The Senselessness of Suffering and Death

I recently posted a note on social media in which I said that Christ’s death and resurrection changed the “senseless” character of death. Therefore, Christians need no longer fear it. I got a bit of push-back.

What is senseless about suffering and death?

There are two aspects of suffering and death that are particularly felt to be senseless. The first is suffering that seems to have no purpose: the death of a child quickly comes to mind. The second is death itself: regardless of what we do in this life, we come to an end and pass back into dust. This latter thought is presented in a very stark manner in both the book of Job and Ecclesiastes. The brevity of our existence has always been seen as a challenge to any transcendent meaning. Purpose is swallowed up by meaninglessness.

I am certain that some of the push-back I received was a reaction to so much of popular Christianity that tries to put a happy face on everything in the world. Such glib and shallow treatments of suffering deserve the scorn they receive. On the other hand, no reader of this blog has ever accused me of treating suffering and death lightly. Indeed, in the past year, my writing was described as full of “existential despair.” I certainly hope it is.

The Scriptures, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, do not shy away from the abyss of meaningless suffering. Isaiah states something of the paradox that confronts believers:

The Voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is as grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:6-8)

The meaninglessness of our passing existence is brought into contrast with the transcendent reality of God. The great paradox for believers is the question of what one of these has to do with the other. Is the transcendence of God nothing more than a mockery of what we are? Does His exemption from suffering and death do nothing more than increase our misery? Those who approach this mystery in that manner (for whom the transcendence of God usually stands for nothing more than an idea) understandably rail at Christians for our easy pronouncements regarding suffering and death.

This is made all the more problematic by various forms of Christianity that marginalize suffering and death. They are treated like punishments, a suffering that we deserve. The Christian life becomes a moral exercise and an arena where religious belief alone brings a lasting reward. Sometimes, we deserve to be mocked.

But this is not classical Christianity: it is a cheapened version reducing the faith to a postcard and making it a subset of the American Dream.

The problem of suffering and death, the absence of transcendent meaning and existence, are at the true heart of the Christian faith in its classical form. Christianity, properly understood and taught, does not treat suffering and death as problems within something else – they are seen as the very problem itself of our existence and the heart of the Christian gospel. …

Among the most primitive proclamations of the faith is:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Christ is not seen as dying in order to pay a sin debt. Death and sin are synonymous. When the Orthodox say, “sin,” we mean “death,” and all that it entails.

We proclaim that Christ has “trampled down death by death.” This could be restated as “Christ has trampled down senseless suffering and death by senseless suffering and death.” We do not deny that suffering and death are senseless – indeed, that is an inherent part of the problem. Our teaching is that God, in Christ, has Himself become the complete senselessness of suffering and death, such that He has filled them with Himself (cf. 2Cor. 5:21). Suffering and death no longer stand as an absurd triumph over existence, but are now themselves filled with existence.

This is something we say, not by looking at suffering and death. If we look directly at them, we see only suffering and death with all of their senselessness. But we confess our faith by looking at the resurrection of Christ. That event alone is the single evidence of Sense trampling down senselessness, of death trampling down death.

In the resurrection of Christ these things have been abolished – though, that truth is only seen from within. And it is at that point that our conversations come to a stop. I cannot argue with anyone who beholds suffering in this world and declares it to be “senseless.” Of course, it is. And there is nothing whatsoever within that suffering that makes it otherwise.

Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words “heaven” and “hell” has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.

Christ’s resurrection is not an argument: it is a reality. As such it does not serve as a logical solution to the absurd nature of suffering and death. It is only in union with that reality that we can see within suffering and death anything other than complete meaninglessness. This, however, is the very proclamation of the Christian faith. Christ is risen, trampling down meaninglessness by meaninglessness, filling it with Himself, such that this meaninglessness itself is undone and becomes meaning itself.

Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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162 responses to “The Senselessness of Suffering and Death”

  1. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Fr. Freeman, of course I forgive you. And I hope you forgive me too, if my questions appear banal.

    In my first comment under this post, I wrote the following question about suffering: “What does the Church teach about this?” In your first answer, Fr. Freeman, you wrote: “…in some ways, we have to say that we don’t have the full picture or philosophical explanation.” And then you emphasize an important point: that Faith is not Philosophy.

    What the Church teaches when it comes to suffering and why it exists, is still quite unclear to me. But I guess it is too much to ask for, that 2000 years of Tradition and Faith should be summarized here in a short comment online.

    Thank you for sharing the story about you and your son. As most people, I have also experienced pain, both physical and psychological, though less than many people I know and love. And I agree that pain in itself is not necessarily evil, it is just extremely painful. Still, making others suffer, is seen as a sin, as far as I understand it. And when the pain we experience comes from Nature (like with deseases), it seems like Nature itself is sinning. Why this is so, remains a mystery to me. And I find it reasonable to ask, once in a while, if God really is good… or if we just imagine Him good to be able to survive…

  2. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    I see that I have spelled the word «disease» wrong. I am sorry for my English!

  3. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Pettersen,
    Well you are certainly moving in the right direction by turning to God (indirectly, through an Orthodox blog) and asking questions…and hopefully directly by asking Him, talking to Him, one to One. asking questions.
    Your comment about the birds was ever so helpful for me. Thank you for relating that, because I now recognize that you are most sincere.

