SUFFERING . Suffering may be defined as the experience of organisms in situations that involve physical and mental pain, usually attended by a sense of loss, frustration, and vulnerability to adverse effects. As a fact of sentient life, pain is a phenomenon concomitant to existence itself and yet, on the human level at least, it is one that is inextricably linked with the sense of one's individuality. As such, pain can only be defined subjectively, and because of its implications for the survival of the individual, the experience of pain often provokes questions about the meaning of life itself.
The effort to understand the meaning of pain is natural, as is the human attempt to mediate painful experiences through recourse to secular or religious symbol systems. A major reason for the enormous influence of science and technology and the esteem in which they are currently held lies in their success in giving human beings power, or the illusion of power, over forces that adversely affect them. However, while science, technology, and social institutions have done much to alleviate suffering, these means, even at their most beneficent, can eliminate only some aspects of pain, but not all.
Thus suffering, more than any other fact of human life, raises the philosophical questions that religion is customarily called upon to answer. When stricken with grief, we question the purpose of life and look for meaning in a universe that harbors such pain. Traditionally, religions have responded to the problem of suffering in two ways: first, by trying to place the human experience of pain within the context of an overall understanding of the universe and, second, by showing ways to overcome or transcend suffering through faith, piety, appropriate action, or change in perspective. Within this broad response, religions have worked out varied systems of answers to the questions and challenges posed by the problem of human suffering.
Jewish tradition reflects a number of approaches to an assessment of the nature and meaning of suffering and offers a selection of options for transforming painful experiences in order to make them comprehensible. Basically, Judaism sees suffering as man's vulnerability to the negative effects of any number of occurrences over which he has little or no control; in other words, much suffering arises simply from being human.
In a brief review of some of the Jewish explanations for the fact of suffering, two categories emerge. The first attributes suffering either to sin or to ignorance of the right path that should be followed; the second postulates that suffering may attend spiritual progress.
It has been generally recognized in rabbinic Judaism that suffering is largely due to one's own misconduct. Numerous passages throughout both biblical and rabbinic literature indicate that suffering results from wrongdoing and is thus a punishment for sin (Prv. 22:8). A direct relationship exists between suffering and wrongdoing, on the one hand, and between joyfulness and right action, on the other. Suffering may also arise from a misconception about the true nature of the self, which leads to a course of action that is ultimately self-destructive rather than self-fulfilling. In the stories of Jacob and Joseph, for instance, suffering comes about because one does something fundamentally wrong or alien to one's being. In such cases, suffering may function as the means by which one comes to terms with one's true self. This view suggests that self-knowledge, as well as a proper understanding of the world and of truth, can come only through struggle and through becoming sensitized to things that one would not have been fully aware of without first having suffered.
Many rabbinic and biblical passages indicate that suffering does not simply punish, but also serves an educational purpose. For example, Deuteronomy 4:20 reads: "He brought you out of the iron furnace of Egypt to be his people." Here, Rashi (Shelomoh ben Yitshaq, 1040–1105) interprets "iron furnace" to mean a furnace made of iron for the purpose of refining a precious metal such as silver or gold. Samuel David Luzzatto comments that it is a furnace for smelting iron, emphasizing the purificatory purpose of suffering. We find a similar idea in Jeremiah 11:4 and in Isaiah 48:10, which states: "Behold, I have refined thee but not with silver, I have chosen thee out of the furnace of affliction." Suffering gives special insight and leads to self-transcendence and concern for others; without suffering, man is insensitive and given to self-interest and self-centeredness. As Exodus 23:9 admonishes: "Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, since you, yourselves, were strangers in the land of Egypt."
