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Suffering and the Death of God


As we head into Holy Week, I wanted to say something about this post. I'm a bit hesitant about doing so, but unfortunately, the post contains some theological implications that are not right, and it seems to me that Holy Week is a good time to answer them.

In brief, the author of the post, Anthony Sacramone (whose work I have never read before), says that he does not want to believe that God had a purpose in allowing his mother to suffer a painful death, he does not want an explanation of this, because that would have to mean that he considered that suffering to have been "O.K." He says,

And so, no, I don’t want to know whether there was a “reason” for it all. I don’t ever want to get to the point where what happened becomes tolerable. I want it forever to be ugly and pointless and cruel.

Sacramone's answer to the problem of pain is the fact that Jesus wept when confronted with human death. Now it is indeed true that Jesus came to bear our suffering with us and to be a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is a great Christian truth. But it is not by any means the sum total of Christian truth on the meaning of suffering, and to truncate Christian teaching on that matter, especially to do so on principle, is to rob oneself of resources of strength and courage that Scripture has to offer. They are in many ways difficult passages to bear, but they are there for all of us and have been, I believe, inspired by the Holy Ghost, in some cases spoken by Christ Himself, and preserved for our edification to strengthen us in trouble. Here are just some of them:

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work,...(James 1:2-4)

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted....Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you...Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven... (Matt. 5:4, 11-12)

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 16:24-25)

And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:17-18)

It is a faithful saying, for if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. (II Tim. 2:11-12)

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

Scripture is unequivocal that there is an explanation for suffering, that God does desire to use all things in us for our sanctification, and that our acceptance of this is an essential part of becoming that which He intends for us, which is our only way to joy. We cannot reject this teaching; it is at the crux of the whole Christian view of the world.

Of course suffering is not "okay" in some shallow sense. Of course we should seek to alleviate suffering. Nor should we seek it for ourselves in some masochistic fashion. But that there is, in the mysterious yet at the same time openly stated purposes of God, a meaning for it, that it is allowed by Him for a reason, is one of the greatest truths He has given us. It would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again was to reveal to us that all human suffering, like the suffering of God Incarnate, is both "not okay" and also not meaningless--not merely "not okay." Rather, suffering, which came upon us initially by the sin of Adam, can be by the terrifying favor and operation of God an opportunity and a means of grace. I do not claim to understand this at the deepest level, but I must try continually to remember it and never to reject it. It will, I pray, be a lifeline to me when my testing times come.

If I were Anthony Sacramone's personal friend, I hope that I would have the sense not to beat him over the head with these verses. Now is doubtless not the time. But if he should happen to read this post, I trust that he will not be offended. And I offer them to you, my readers, that you may be strengthened by the reminder.

Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray.

Follow to the judgment hall; view the Lord of life arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall! O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Him to bear the cross.

Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at His feet,
Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.

Early hasten to the tomb where they laid His breathless clay;
All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken Him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.

(slightly different version)

Comments (7)

He sounds like Ivan from Brothers Karamazov.

I have no problem with what the guy wrote.

I find all the verses above to be meaningful and profound at different times or moments; helpful but not necessarily final.

Ultimately, there is no consolation for pain, suffering, hardship except death and our entrance into immortality.

After having been such a faithful servant for a number of years, I was deeply distressed to find myself abandoned by God in the midst of a heart attack. My friend offered no amelioration of agony, and it caused me to despair.

Not of faith. It did alter my quotient of trust, though, since I felt I'd been lead to believe that his love is omnipresent and eager to be expressed.

There was no excusing the gross insult God's impassiveness wreaks upon the heart of a man or woman. When you are most child-like, most vulnerable, most dependent, and most faithful - to be treated like dross, a bastard orphan or something - the psychic and mental wound is profound.

So I asked, why, and waited years for an answer. The answer I got cannot ever make a man feel better about God or about having to endure misery, heartache, and agony.

The answer only provides an explanation, an answer to a previous mystery, a simple matter of fact.

What we go through, what life is for to the extent that I can say is that this is how God makes souls. It is very cruel, He is often impassive, it is otherwise essential, and suffering is a necessity if we are to become "as angels in heaven".