    To return to this conversation, the matter of suffering is the crux. I use that word purposefully. It is the Cross of Christ that visibly speaks, encircles, encompasses the Christian faith…actually, the whole world. “Good” can not be separated from suffering. It is all tied together. By bearing suffering (all kinds)…and learning what that means and how to do that (this takes a very long time…really, it is built upon a lifetime)…we literally participate in the life of Christ. We align ourselves with Him. That’s what it is to be Christian. We align ourselves with our Maker. He voluntarily went to the Cross because He so loves the world.

    Again…you are moving in the right direction. Keep moving. That said, just in case you are one to self-reflect a lot and overly concern yourself with the possibility of veering off the right path, I really don’t think that is possible when a person has already turned to God and begins “asking”. That is the only way you are going to “hear”. Example: In order to communicate with another, you have to engage them in conversation. And to engage them, you must “turn towards” them face to face (literally in some cases and figuratively in others, like in blogging). It is all about a personal encounter. God is always present. But we must turn to Him to “hear”.
    To offer another Christian word to the discussion…this “turning” is the beginning of repentance. Another word which is key to the Faith. It is more than merely saying a one time “yes”. It is more like a continual focus and refocus on the Almighty…in all manner of living…in all manner of life.
    It is interesting that the Church has a word for those who are ‘seeking’. The word is “inquirer”. They are those who want to know more about Orthodoxy and have taken the next step, willing to be taught. It is not unusual that this can occur when all else has failed. Of course, not all inquirers stay. But the door is always open. And it swings both ways. Thus, you are free to leave. Freedom can be costly, though. And so can be the Faith.

  4. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Pettersen,
    One other aspect concerning the understandable question regarding ‘suffering’, (little children suffering, God being Almighty etc. etc.) is that the question itself is expressed from within a worldview with an understanding of God as just another temporal being of ‘eternal’ duration who knows things in the same manner that we (time-bound and mutable creatures) do: as external things existing within the conditions of space and time.
    This of course is not how things are for God. It is also less and less like this for us humans to the degree that we partake of the ‘mind of Christ’.
    Not that we become insensitive (quite the contrary), but that the transcendence of suffering becomes a reality for us, and the joy of Christ is not a context-dependant joy, but an unassailable reality, founded upon the good end of all history which is being whispered within our souls by the Holy Comforter.
    The saints often remind us that if we had the vision of the ‘other side’, “suffering” would not seem to us so “very unequally partitioned” at all.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pettersen,
    There are things that I take as axiomatic. One of those is the goodness of God. A simple reason for this is that God Himself is the Good. Goodness apart from God is a meaningless concept. What I see in Christ Crucified is the display of the goodness of God. That is where I start. I admit that there are questions that can be asked for which the answer will seem unsatisfying. But often, I think, the fault is in the question. As a Christian, my desire and the goal of my life is to be “inside” the Crucified Jesus, to be utterly one with Him. It is only from that vantage point that we may truly speak of the Christian God.

    So, I stand before Him, admitting that there’s lots of things I don’t know, and things that I ponder, but, slowly, as I have been gathered into Him, there are answers – though the answers are aspects of Him – not independent syllogisms.

    A problem with modernity it that it imagines itself to know things that it does not know – and wants us to believe that modernity is the place and manner of finding answers. In point of fact, despite its masterful use of technology, modernity has also been a cause of vast amounts of human suffering – cruel, intentional evil, often in the name of a greater good.

    Its prosperity is frequently used to hide its many crimes. Ultimately, I think only traditional Christianity is able to critique it sufficiently.

  6. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Dean, I have now orderer Hart’s book, “The Doors of the Sea”. Thank you for your recommendation!

    Paula, thank you for your nice words!

    Dino, you end your comment with this: “The saints often remind us that if we had the vision of the ‘other side’, “suffering” would not seem to us so “very unequally partitioned” at all.” To be honest, I do not understand what you are trying to say at all. To me, it is obvous that suffering (as we know it in our “earthly” life) is by all means unequally partitioned. How else should we describe a child in terrible pain? Where is the harmony, the balance, the holiness, of such a suffering? As grown-ups, we can listen to others, we can pray, we can tell ourselves that “it will be better”. But a child in pain, cannot do any of these things. It cannot even understand what we tell them, if it yet haven’t learned our language. We, as grown-up witnesses to this suffering, can surely find comfort in our Faith, but what about the little child? I am quite sure, that if I ever experience having a child in pain, I will thank anesthesia long before I will thank Church. A little child does not have the privilege(!) of Faith as a grown-up can have. And let us not forget all those who are in great pain and who do not believe (because they have not been introduced to Faith, because they are not able to believe or what ever reason).

  7. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Thank you, Fr. Freeman. You seem quite eager in your criticism of “modernity”. I was raised in a “critical” home where many of the same thoughts on our world were often expressed. People all over the world, within and outside religion, have critized modernity for as long as it has existed. It is an important exercise, surely, but in the long run this never-ending criticism seems in itself somehow infertile. That is one of the things I appreciate so much with the Chuch – that it represents not only a criticism, but also an alternative.

  8. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Fr. Freeman, let me emphasize that my last comment is not meant as a criticism of your writings! On the contrary! When I write «what I appreciate with Church», I hope it was clear that I see your writings as part of that Church.

  9. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Pettersen,
    To explain the apparently unequal partitioning of suffering (a complaint Prophet David often articulated in the Psalms), and how the ‘vision’ of the “other side” offers a corrected balance (Luke 16:25), we simply need to see how suffering (naturally) produces the opposite to smugness. Many a hardened old man, suffering of cancer, or a youngster ready to erroneously make a god for himself out of an object of creation, are brought to a sudden and deep awareness of their need of the One true God and the realisation of their need to be humble. That is an impetus to holiness and salvation. I think we needn’t protest the difficulty of a child having an insight into such ‘faith’ as a rational concept that comforts (even though such a protest is quite flawed to be honest).