There is another way in which suffering is understood in Jewish tradition: one may suffer not because one has done wrong but, on the contrary, because one has done right. Here a distinction is made between suffering that results from sin and suffering that results from acting virtuously. Having recognized one's responsibilities through one's own suffering, one is confronted with a new form of suffering that arises from the assumption of the burdens of others. In this respect, suffering is a necessary part of the burden of ascent, since it results from the assumption of tasks that the righteous take upon themselves. Acting virtuously necessarily entails suffering—not a slight, passing discomfort, but intense, agonizing suffering. The doctrine of chastisements of love affirms that God gives special burdens to those who have an unusual capacity to endure them. The righteous bear the burden of ascent; according to Psalms 11:5, "The Lord tries the righteous." In a rabbinical interpretation of this text, Rabbi Yonatan writes:
The Lord tries the righteous (Ps. XI, 5). The potter does not test cracked vessels; it is not worthwhile to tap them even once because they would break; but he taps the good ones because, however many times he taps them, they do not break. Even so God tries not the wicked, but the righteous. Rabbi Joe b. Hanina said, "The flax dealer who knows that his flax is good pounds it for it becomes more excellent by his pounding and when he knocks it, it glistens the more. But when he knows that his flax is bad, he does not knock it at all, for it would split. So God tries, not the wicked, but the righteous." R. Elazar said, "A man had two cows, one strong and one weak. Upon which will he lay the yoke? Surely upon the strong. So God tests the righteous." (Gn. Rab., 32.3)
The idea that those who are able to bear the burden are the ones who should carry it is interpreted by Henry Slonimsky to be the heart of the Midrashic teaching on suffering. He states: "The answer to the question why the good must suffer for the inadequacies of the world would be the fact that the world is growing, developing, and therefore inevitably defective, and there must be someone noble enough to assume the burden, as exemplification of a new insight, namely that nobility obligates, noblesse oblige" (Slonimsky, 1967, p. 39). Taking on the burdens of others can only be done by those individuals who are made capable by their own experience and understanding of suffering. Several midrashim indicate how dear and precious are these shattered ones of God. In the name of Rabbi Abba' bar Yudan, the Midrash states: "Whatever God has declared unfit in the case of an animal he has declared desirable in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit the 'blind or broken or maimed or having a wen' [Lv. 22:22], but in man he has declared the broken and contrite heart to be desirable." Also, Rabbi Yehoshu'a ben Levi said, "He who accepts gladly the suf-ferings of this world brings salvation to the world" (B. T., Ta'an. 8a).
A sublime individual response to suffering is seen in an incident in Rabbi Zusya's life:
When Rabbi Shemlke and his brother visited the maggid of Mezritch, they asked him the following. "Our sages said certain words which leave us no peace because we do not understand them. They are that men should praise and thank God for suffering just as much as for wellbeing, and receive it with the same joy. Will you tell us how we are to understand this, Rabbi?" The maggid replied, "Go to the House of Study. There you will find Zusya smoking his pipe. He will give you the explanation." They went to the House of Study and put their question to Rabbi Zusya. He laughed. "You certainly have not come to the right man! Better go to someone else rather than to me, for I have never experienced suffering." But the two knew that, from the day he was born to this day, Rabbi Zusya's life had been a web of need and anguish. Then they knew what it was to accept suffering with love. (Buber, 1947, pp. 217–218)
Innumerable midrashim embrace the doctrine of vicarious suffering. With regard to the Song of Songs, Raba states: "As the dove stretches out her neck to the slaughter, so do the Israelites, for it was said, 'For thy sake we are killed all day long' (Ps. 44:22). As the dove atones for sins, so the Israelites atone for the nation."
In this process of the transformation of the world through vicarious suffering, the role of the suffering individual and that of the prophet become linked with the idea of the suffering people. This concept appears in the passages in Isaiah 53 on the suffering servant, who is the great symbol of vicarious suffering. The controversy over whether the phrase suffering servant refers to an individual or to the people as a whole can be resolved once it is seen that it stands for both: the prophet is to the people as Israel is to the nations. Just as the nations resist the witness of Israel, so the people resist the word of the prophet.
Jewish tradition affirms that there is a correlation between one's suffering and one's actions, that suffering is self-inflicted. There is, therefore, a just order of things, in the sense that evil acts bring about evil consequences. However, in late biblical and postbiblical Judaism, the doctrine of immortality and resurrection was introduced to account for the suffering of the innocent, which saves the justice of God by positing perfect retribution and reward in the world to come. It is often suggested that the wicked flourish because they are allowed to consume, while still in this world, whatever reward may be due to them, and the righteous suffer because they are exhausting whatever penalties they may have incurred. In qabbalistic (mystical) Judaism, the doctrine of reincarnation was accepted as a means of solving this problem, in that human souls were given repeated chances to atone in this world before a final judgment.
