguished between physical suffering and moral suffering, based on the human being’s two dimensions, namely the bodily and spiritual elements. The body is the immediate or direct subject of physical suffering; the spirit is the direct and immediate object of moral or spiritual suffering. Physical suffering is present when “the body is hurting” in some way, whereas moral suffering is “pain of the soul” (SD, 5).

Suffering can also be distinguished between personal suffering and suffering in the social or interhuman sense. This world of suffering exists as it were “in dispersion,” meaning we suffer individually. 

However, according to St. John Paul II, “every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that world, but at the same time, that world is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. 

People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation” (SD, 8). Therefore, although the world of suffering exists “in dispersion,” or individually, it is shared by the community of persons and presents a singular challenge to the communion and solidarity of people.

When we consider the world of suffering in its personal and collective or communal meaning, we recognize that the world, during the moments of an extreme case of suffering like famines, wars, pandemic upheavals, natural calamities, comes together to focus and concentrate on these mass sufferings. 
“Human suffering then evokes compassion; it also evokes respect.”  For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery - the deepest need of the heart and the deep imperative of faith (SD, 6). 

Man suffers whenever he experiences any evil. In the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In suffering, there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer. Thus, the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil. (SD 7). 

In Christianity, we recognize the essential goodness of existence, the goodness of the Creator and the goodness of creation. Everything that exists in so far as it is created by God is good. 

However, within God’s creation, there exists evil. Hence, other people believe that God must be the cause or source of evil. Christian philosophers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas consider evil as the lack or privation of goodness or perfection. 

If suffering is a form of evil, then suffering exists on account of evil, which means that suffering as evil as a certain lack, limitation, or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share or is deprived of a certain good. He particularly suffers when he ought to have a share in this good but does not have it.  

Sickness as suffering is a privation of health; loneliness s suffering is a privation of happiness, war as suffering is a privation of peace, etc.

Since suffering and evil are always associated with God’s existence, this makes the meaning of suffering and the problem of evil all the more perplexing and complicated. While the beauty of God’s creation opens the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power, and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure the image of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. 

When we face the enormity of suffering and death caused by war or natural disasters or the mass murder of innocents or the atrocities of repressive regimes against its people, it is difficult to think of a benevolent God. How could such a benevolent God allow such horrific things to happen to his people? 

No rational consideration of sin and punishment for sin can comprehend the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust and wars, the victims of famines and other forms of violence and human miseries, for example, and no concept of a God who controls human life and destiny can comprehend it, except to conclude that God is not a benevolent God.

However, the question that always comes to mind is, why do we suffer? It is a question not just of the cause or reason of suffering, but more importantly, a question of its purpose, of its meaning.

What is the meaning of suffering? Only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and he wonders why. It is he who suffers and he suffers all the more when he does not find a satisfactory answer. 

The story of Job is a very vivid expression of human suffering. The story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable and unimaginable sufferings – he lost his properties, he lost his family and was afflicted with leprosy. He was abandoned by his friends, who said that he must have done something seriously wrong to be punished by God. 

The accusation against Job expresses the view that suffering always strikes a man as punishment for a crime or wrongdoing or sin. The friends of Job convince him of the moral justice of the evil and attempt to justify to themselves the moral meaning of suffering. In their eyes, suffering can have a meaning only as a punishment for sin, therefore only on the level of God’s justice, who repays good with good and evil with evil (SD, 9).

The Old Testament writings show us that suffering is a punishment inflicted by God for human sins or moral evil. Corresponding to the moral evil of sin is punishment, which guarantees the moral order laid down by the will of the Creator and Supreme Lawgiver. The objective moral order demands punishment for transgression, sin and crime. Thus, suffering appears as a “justified evil” (SD, 10).

Job, however, rejects the belief that identifies suffering with punishment for sin. He knows that he has not offended God and that he does not deserve the punishment. God himself reproves the friends of Job for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. 

Hence, Job’s suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent. However, why would God allow an innocent man to suffer? Is the suffering inflicted on him a form of punishment?  According to St. John Paul II, such is a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence. (SD, 11)

While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment (SD, 12). 

This presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt. Job was not punished because he did no wrong, nor did he offend God. There was no reason for inflicting a punishment on him, even if he has been subjected to a grievous trial.  

God permitted this testing as a result of Satan’s provocation. For Satan had challenged before the Lord the righteousness of Job. Job’s story poses a difficult question – “why” of suffering; it shows that suffering strikes the innocent. Thus, the question remains, why permit the innocent to suffer?

According to St. John Paul II, the sufferings inflicted by God upon the Chosen People or to the innocent include an invitation of his mercy, which corrects to lead to conversion. Thus, these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline people and effect conversion. 

Punishment as a form of suffering serves to repay the objective evil of the transgression with another evil. However, the suffering of the innocents creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers. Such is the personal meaning of suffering; it is a means for getting closer to God. The martyrs endured unbearable sufferings, and this made them closer to God.

St. John Paul II expresses that suffering must serve for conversion, that is, to rebuild goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is to strengthen the goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others, especially with God (SD, 12).

For St. John Paul II, however, to understand the true meaning of suffering, we need to look at suffering in the context of divine love, which is the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery. Thus, Christ invites us to enter into the mystery in order to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love. (13) 

Love as the fullest source of the answer to the meaning of suffering is manifested in the Crucified Christ – Christ hanging on the Cross. In the Crucified Christ, we find the ultimate meaning of suffering. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

These words introduce us to the very heart of God’s salvific work. The suffering of Christ in the Cross reveals the very essence of God’s salvific work rooted in his divine love. God saved us from evil by suffering on the Cross. Our salvation or liberation from evil is attained through the suffering of Christ. 

Hence salvation is closely bound up with the problem of suffering (14). What made this possible is God’s divine love. Hence, God’s salvific work is closely tied up with His Salvific love. 
Our liberation or salvation from evil is achieved through the suffering of the Son of God. This is the fundamental and definitive meaning of suffering. God loved man so much that He gave his only-begotten Son so that man “should not perish” “but have eternal life.” 

He suffered for us to be saved, and in our own personal sufferings, we share in the suffering of Christ. The suffering of the innocents is a participation in the suffering of Christ.
Therefore God wills that man to be saved from eternal damnation where man loses his “eternal life.” The loss of eternal life is the definitive suffering, and the loss of eternal life is a rejection of God. 

However, instead of rejecting us, God gave his only-begotten Son to man primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and definitive suffering – the rejection of God.  In his salvific mission, Christ strikes evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history in sin and death (SD, 14), which are the very basis of the loss of eternal life. 

By suffering and dying on the Cross, he conquered sin and death and, by his resurrection, attained eternal life for us. 


Jove Jim Aguas is a faculty member of the Philosophy Department, and research at the Center for Research in Theology, Religious Studies and Ethics at the University of Santo Tomas.

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