  10. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Dino, thank you for your answer. I still don’t think I get you quite right, though. It seems to me as you make a picture of suffering as some kind of good “educational” power teaching us how to avoid smugness. I feel quite certain that this is not what you mean, though, and that I read you wrongly. All the suffering in this world, especially the suffering of the totally innocent, seems like quite an exaggerated way of teaching us to be humble?

    When it comes to the last sentence in your latest comment, my knowledge of English language and grammar is unfortunately coming up short. I do not understand it: “I think we needn’t protest the difficulty of a child having an insight into such ‘faith’ as a rational concept that comforts (even though such a protest is quite flawed to be honest).” And why is it flawed, in your view?

  11. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Pettersen,
    I’d say it’s flawed in my view because children can have an innate sense of God and His providence (despite their sufferings even) that typically escapes us (owing to our secular conditioning).
    There is a majestical writer amongst the Church Fathers –St Maximus the Confessor– who repeatedly addresses the question of pain(suffering) and pleasure in great depths. He also reminds us that this ‘dyad’ (pleasure&pain) is inescapable. It is also characteristically misinterpreted (interpreted the reverse to how it ought to be).
    In a nutshell, he proclaims that after the Fall, pleasure leads to pain (as it led to the Fall) and pain leads to pleasure (as it led to the Ressurection), these (products-of-each-other) work in this way as a spiritual axiom of sorts.

  12. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    In Christ, we see meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death being transformed (as the article above says) by His meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death.
    The Divine Word, the Logos, is also interpreted as ‘Meaning’ in Greek. So Meaning Himself enters meaninglessness.
    How genuine a Christian is can be proven by the meaning that they find in suffering. It might be just as much (in fact more so) as they find in hapiness and pleasure.
    The godless who might protest the lack of meaning in pain and suffering and tribulation, actually find no meaning in their pleasures if they consciously and honestly examine them.

  13. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    How else should we describe a child in terrible pain? Where is the harmony, the balance, the holiness, of such a suffering?

    We need to be very careful to not simply classify suffering as part of any “harmony, balance, holiness” in life. Suffering is a reality in life–and it is a reality because of the fall (to use a simple label). We have built our own house and we continue to build it and, truly, to make it more and more destructive. As Father has pointed out, the modern world has no answer for suffering. It’s only recourse seems to be death, as the ongoing push for euthanasia under any circumstance reflects.

    In Christ, we see meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death being transformed (as the article above says) by His meaningless suffering, senseless pain and death.
    The Divine Word, the Logos, is also interpreted as ‘Meaning’ in Greek. So Meaning Himself enters meaninglessness.

    Here is the difference. It is not that suffering has meaning but that Christ enters into it and creates meaning. The actions of God in all things, including but not limited to suffering, are about healing. Suffering itself has no meaning; Christ, in His elevation of Life over Death (conquering Death by Death, as Church hymns proclaim), gives meaning to all things, even suffering. Christ on the cross shows that even though we die, we live in Him, in resurrection. God transforms all things.

  14. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Hi Pettersen,
    I went through a lot of sicknesses when I was a kid, few hospital stays. I can say that with each one, I learned a bit of courage, a bit of compassion, and I think each drew me closer to God, and so to experience an ineffable love. The adults around me were more worried and upset than I was.

    I think regarding cruelty and suffering, it helps to see that we are created not as toys or robots, but in the image and likeness of God. The free will and creativity we have give us the chance not only to be cruel and selfish, but also to try to find and imitate God’s love. That is quite an amazing thing, to think that God did not create to control, but to give the freedom to creatures to also create beauty, and be “like God” that way. It wouldn’t happen without a certain level of autonomy. Keep in mind that a Christian, life includes creatures we don’t see such as angels, who are also actively a part of this wondrous creative process. And the certain freedom that goes with it. It’s a trade off, but why would we want to be “less”?

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Here’s another post, Pettersen, that explains these things.
    https://glory2godforallthings.com/2017/03/27/icon-unfallen-suffering/
    Just allow time (however long it takes) for all this to digest. As you agreed to above…”Yes, this is really something to be wrestled and grappled with…”

  16. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    I had a brother born 10 years after me. He was profoundly affected by Down’s syndrome, had gran mal seizures and was blind. Ricky lived with us for 24 years. At about 4 he learned to walk. He could never feed himself or use the bathroom. Back then there were no nice protective helmets like today. My parents finally bought a boy’s football helmet to protect him from slamming his head onto the floor during a seizure.
    As I said, he lived 24 years and died after a brief illness. I don’t know how much he suffered or how aware he was. However, my father, a forklift driver, was ennobled by Ricky’s brief life, though he and mom suffered much. Dad told me, “I’m glad that we had Ricky in our lives.” He had come to see his son’s life as a blessing. Thank you Dad for allowing Christ to work that healing in you.

  17. Dee Avatar
    Dee

    As others have mentioned here, Pettersen, Christ does ‘enter’ suffering and death. It is quite hard to express this in another way that makes any logical sense outside of the life of Christ, itself. If I were to attempt to describe what differences (before and after I converted to Christianity) I perceive that is most salient, perhaps it would be that in my own suffering or pain, I’m not alone, and that there remains yet a paradoxical, silent joy in the fullness of life.