Nevertheless, Judaism finds suffering to be a very harsh, crippling, and disastrous experience—one that a person should strive to avoid whenever possible. Throughout their long history of suffering, persecution, exile, torture, and death, the Jewish people have wrestled with the perplexing problem of why they seem to have experienced such a degree of suffering. Even "the resolve to observe the commandments was, in itself, the cause of death and suffering" (Urbach, 1975, p. 442). Faced with the choice of disobeying God or submitting to the ultimate suffering of martyrdom, the rabbis refused to be swayed into any kind of masochistic fervor; they still realistically recognized how dreadful suffering is. All sufferings, as well as terrible martyrdoms, were not simply acquiesced to, but fiercely questioned.
Jewish teaching clearly acknowledges that there is great injustice in the world and great suffering on the part of the innocent. The pain and death of children is a frequent example, as is the slaughter of millions in wars, political upheavals, and concentration camps. Jewish tradition deals with this problem of mass suffering, of the undifferentiated fate of the innocent and the guilty, by claiming that this is an unfinished world in which justice and peace are not given, but have to be won. Suffering is a necessary part of completing this world, and the individuals who take up the burden of striving to perfect it also suffer.
Such a concept, however, does not explain why God would so constitute the world, nor does it fully account for the sufferings of those ordinary people who are caught up in wars, earthquakes, or other human or natural catastrophes. Therefore, a tendency can be found in the rabbinic tradition to consider the problem of suffering as one of the areas beyond full human comprehension. In the popular tractate Avot (c. 200 ce), a portion of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yanna'i states: "It is not in our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the affliction of the righteous" (4.19). The terrible death by torture of the venerable 'Aqiva' ben Yosef at the hands of the Romans (second century ce) illustrates the point. It is said that, on Sinai, Moses was granted a vision of the learning and wisdom of 'Aqiva' in expounding Torah and then was given another vision of the rabbi's martyrdom. When Moses protested to God, "Master of the Universe, is this the Torah and this its Reward?" he was told, "Be silent, for this is the way I have determined it" (B. T., Men. 29b).
God also suffers: he is a God who cares for his creatures and yet is unable to prevent their suffering. He is so intimately concerned with human destiny that what men and women do affects him directly: "In their afflictions I was afflicted" (Is. 63:9; cf. Ps. 91:15, Gn. 6:5–6). This is also poignantly illustrated in various midrashim where God is pictured as weeping and needing consolation because of all the suffering and tragedy in the world: "When God remembers his children who dwell in misery among the nations of the world, he causes two tears to descend to the ocean and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other" (B. T., Ber. 59a).
Many of the same responses to suffering found in Judaism are also quite understandably evidenced in Christian thought. For example, the statement in Proverbs 22:8 that one brings about one's own suffering ("He that soweth iniquity shall reap calamity") is paralleled in Matthew 26:52: "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword." In his letter to the Galatians, Paul concurs: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7). Numerous passages, both in the New Testament and in other Christian writings, indicate that suffering is the just payment for sin. Such a penalty may even come in the form of a swiftly executed death sentence, as in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11) and the profanation of the eucharist (1 Cor. 11:29–30). However, in John 9:3, Jesus specifically rejects the notion that suffering is always the result of sin, asserting that a man's blindness was caused neither by his own nor his parents' sin.
Explicit both in the New Testament and in other Christian literature is the secondary understanding that suffering may serve a disciplinary function. As Paul states: "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3–4). Such learning experiences are designed to conform the Christian to the image of Christ himself. This sense of suffering as a way in which God disciplines believers is echoed both in Hebrews 12:3–13 and in James 1:2–4. A corollary concept, which is also present in Jewish thought, holds that suffering may also be seen as a preventive dose of spiritual medicine, intended, as it were, to forestall the germination of sin.
