The experience of suffering

Roger de la Fresnaye, "La malade"/

(From Alphonsian Academy blog)

What is happening nowadays, and I am referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, leads us to give more space to an aspect of biblical-theological research that has never really disappeared. We are perhaps living today with a renewed awareness, especially because of the conditions we find ourselves in. In the darkest moments of history, in wars, famines, epidemics as in all other tribulations, the man reveals his true nature, as a child of light or a child of darkness, which enables him to accept the sense of his limits with full confidence, indeed with intrepid courage instead of angry despair. Whoever accepts to live the human adventure in the faith of God’s children will always have him at his side.

The Bible is not a treatise on philosophy, nor is it a treatise on theology, in the sense that we normally attribute to these disciplines. The Bible presents us with an experience in which the man almost always has a name; he is called Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, the whole people of Israel: real, concrete men, seen and followed in their events, in their life experiences. When the biblical author poses questions, in the manner of the philosophers, and asks himself, for example, why suffering exists in the world and why man’s condition is this and not another, he does not respond with a theory but with an experience, that of the first man.

The Book of Job is undoubtedly the most dramatic narration of the human experience of suffering, made more acute by the silence of a God who, after permitting it for reasons incomprehensible to man, appears to many incapable of finding a reasonable solution. Job knows the power of the One who is above the world, above destiny, to whom it is possible to appeal in suffering. Job addresses his cry to God, and this cry becomes the symbol of a struggle against God himself; only the Bible reports the phenomenon of the personal struggle with God, of the struggle of Job, of all Israel.

For Job, man cannot explain suffering: he wants to involve God directly in the solution of the enigmatic evil that exceeds reason. And God agrees to testify in this kind of trial in which the victim of evil wanted to be summoned. There is a relevant aspect of suffering that cannot be rationalised, and therefore Job is right to protest (Job 42:7). Suffering cries out its blinding scandal in the mind of man.

God reveals to man that there is a project, transcendent rationality. In his encounter with God, Job has understood his limits in time (Job 38,4) and in knowledge (Job 38,4-5; 39,26) and, therefore, limits in power. The man knows only the margins of the mystery. Nevertheless, the series of questions and imperatives with which God urges Job on is not in vain. By discovering God’s face through creation, a man discovers himself in the light of God’s work. Creation is the order that governs the universe and is the foundation of the sapiential ethic. In Heb 38-42, God’s answer is contained in the description of creation itself. The knowledge of creation, which is available to man, opens up to admiration for God’s marvellous works. In contrast, the meaning of the cosmos, which is not indispensable to man, remains unknown to him in its true depth. When a man intends to speak of God’s greatness or justice, he must adopt an attitude of wonder and adoration that stems from an awareness of his own limitation. The central question in the Book of Job is not suffering but the discovery of the true face of God. Job has met God face to face. The miracle of the book lies in the fact that Job, in his rebellion, does not shy away from God even when God appears to him as an enemy, Job remains a man of faith, and therefore he finds God. In the final silence, Job, sustained by an unshakable faith, comes to exact reasoning and finds the right words to address the Lord: “I knew you by hearsay, now my eyes see you” (Job 42:5). The Lord revealed himself to Job in his suffering. Faith is full of a sense of limitation because it is neither our conquest nor our possession: it is a gift, and moreover, a gift carried in fragile vessels (2 Cor 4:7). It, therefore, leads us to be close to those who make mistakes, knowing how to pity their infirmities, as Christ did (Heb 4:15).

God allowing suffering, did not leave the man alone, but took upon himself human suffering in the incarnate Son, for our salvation. The last vision of Daniel (Dan 12,1-3), the second book of Maccabees (1Mac 7,; 12,43-46) and the book of Wisdom (Wis 1-5) reveal the eternal destiny reserved for the righteous and the sinners. The New Testament, explaining the teachings of the Servant of the Lord (Is 53,1-12), will eventually come to the solution that the righteous may desire to suffer in their lives because the suffering of the righteous has a redemptive value (Rom 5,6-19; 1Cor 15,3; 2Cor 5,15; Col 1,14.20.24). In the light of the New Testament, we contemplate in Christ who suffered for us, before entering into glory, the perfect example of an answer to the problem of suffering which always recurs, but which, after the coming of Christ, is illuminated by a sure hope.

Fr. Gabriel Witaszek, C.Ss.R.

/the original is in Italian/