    Your story of the two birds is quite helpful in describing our own sense of ‘helplessness’ in the context of the suffering that we witness, as does Fr Stephen’s story about his son’s courage to take on more pain, without complaint. I’ve seen similar strength in my own son who had to have rabies shots when he was bitten by a rat. He too was 4 years old. I held his hand and he, without a whimper but with a single tear, bore these shots with his own courage.

    Ironically, having gratitude (ie Dean’s comment) and shedding pride (Fr Stephen’s father-in-law) has allowed me to witness the presence of Christ in such situations of my own suffering.

  18. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Pettersen,

    This article was helpful for me, and might be for you. I think Fr Stephen (or some frequent commenter here) linked to it in the past. It might help you see the connection between Christ on the cross and what you’ve read in Dostoyevski.

    http://www.oodegr.com/english/dogmatiki1/G1b.htm

    Dana

  19. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Apologies to all if I am intruding where I should not, but your example of the two birds and your reaction, Petterson, plus folk calling on you to read what you might find under the ‘Dostoievski’ category has given me a thought that might be helpful. At least, it helps me on this enormous subject.
    I am remembering how a teacher of mine always spoke respectfully of the character of Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov”, that he is a great soul for being so bothered by the suffering of children and its seeming unjustness. Ivan follows his logic really to the same point that his brother Alyosha does – that is, to the crucial (that word again) point that each of us is in him or herself responsible somehow for the suffering of others. That’s what the scene in the courtroom is all about – Ivan trying to take that responsibility upon his own shoulders, and he can’t do it. It’s a human responsibility – we feel it. And that recognition in itself is so very terrible as much as it is a mark of our relationship to God. In our very existence, our being, we participate in the divine awareness of responsibility through suffering and agonizing over suffering – we are like Him in that. So, when He empties Himself on the cross, He takes on the death that is unbearable for Ivan and for every other aware human being (as a fictional character certainly, but from the mind of a suffering human, Dostoievski himself, who has just lost his little boy according to a disease that he feels he himself has passed on.)
    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… that is what He is doing for every suffering living thing, and that is a good God preparing His many mansions. We ask for ongoing creation when we say in the psalm “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That’s David looking forward to the Resurrection, and back to his own beginnings and responsibilities. It is you, torn to see the little bird torn. Badly put, I know, but you, I – we are like God in this awareness and we seem to need to go through it.

    I’m truly sorry to intrude. Do erase my comment, Father Stephen, if you feel it is not helpful.

  20. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you so much Juliania. Precious words….

  21. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    This might not sound very nice, but our faith really doesn’t say that the world is a perfect place, although all is created as “good.” We are called to be different from the world, such as it is. Jesus says, “Do not be conformed to this world” and to his apostles, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The “ruler” or “prince of this world” is the evil one. We have a calling to be different. That is the work of faith in Christ. I consider it yet more evidence of God’s faith and trust in our possibilities to be “like Him” and the great honor and responsibility and potential to join and participate in Christ’s life, the life of the Cross that tramples down death. I could not tell you why it is so, but I believe and trust that it is so, and that it is a much greater calling than we can imagine. It is also related to God’s gift of creativity which is part of the divine image in us.
    (I invite correction if there is theology missing from what I have written)

  22. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Sorry that was the one after the One who told us ” do not be conformed to this world” . . .

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I wonder how many of the “why” questions are conditioned by the utilitarian mindset of our world. Certainly the exestential wondering is not new but the way in which questions are asked seems different as well as the expectation of a particular kind of answer.

  24. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Dear all, there are too many comments for me to answer directly. This goes to all of you.

    First of all; thank you for the response!

    I must admit that I am quite confused… I just ordered the book “The Doors of the Sea” by David Bentley Hart, after getting it recommended by Dean in one of the comments above. Since I just ordered the book online, I have not read it yet, but I have read some short summaries. As far as I understand, Hart claims that God is not “willing” or taking part of the suffering that happens in this world. That there is no chance that all the suffering in the world in the end will be “worth it”, because of the “pleasures” that follows. Thereby, there must be something evil in this world, or as I read in another post at this blog (I am quoting after memory) – “evil is something good moving in a wrong direction”.

    In the comments above, I get a feeling that some view it differently. That there actually is(!) meaning in suffering, or that Jesus made suffering meaningful when He entered it. Jesus turns everything up-side-down, He “twists” the world and makes a New Reality. Or, said in other words, He shows us the True Reality.

    If that was the story, I would be able to “follow”. If this world full of suffering was not made by God, but God entered it to sacrifice Himself and show us a “way out”. But does not Christianity teach that this world is(!) made by God? And that it was made perfect, but we somehow destroyed it?

    This is where my true struggle begins. The pain that comes from what we do to eachother, is understandable. We are given a free will (or at least some of us believe so) and only have ourselves to blame for this suffering. But the pain and suffering that seems to come from Nature itself, is harder to understand. Is Nature also given a free will? If not, why does it cause us pain? Is Nature “fallen” because of our human sins? If so, why does God not “repair” it, so that we (human beings) can focus on our own sins and all the suffering they cause?

    If we all stopped sinning (I know that is impossible, but let’s imagine), the world would still be full of pain and suffering, because Nature would still “sin” against us and cause us pain. Or am I wrong? Would God finally “repair” Nature, if we were ever able to “repair” ourselves?

    I asked what the Church teaches on this subject, and the answers given above seem quite unclear to me. That might tell more about my lack of ability to understand than your ability to explain… Or, is it as simple as this: my way of trying to understand this “logically”, is simply a “dead end”?