Christianity absorbed other interpretations of suffering that are Jewish in origin. For example, in the Jewish tradition, suffering is a part of the prophetic situation that is a characteristic of the burden of ascent. In a development of this idea, Acts of the Apostles 20:23 states that Paul's sufferings—stonings, imprisonments, and other afflictions—resulted from his missionary activity. Paul himself states that the sufferings he endured resulted from his faithfulness to his task of bringing the Christian message to the whole world.
Upholding one's beliefs, it was acknowledged, would bring on the opprobrium of the world. The writer of Matthew warns: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake" (Mt. 24:9); and, "They will deliver you up to councils and flog you in their synagogues" (Mt. 10:17). Acts relates that the apostles who had been imprisoned and beaten "left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). Not just individuals, but whole Christian communities were persecuted and suffered for their beliefs.
From a Christian perspective, suffering is something that is both inevitable and welcome—something to be confronted rather than avoided. In 2 Corinthians 12: 9–10, Paul exults: "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong." The sense that suffering is inescapable appears in Jesus' experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, where on the eve of his crucifixion, he prays: "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done" (Lk. 22:42).
In both Christianity and Judaism, the peak of suffering is reached when an individual (or a people) prefers to give his or her own life rather than transgress God's commandments or forsake and repudiate true religion. Many passages in Jewish literature are devoted to martyrologies (especially those detailing the martyrdoms of Rabbi ʿAqivaʾ and of Ḥanina' ben Teradyon), noting the martyrs' strong affirmations of faith at the time of their deaths. Christianity relates similar examples of the religious courage of the faithful, most notably Jesus himself. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus asks, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34); in the gospel of Luke he adds, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:24). According to all three accounts, Jesus died as a martyr to his messianic mission.
Paul's theme of the necessity of sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:15) as a prerequisite of sharing in the glories of Christ was carried to extremes by some of the early church fathers. Ignatius of Antioch went so far as to suggest that martyrdom is the only way to become an authentic Christian and thus ensure one's arrival in the presence of God. In fact, Ignatius willingly embraced his own martyrdom to the extent that he encouraged his fellow believers not to do anything that might prevent it from taking place, so convinced was he of the necessity of imitating "the passion of my God" in order to ensure his salvation.
Jesus represents the Gospel's embodiment of the concept of the suffering servant. Seeing Jesus not only as the suffering servant, but also as the Messiah, the Gospel writers fuse these two roles into a synthesis that does not, however, occur in the Hebrew scriptures, where the two remain distinct. A corollary to this fusion of the Messiah and suffering servant is the view of Christ's crucifixion as a vicarious atonement both for the sinful nature of humankind as well as for the sinful acts of each individual: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45; see also Jn. 1:29, 3:5). The writers of the synoptic gospels view Jesus as the Messiah who has been sent into the world to bring about repentance and salvation and to usher in God's kingdom. Jesus' prediction of his own passion occurs throughout the synoptic gospels: his particular passion that is depicted at the end of each gospel portrays him as the being who, by his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection, becomes the symbol through whom human beings may hope for a similar fate for themselves.
A different and distinctively Christian (as opposed to Jewish) view of suffering can be found in the Pauline writings. In working out his theology, Paul strives to answer certain questions concerning the role of suffering. First, why is there suffering in a world created by a good God who cares for and loves his creatures? Second, why must God not only allow the suffering of his chosen, but why must the best—like Job, or the suffering servant, or the prophet—suffer such grievous fates? Most particularly, for the Christian, why must God's plan include the passion, suffering, and death of the individual designated to be the only begotten Son of God, Jesus the Christ?
In his discussion of Pauline theology in Theology of the New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann writes: "The death and the resurrection of Christ are bound together in the unity of one salvation-occurrence: 'he who died' is also 'he who was raised up' (Romans 8:34; 2 Corinithians 5:15, 13:4). Similarly, 'as God raised Christ, so He will also raise us' (see 1 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 4:14)." Bultmann then claims that the incarnation is also a part of that one single salvation process, referring to biblical assertion that "he who gave himself up to die is no other than the preexistent Son of God" (Phil. 2:6ff., 2 Cor. 8:9, Rom. 15:3). According to Bultmann, the incarnation is never accorded a meaning independent of the crucifixion.