God seems to be in the business of creating offshoots, little gods, essences of Essence, soul from Soul, minds from Mind. It appears that the only way to become as He, is through abject misery that strips us of everything of our Self(ishness). To become fully conscious, we have to be stripped of all our unconsciousness (when, in fact, we cling to our ignorance of Self in order to exalt our Self).

When I was about to die from my heart attack (a death fortuitously forestalled), I had no fear of death (which was lovely) but I didn't want to die. I wanted to remain for the sake of my family. That prayer was granted, but I came to realize that, like Lazarus, I was then destined to die a second time; and I have no idea if it will be as (relatively) quick, though painful, as my first full encounter with death, or whether it may be long, drawn out, and agonizing as so many others have to suffer.

As one preacher once exclaimed, "That people suffer in this world doesn't disturb me as much as how so much of that is wastedsuffering."

Easter nears. If you know that He is Risen, you have the beginning of all you need to know to get through this life.

But Christ's death shouldn't be viewed as simply "ugly and pointless and cruel." Ugly and cruel? Indeed, because that is what sin is and that's what we are while in it's clutches. Pointless? Hardly. In truth, that death was the reason for Christ's life among us. Christ, Himself, chose to die just as He did.

Here's a link that straightened out my squeamishness regarding suffering. I hope this helps some of you as well:


Exactly. Suffering is not "pointless" and we certainly should not _want_ it to be "pointless." Not to a Christian.

What a pack of pansies we've all become, this problem we have with pain.

Pity he couldn't understand the value of his own insight, but Nietzsche spoke the truth in saying that "To live is to suffer." Our mothers suffer to give us life; our fathers suffer in laboring away two-thirds of theirs to ensure that we see adulthood. And of course there's all that suffering we continue to cause them both on our way to becoming adults. Whether or not we wish to carry on that tradition, we will suffer nonetheless.

Don't believe what you've heard. The truth is that our life is not all about us.

Our life is all about Him and His Life and His death, for us. He suffered every day of his life and He suffered the most painful and humiliating death of any human being who ever lived. The very least we can do is to acknowledge His suffering, if only once a year, even if we haven't the strength yet to be grateful to Him.

Lydia, I felt the same way when I read it the day it came out and like you did not feel it was the right time to disagree with him. More importantly, the Internet public comment box is not the best forum/form in which to disagree with him, though Mr. Sacramone's writing it in public necessitated a mild, corrective public response which I am glad Mr. Liccione gave. The fact of the inappropriateness of the form selected testifies that the poster should not have written that out for everyone to see.

There is something deeply irresponsible and adolescent about airing such grief out publicly on the Internet where one does not know who will read it or in what condition they will receive it.

Albert, I probably would not have responded if it were not for the thought that this might be or come to be thought of as an "official" position by some people. One commentator cited the work of Mr. Hart (I believe is his name) who has written often for First Things, and I thought of that as well.

The comparison to Ivan Karamazov, of course, is very clear. Ivan says that even if the mother and her child rose up in the resurrection to sing hosannas and forgive the murderer, he would not do so, because he would want the thing forever to remain horrifying, unforgiven, etc. Ivan, in other words, says that he is not a Christian because he thinks the Christian view would trivialized suffering. But at least Ivan says that he is _not_ a Christian.

What I think would be highly unfortunate would be if people came to believe that there is some sort of "intellectual" Christian position according to which Christians, too, should see suffering as "forever pointless," should reject the notion of an ultimate meaning in suffering, and should try somehow to, as it were, rope in Our Lord on the side of that view by pointing to Our Lord's shared grief with Mary and Martha. That's theologically going astray; it's taking personal grief and anger and drawing theological conclusions from it which one is presumably then going to settle down with for the long-term. That's why I felt it needed a corrective, though not a direct one (from me) in that thread. I would not have done as well there as Mike Liccione did, so I responded by writing this complete separate post instead.

I would note here the difference with Lewis's A Grief Observed. There Lewis takes on a kind of persona, a voice, going through the process of grieving, and is clearly not in any sense recommending his (temporary) conjectures about a Divine sadist and the like to his readers.

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