    Btw; thank you for the different links to other very interesting articles. I have read them all.

    I really have a lot to chew on with this one…

  25. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks, Pettersen, for your reply. By the way, you should not think that none of us have had the same thoughts that you have (speaking for myself, anyway). They sort of logically follow. But let me pose a question to you:

    What would the world be like without suffering? I mean, no animal would kill another animal to eat it. Maybe not even plants, since on some level we think plants do seem indicate a kind of “awareness” (for lack of a better term) we can’t explain. I mean, at some level all life wants to live and not to die.

    So what would that life without suffering look like? Would we all be like animals in a zoo, hand fed by God without struggle? Would no one ever die (for is that not suffering)? Would nothing ever die? Would we still have reproduction, children? (But then that would make the world so crowded there would have to be suffering). I mean, think about it, how would that work? Would we all have to be drug addicts, so we wouldn’t suffer?

    This might seem irrelevant, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a kind of response to the question.

  26. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Michael Bauman, utilitarianism or not – pain exists, and I simply (and maybe naively) wondered what the Church says about that matter of fact.

  27. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Thank you, Janine! You are good at asking questions! I remember you from my last “riot” in another comment field on this blog 😉

    First of all; of course you have had these thoughts. I am sure you have heard questions and comments like mine a thousand times before, and I am very thankful for the fact that you still bother to answer me!

    I cannot imagine a world without suffering. My closest idea would be a picture of “Paradise”, but I honestly have no idea what that picture really looks like. I guess, in a “painless” universe, breaking a nail would be a monstrous disaster. We can only compare pain with the pain we know. If breaking a nail was the most terrible pain we knew of, then I guess we (or at least I) would still turn our faces to the sky and shout at God: why are you letting me suffer?

    I guess that to be able to know joy, we must also know pain. But still I wonder why some people experience so much more pain than others…

  28. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Pettersen
    If somehow it happened and God “repaired” it, so that we (human beings) can focus on our own sins and all the suffering they cause, we would never focus on them.
    Suffering and death are put a stop to our endless appetite for sin this side of the grave.
    Cs Lewis is right to say: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. … Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.”
    The depths of our turning away from true good (God) are much deeper than we assume.

  29. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Dino, do we really need to see innocent suffer, to remember God? Is that how low we have “fallen”? And what about the innocent themselves, how have they “turned away” from Him?

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Pain exists no doubt but the way we think about it and process it and question it is conditioned to some extent by one’s world view/philosophy and the view on one’s culture. Whether it is utilitarian or not, the Traditional view of the Church is largely pre-modern if it can be classified at all. Revealed is probably a better descriptor.

    To comphrend entirely requires entering into it. It has to be received. All questions are good if, as you do, they are asked wanting to know. But the assumptions of the Church and the experience of the Church are quite different.

    Coming to terms with how radical the Traditional Christian paradigm is required a lot of struggle and the questions do not magically go away. That is part of embracing the Cross. Ultimately it is embracing Christ’s death so we may enter into His life.

    We voluntarily share the suffering of others, in Christ, empathically giving up our own. Or so it seems is the path of holiness. Impossible without the grace of God. Yet the Book of Job gives us a shadow of it.

  31. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Hi again everybody,

    Pettersen, there are a couple of things in these last two comments. First, you interestingly bring up a broken fingernail as a crisis. Have you ever known someone for whom a broken fingernail is a crisis? Believe me, this is not the picture of an enlightened moment 🙂 (I myself might have once been such a person, or at times found myself being that kind of person!!!) So, in a sense, you have brought up a very good example in answer to your own question.

    Also, Dino brings up the idea of suffering as teaching us something. Quite clearly, we are beings who have been created not to be static, but to grow and to learn. At least, we are born given the gift of this capacity. How does suffering play a part in that growth, even learning from our own mistakes? Moreover, let’s think about something else, many people suffering, let’s say everybody suffers. Look at the suffering of Christ. Why was His suffering so great? In some way, we are entering into this very same territory of our last go-around you mention, where we are coming to sacrifice. Why would we learn how to sacrifice?

    Here is a hint, the Cross is a kind of exchange of one way of life for another. Again, I remind of how many times Jesus taught us that the one who would give his life will save it. Think about what one sacrifices for. You became an architect, as one example. You suffered to study, to give your time, to learn something. It is an exchange. We are meant to grow — and the One we worship sacrificed for something and for others so we can all grow in what He offers us. Why? Is that leading to something good, beautiful, true, courageous, better? Is that making us better, or more than the world would teach us to be?

  32. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    (Sorry Michael, I missed your last comment while I was typing mine)

  33. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    But still I wonder why some people experience so much more pain than others…

    Petterson, there’s no such thing as actual equality in the world; there’s no “even distribution” of suffering (or anything else). Suffering is simply a reality of our lives, not something meted out onto us in even measure. There are truly horrific things that happen to people, both good and bad, but in the end the suffering holds no power. God has made provision for life and, while we can take part in that life here and now, it is not limited to here and now. Even after what we see as death, He provides.

    As Michael and Father have both noted, we embrace the Cross as Christ did. What happens, will happen. But it is not the end.

    And what about the innocent themselves, how have they “turned away” from Him?

    I think it is a mistake to only consider this from the standpoint of how we sin. If all have sinned, as scripture tells us, then all have turned away. God still provides; He does not leave us. One elder has remarked that as long as one soul resides in hell, Christ will be there with them. Our focus in all things is on the goodness of God and His love for His Creation; He does not leave us.