In fact, Christ's death is seen as the merger of propitiatory and paschal sacrifices. As a propitiatory sacrifice, Christ's blood expiates sin and achieves forgiveness for the believer (Rom. 3:25). That Jesus' death was viewed by the early church as such a propitiation is seen in the liturgy of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:24), not merely in Palestinian congregations, but also in the newly evangelized Hellenistic churches. Jesus' death is also viewed as significant for the congregation of the people of God as a paschal sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7, Heb. 13:12). The vicarious nature of that sacrifice is reiterated in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "He made him who was unacquainted with sin to become sin in our stead."
Christ died in the place of all, then, and for the sake of all. According to Paul's view, Christ's death is not to be seen either as a merely propitiatory or vicarious sacrifice, but as a colossal cosmic occurrence. Salvation signifies release from death and sin. This release from sin, in turn, is seen in terms of release from the law. Hence, centuries later, Bultmann could claim that the sacrifice of Christ's death does not merely cancel the guilt and punishment of sin, but also is the means of release from law, sin, and death. Bultmann believes that Paul viewed the powers of the age in a gnostic light, and in this sense the Redeemer becomes a cosmic figure and his body a cosmic entity. Thus, those who are bound up with him in one body share in a redemption from the sinister powers of this world.
For Paul, apparently, Christ Jesus is the means by which the suffering of this world, man's inherent sinfulness, and death itself can be overcome. By being at one with he who suffered, a person is able to finally achieve a state that is free both from suffering and from death. In 2 Corinthians 1:5, Paul avers: "As we share abundantly in Christ's suffering so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." More explicitly, in Philippians 3:8–10, he asserts: "I have suffered the loss of all things … in order that I may gain Christ and may be found in Him … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." At present, he who is one with—or in the body of—Christ will indeed continue to suffer. He has the promise, however, that he will not be left to suffer continually, but will eventually overcome that suffering through his faith in Christ. Christ himself is the evidence that, as he overcame suffering and death, so may the worshiper.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul exposes man's plight—bondage to the law of sin—which makes a man a miserable wretch groaning for deliverance from the body of death. In Christ, however, man achieves true freedom through the law of the spirit of life. Thus, salvation is to be seen as an eschatological occurrence insofar as it is not merely a historic fact, but a reality that is continually being renewed in the present. Hence, the prospect of overcoming sin, suffering, and death is available to those who decide to reorder their previous self-understandng and their past existence from one of egocentrism to one of radical surrender to the grace of God through Christ.
In short, according to Paul, it was necessary for Jesus to have been incarnated, crucified, and resurrected—that is, to have suffered and died—because this is the only way in which the individual might believe that his own suffering and death can, through faith in the risen Christ, be overcome. A god who simply promises redemption cannot engender the same depth of conviction as a God who not only promises but, as it were, delivers. God's birth into a human body and his suffering, together with his resurrection, are evidence of the possibility that believers, too, can hope to transcend sin, suffering, and death.
Islamic views of suffering may be categorized broadly under two headings. The first is that of suffering as the punishment for sin; the second, of suffering as a test or trial. The Qurʾān repeatedly stresses that all who do evil will be punished for their actions in this world and the next. This doctrine is associated with an emphasis on the perfect justice of God, which is to be vindicated on Judgment Day, when the evildoers will be thrown into the fires of Hell (surah 52). Sin is associated with disbelief, which is the root of misconduct. Unbelievers suffer as they learn of their mistakes. Thus, the punishment of sin through suffering may serve an educational function—namely, to show unbelievers the truth of God's word. The idea that lack of belief is a root of evil reveals a central precept of Islam on the subject of suffering. This precept may be expressed as the belief that evil is found within man, and that subsequently the punishment of suffering is also found there. It is written in the Qurʾān: "God dealeth not unjustly with [unbelievers]; but they injure their own souls." Just as sin is inextricable from punishment in the moral system of Islam, the unbeliever always condemns himself to suffer, for, in the final analysis, disbelief is the greatest suffering—the suffering of the soul.