  34. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    Janine, the fingernail was just meant to illustrate my point: that even in a “painless” universe, we (or I) would have found something to complain about. As long as anything is “worse” or “better” than anything else, there will be suffering. In a universe where everything is the same, nothing is above the other, one could say that everything was “joy”. But, without something to compare this “joy” with, one could just as well say that everything was “pain”. I guess the meaning of words like “joy” is lost without its opposite. In a universe without opposites (Paradise?) everything is “joy”, and therefore everything is “pain”. This is how I see it, trying to be “logical”…

    So, where does this lead me? Joy presupposes its opposite, and vice versa. Thereby, to know “joy”, we must somehow know “pain”. One could argue that pain is given us as a gift so that we can learn to know joy?

    To answer your question: no, I do not know anyone who would see a broken fingernail as a crisis. Even in the “modern” world I live in, people I know seem to have a better understanding of life than that. And I have a hard time imagining you really being that person. I must admit I do not believe you 😉

  35. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Haha, Pettersen, I will *not* invite you to watch American reality TV shows, but I assure you there are some for whom a broken fingernail (I grant you one that is probably expensively manicured) might be a great crisis. But I say that not to imply that the purpose of suffering is to teach us joy. Rather, there is that question of growth and learning, becoming greater than our selfishness or self-centeredness, expanding who we are. Ah, there’s that notion of sacrifice again.

  36. Pettersen Avatar
    Pettersen

    I start to understand that I cannot “understand” Faith from the “outside”. It cannot be explained. It is not a machine. It is Life.

  37. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    “It is not a machine. It is Life.”

    Very, very profound

    (And how does one make those italics anyway? )

  38. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Pettersen,
    there are a myriad different variations to how suffering pans out,
    I recall St Isaac the Syrian listing all sorts of reasons,
    from creating an obstacles to the sin-lover,
    to purifying the already purified further,
    to granting true ownership of God’s own holiness to (innocent yet immature) sentient beings…

    There will always be questions if one wants to question (and answers if one wants them too),
    the overall ‘feeling’ that lingers in one’s soul, of either doubt or assurance, however,
    depends on one’s internal inclination.

  39. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Also, I would say that Joy does not require it’s opposite (even though it clearly enhances one’s appreciation of joy) to be experienced as what it is.
    True joy is communion with Christ,
    you could call Christ: Joy, (as we call Him Truth, Life, Love in person).
    Our moving away from Him produces the opposite to true joy. It is not pain per se that produces it (despite our common experience of this)

    St Ignatius of Antioch and many other martyrs experienced this unshakeable joy in the midst of the most inconceivable tortures.

  40. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks Dino

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pettersen,
    Bottom line. The Orthodox Christian tradition holds that God created the world good, in all respects, including human beings and angels. However, in our freedom we chose to rebel (which is the meaning of sin). That rebellion included a portion of the angels (which is what are called demons). Our sin, we are told, is the cause of creation’s own being subjected to futility (subject to death and decay).

    Where all of that becomes impossible is when the question is put in terms of space/time linear history. We do not have a space/time linear history of the universe. We have the story of creation – which serves a different purpose. It will quickly become an impossible conversation if that same understanding is pressed for historical type information. Some Christians, obviously, interpret it in such a manner. I do not. I believe that the stories we have give us true, theological information on that matter and that we reason on that basis.

    I’ve given it in a simple form. I personally have a lot of thoughts/speculations about the question which I do not write about.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    That did not work. Try looking up html codes in your browser.

  43. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Dear Pettersen,

    Orthodoxy teaches that the world was created good, but not perfect. Our first parents were innocent and immature, like children needing to grow and learn. The growth and learning was intended to have been accomplished within the love of God for them and their growing trust and love for God. In order to truly be a Person, one must be able to say “no” and have it stand. The first humans were given the opportunity for that to happen. Because their trust had been disturbed (we don’t know why or how this happened), instead of saying “no” to the serpent/temptation they said “no” to God in his direction about the tree. The “fall” was from a place of communion with the Source of All Life to a place of humans trying to maintain their lives through their own resources – which is impossible for created beings for whom everything is contingent. Most of the suffering in the world, aside from that caused by natural disasters, disease, etc., happens because humans are doing things (sin – in Hebrew in the Bible it means “missing the mark”, that we fall short of being the humans we were created to be – engaging, as every human does, in the many and varied types of death-dealing) that cause suffering on many levels, in order to try to preserve our own lives when we feel under any kind of threat (psychological as well as physical). I know your questions are more about the disaster and disease causes, but you did ask what Orthodoxy teaches, and this is my attempt at answering (in a limited way).

    Orthodoxy does not require that the scenario of the story of Eden be “historically” true as if a video camera were there recording things (see Fr Stephen’s writings about history) – though in all old and deep narratives there is some element of that kind of truth. But the point I’m trying to make is that there’s a difference in focus between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity regarding the first humans and humanity’s ultimate problem. Orthodoxy sees our present state as one of captivity to everything that would lead us into death and non-existence, rather than being free to move toward acquiring/receiving the transcendent life that comes from voluntary self-giving love (being like God). We are ignorant and have a disease – and we can’t enlighten and cure ourselves from inside our created-ness and captivity to death.