Equally important to the Muslim perspective on suffering is the idea that suffering is a test of man's belief. This concept is premised upon the belief that the true Muslim stands by his faith despite his woes. Suffering not only tests men's strength of faith, it also reveals their hidden feelings, allowing God to look into the innermost depths of their souls. The judgment of and distinction between the righteous and the impious are central to God's universe. As the Qu'ran points out, God "hath created the heavens and the earth … that he might prove you, and see which of you would excel in works" (surah 11). Suffering is incorporated into the fabric of the world and is instrumental to the purposes of God. Suffering both separates good and evil men and serves as the punishment and teaching for the unbe-liever.
The response to suffering that Islam advises is a complex one and is essentially different from either the Jewish or Christian viewpoint. In Islam, suffering is not a welcome way of proving one's faith, as in Christianity; neither is it something that should be avoided whenever possible, as in Judaism. Rather, Islam sees suffering as a necessary though unfortunate component of man's life that should be alleviated where possible and endured otherwise.
According to Bowker (1970), Islam advocates both an active and a passive response toward suffering: one should not only endure one's own suffering, but also perform good works to alleviate the suffering of others. Both responses are required of the true believer. The passive response to suffering is based on the idea of suffering as a test of one's belief in God. One must live through suffering, accepting it as God's will and having faith that God will not force any soul beyond its capacity. Nonetheless, one should not surrender to fatalism when facing suffering, but should always keep hope and faith in God. This opinion is implied by the Qurʾān's argument against suicide: God's plans will justify and vindicate the righteous in the end, and to deny this by suicide is to blaspheme against him.
The active response to suffering is grounded in the Islamic belief that man is the cause of his own suffering. Islam considers good those things that rid the world of suffering. The man who helps others is a righteous man; the true believer is revealed by his good works as well as by his acceptance of suffering. Moreover, if suffering is punishment for sin, then doing good works will alleviate this punishment.
Within Islam there is a problematical contradiction between the belief in God's omnipotence and recognition of the existence of suffering. All suffering is believed to be part of God's overall design, and is thought to have a distinct and undeniable purpose. This has tended to lead to a determinist view of existence; the free will of man is questioned. Such a tendency was prominent in the early period of the development of Islam but was later challenged by several schools of thought. The Qurʾān is ambigous on this issue and points to both the designs of God and the free will of man as causes for suffering.
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Jack Bemporad (1987)
Connected with the problem of theodicy, or why the just God allows evil in the world, is the problem of suffering, or why the good God permits man to have physical, mental, and spiritual afflictions. This article first treats the ideas of the Sacred Scriptures and then those of post-Biblical Christian thought on the problem of human suffering.
In the Bible
The sacred writers, focusing their attention on the various aspects of suffering, look on it as an evil whose origins are to be traced to sin, especially the sin of Adam; also, as God's retribution for national or personal sin; and most significantly, beginning with Second Isaia, as vicarious expiation effectual by reason of human solidarity [see expiation (in the bible)].
In the Old Testament. The most significant attitude toward suffering in the Old Testament was that it was God's punishment for sin; in postexilic Judaism this position was challenged and modified by new revelation.
Suffering as Punishment for Sin. Although everything, good and evil, comes from God (Am 3.6; Is 45.7; Jb 2.10), the ultimate cause of suffering is to be related somehow to original sin [see sin (in the bible)]. According to Genesis ch. 2 and 3, man's first parents were created in the state of innocence and happiness, but by the sin of disobedience they brought on themselves suffering and death. The effort of providing their daily bread and the pain of childbearing are singled out as outstanding features of the suffering that resulted from their fallen condition (Gn 3.16–19). Because of the solidarity of the human race, subsequent suffering in the world is essentially related to this first sin. The Mosaic Law, presupposing strict retribution as God's way of dealing with sin, sanctioned the punitive aspect of suffering and applied it to individuals as well as to the entire nation (Lv 26; Dt 27–28). Hence, individual crimes were punished by law (Ex 21.12, 17–25); suffering was considered just retribution for sin (Nm 12.1–15; 2 Chr 26.16–21); and an apostate nation would be punished with extreme sufferings (Dt 8.28; 28.15–68). The Prophets in particular attributed Israel's calamities to her unfaithfulness to Yahweh (Is3.16–26; 22.1–14; Jer 2.19; 4.18). Because of Israel's corporate solidarity, the whole family or even the whole nation would suffer for the sin of one of its members (Jos7.10–15; 2 Sm 24.10–17; 1 Kgs 17.1; 2 Kgs 21.10–15). But suffering also had a medicinal purpose, for God did not want to destroy but to convert His people (Lv 26.40–45; Dt 4.30–31). Thus, their sufferings became the birth pangs of a new era of restoration (Is 25.8; 35.4–10; Jer 31.15–20, 31–34).