    Christ entering into death by means of crucifixion was God showing us the kind of God he is: voluntarily, because of his love, identifying and uniting himself with humanity all the way down through every kind of suffering into the most humiliating of conditions, death itself. But also, since Jesus was both God and innocent human, there was nothing within him by which Death could hold him. Therefore, because of Christ being both fully God and fully Human in the Incarnation, in Christ’s Death and Resurrection the ultimate power of death was broken. Death (and by extension suffering) is no longer the worst thing that can happen to us, since God, being the source of Life, went through it and came out the other side. So yes, suffering is both meaningless – in that it has no ultimate purpose or “body” of its own, so to speak – and something that can be filled with meaning if we let it lead us to transcend death through freely trusting in and saying “yes” and “thank You” to God who is truly Good. This is something which cannot be proven by logic or argument; one has to come to trust that it is True Reality, on the ground of God’s goodness, as Fr Stephen wrote above.

    All of the doctrine in the Orthodox Church is expressed in its worship services, and that’s one reason why curious people are advised to actually go to the worship services, and talk to a priest who can take the time to explain things. We do have a few theological works that summarize Orthodox doctrine as the consensus of the early Church Fathers – and we have about 3 dozen books that guide us in how to worship God! If you want to read a compendium of Orthodox doctrine, this is a good place to start:
    https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith
    The site is easy to navigate; you can stop anywhere when you need to, and find your way back. It’s sequential, but you don’t have to read it that way. You’ll recognize some things you already know about Christianity, but some doctrinal emphases are very different than in both Catholicism and Protestantism.

    I grew up Christian and never wanted to be anything but a Christian. One of the reasons I came to Orthodoxy was that I found it to have adequate answers, within a Christian framework, for my own questions about suffering. Your questions are good and important.

    God jul!
    Dana

  44. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I personally have a lot of thoughts/speculations about the question which I do not write about.”
    Father,
    Forgive me if I overstep my bounds here. I wish you could see my expression as I ask this…better yet, if you would pardon my bluntness. I mean no disrespect. But my first reaction was “like what?!” Do you hold back these thoughts because it would be too controversial? Maybe they are not helpful because they are speculative?
    I certainly trust your judgement, but I can not help but wonder. Because I also trust your knowledge. Better, your train of thought (when I can follow it!).
    But I can take “no” for an answer!!

  45. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank for the help Byran, Michael, and Fr. Stephen

    But I think I got Dino in italics although html never seemed to work for me before … okay testing (feel free to delete!)

  46. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    (LOL if only I could spell too)

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paula,
    Well, it’s because they are simply “speculations.” There are contexts and conversations where I can speculate out loud. However, on the blog, such thoughts are very public (and merely speculations). I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood or taken to be saying something when I was only speculating.

    Mostly, such speculating is simply me thinking about things that I do not know, but in a way that would be helpful were it so. But it has nothing more reliable about it than my speculation. A “speculation” doesn’t even rise to the level of an opinion. Hence, the silence.

    Believe me, I’d quickly be trolled for anything off the mark.

  48. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks Father. That’s what I thought.
    But I’d sure like to sit in conversation with you and talk about your musings!

  49. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Regarding the teaching of all creation being fashioned good but not yet perfect, Fr. Tom Hopko musings are great:

    “So there’s a real question here whether the entire creation was paradise from the beginning. In this narrative, it doesn’t seem so. It seems that paradise is only where man is, and it’s only where man is in communion with God, where man is adoring God, obeying God, keeping God’s commandments, and his job is to make all of creation into paradise… That might be it. Who knows? But in the beginning you just have this little garden of Eden, this little paradise spot.”

  50. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks Dino. I’ve never heard that remark by Fr. Tom Hopko before.

  51. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Interesting, Dino.
    Then there’s this thought (I believe from the writings of St Maximus) of the creation and the fall happening simultaneously. I remember Father mentioning this and me asking what that means. Right now, I can’t remember Father’s answer, and even if I could, I’d have difficulty explaining it. But I do know it made sense. Still does.
    It’s just hard to verbalize…for me, anyway.

  52. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Father, You mentioned essays by Tolstoy that were very influential to you. Any in particular?

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alan,
    Mind you, I was 15 at the time, and lots of things would change in my life and mind. But, there was a book entitled, “On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence.” My older brother (5 years my senior) was shipping out to the military and Vietnam. He gave it to me as a parting gift. He said, “Read it and don’t go.” It had a profound effect on me at the time. This would have been 1968-9 or so. I became a pacifist at the time – simply based on the straight-forward notion that Jesus had meant what He said in the Sermon on the Mount. It wasn’t a sophisticated reading, I’ll admit.

    I read a number of things. I had become an Episcopalian (also through my brother’s influence), and enjoyed going to quiet services in a parish that was sort of “high and dry.” (Not smells and bells, etc.). It was the old days – 1928 BCP and no real discussion about the stuff that would come later. It was good nurturing.

    I ran into the Jesus Movement in 1970-71 and wound up spending a couple of years in a commune, drinking heavily at some pretty intense charismatic/pentecostal thought (which, strangely, is not at all mainline Protestant). I left that when I was in college (around ’74) having become rather burnt out. I “healed” a bit back in the quiet of a BCP liturgy and went to seminary, starting in ’77. That is brief history.

    I first read Lossky in 1975-76 – my introduction to Orthodox thought. I kept reading for some years to come and saw Orthodoxy as a “touchstone” of what was true. So, it’s odd that I did not convert until 1998. That’s probably as much of a comment on the state of American Orthodoxy as it is on me. I think it’s much easier to convert these days (it’s done a lot more often, and in English).

    BTW, I wouldn’t recommend anything by Tolstoy these days.

  54. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Thanks Father. I appreciate the reply and also the biographical information. I’ve been reading your (great) posts for many years and yet didn’t know most of what you just wrote.

    Funny, shortly after I hit the “submit” button on my comment, it occurred to me that reading Tolstoy likely wouldn’t be beneficial to me. Good to know that thought I had was correct.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alan,
    When I became Orthodox, there were those who, knowing me as an Anglican, wanted to write about “my story.” I asked them not to – in that I saw myself as a penitent entering the Church. I’m keenly aware both of my many sins over those years – and half-hearted compromises, and such. There’s not a lot I take pride in. What I do see – and rather clearly – is that God had always been at work in my through His Providence and was doing greater things and and for me than I was asking for or imagining. That is still the case. That my writing is useful to some is something for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s also the case that its usefulness (or effectiveness) is unplanned and unguided. It simply is what it is. I remain profoundly aware of how little I know – perhaps how little most of us know. But, in a time of great hunger, anyone who can scramble up a crust of bread will be seen as a benefactor.

    We live in such difficult times.

  56. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Pettersen and all,

    I wanted to share some thoughts on the bird eating the other bird

    When we look to the ecosystems we see the reality of hunger, and the strong eat the weak. We also see in human relations in the fallen world how the strong force the weak to work, holding back the wages.

    In Christ we have the absolute reversal of this. The Stong does not eat the weak but gives Himself to us as Food. Jesus is the Bread of Eternal Life.

    We are deeply fragile. Our encounter with hunger and longing is an important part of realizing our need.

    The image of the fallen world is that the strong crush the weak, but it is not so in Christ. Some followed him for physical bread only, the problem of day to day life. Christ knew the true problem was emptiness and starvation of living to simply enter the grave. So He is the Warrior King who enters death, breaks down the walls of the prison and fills it with life. He went into death and though humans die, because of Christ we are not hopeless at the grave.

    I have noticed that when a gift is given to me, if there is a real need for it, I experience a bit of shame in accepting the gift. And the giver of the gift also takes a risk. The risk is that the gift, when received, will become simply an object and the giver forgotten. A gift is never an object, never a thing. The giver is always attached to it. I used to wear a scarf around my neck even when teaching and would tell my students it reminded me of my sister who gave it to me, and how blessed I am to have her as a sister.

    God who is so immeasurably Good has given such a gift to humans, in our lives, but the gift is so great we take ownership of it and call it our own without reference to Him. That is part of what happens when each of us falls, we believe a lie. But the hunger inside us can become so great, and the eating of dead things so insufficient, that we may begin to hunger for true Life.

    You are right in that a good God would not leave creation to be crushed. He knew when He gave us the gift that we would turn from him, believing the lie, and become vulnerable to death.

    We have been so gifted that we may mistakenly believe we are in control and can set the right course of action for our lives. When we see children die we are reminded we don’t get to stay here forever. We should not see an error God made, but a person who may teach us what we have forgotten. Christ did not just suffer on the Cross. When you see another person suffer sickness know that Christ suffers it as well. He fills all things. He bore fully the weight of sin, and does not leave us alone in our suffering. This enables us to go with courage into the difficulties of our lives, because we know He is there too.

  57. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    My priest’s homily today. It is from the genealogy of Matthew (as it is every year at this time) and speaks a great deal of those in the genealogy and how they, in their sin, reveal God entering into our own humanity for us. Worth listening to, if you have the time.

    https://holyapostlesorthodox.org/news/podcast/12-22-2019/22nd-sunday-after-pentecost

  58. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    There is evil present in the world and it’s effects touch the the innocent as well as the rest of us. Nature is also affected by the doings of men. Faith, humility, putting on the armor of God’s mercy and love. Doing the next good thing in our world neighborhood is the way forward, that I see. And that is hard enough. Is there a way to speak of evil that can be helpful? Outside of knowing it is there? Is it by being silenced in the face of it? That certainly can happen, and does not seem right. To stand against evil, all I can think of is putting on the armor of God. “Call on me in the day of trouble and I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 50:35 To ‘deliver’ is to allow ourselves to be in the will of God. Unfortunately , our desires often cloud our perceptions, and I have found myself very outside the will of God in my life for sometimes long periods of time. Lord have mercy!

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christa, may His mercy be with us all. I have spoken of it before but my Dad was a local community health director an MD with a Masters of Public Health. Though not a Christian he walked in the knowledge of God with us. He approached his calling with a philosophy similar in content to “do the next good thing”. His knew that the health of the community he oversaw was improved if the health of one person was improved. Therefore he looked for ways to improve the health of unique people knowing that by doing so, he improved the health of all. He resisted the ‘change the world’ way of thinking.

    He saw evil everyday in the midst of those who needed his help the most and in the souls of many of the politicians to whom he was accountable.

    He taught me a lot about refusing to just give in to the evil. But it was also my first exposure to the life and healing that comes when the immediate need I see right in front of me is addressed.

    Being more than a little dense it has taken me 73 years to begin to understand that a little and then only due to Fr. Stephen.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christa,
    St Paul told us to “overcome evil by doing good.” Thinking too much about evil easily becomes overwhelming, particularly when we want to “do something about it.” It is for to concentrate on doing good and it is for God to see that our good actions accomplish what He intends. We simply never really know the full outcome of our actions. It is why the Scriptures are so simple in their instructions to us, while the world is chock full of plans, good intentions, and lousy outcomes.

  61. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    Thank you.

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