Postexilic Crisis about Suffering. Ezekiel was the first who explicitly applied the doctrine of retribution to the individual (31.29–30): the individual during his lifetime was to be rewarded or punished for his own behavior, not for that of his parents or nation. This doctrine was consistently repeated in Proverbs, some of the Psalms, and later in Sirach. But such teaching, rigidly applied, contradicted everyday experience, which showed that the wicked often prospered and the just often suffered. And so the just, almost scandalized by the apparent injustice, cried to God [Ps 6.4; 34 (35).17; 87 (88).15; 88 (89).47], vehemently expressed sorrow (Jer 20.14–18; Jb 3.3–12), and protested the prosperity of sinners (Jer 12.1–4). The books of Job and Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms [Ps 36 (37); 48 (49); 72 (73)] attempted to reconcile the suffering of the just with God's providence and wisdom; yet the final solution could come only with the revelation of eternal reward and punishment in the life hereafter (Wis 1–5; Dn 12.1–3; 2 Mc 7.9, 11, 14, 23). In searching for this final solution, the Jews also recognized that suffering tested man's virtue and his fidelity to God (Sir 2.4; Wis3.5) and enabled him to atone for others. The idea of vicarious suffering was fully developed by Isaiah in his Songs of suffering servant (Is 42.1–4; 49.1–7;50.4–11; 52.13–53.12).
In the New Testament. The suffering of Christ is presented in the New Testament as a wholly vicarious suffering, necessary for effecting man's Redemption; the Christian, in turn, as a redeemed member of Christ's Mystical Body, must share in his Lord's suffering if he wishes to participate in His glory.
Suffering of Christ. In the life of Jesus suffering found its full meaning. Christ did not suffer for suffering's own sake. Indeed, he was distressed at the thought of it (Jn 12.27), prayed that it might pass away (Lk 22.42), and felt it acutely on the cross (Mt 27.46). Yet He accepted it voluntarily out of love for His Father and friends (Jn 14.31; 15.13; Gal 2.20). Hinting at it (Jn 3.14;12.32) and openly predicting it (Mk 8.31–33; 10.33–34), He taught clearly that His suffering the ordeal of death was absolutely necessary for man's Redemption and His own glorification (Mk 8.31–33; Lk 24.25–26). The early kerygma went on to attest that by His suffering Christ merited man's Redemption and fulfilled the Isaian prophecies of the Suffering Servant of the Lord (Acts 2.23–24;3.13–14; 4.10–12; 1 Jn 2.2; 4.10). In the words of St. Paul, Christ's death expiated man's sins (Rom 5.9; 1 Cor 15.3; 2 Cor 5.21; etc.), reconciled man to God (Rom 5.9; 2 Cor 5.19; 1 Tm 2.5–6), and merited His own glorification (Eph 1.20–23). The author of Hebrews represents the suffering Christ as the High Priest who sacrificed Himself for man "once for all" (Heb 2.9; 7.27; 9.26–28), learned obedience by His suffering (Heb 5.8), and became compassionate with man (Heb 2.17–18). According to St. Peter, Christ, by His vicarious suffering, not only effected man's salvation but also left an example (1 Pt 2.21–25; cf. Is 52.13–53.12).
Suffering of the Christian. Suffering pertains to the essence of the Christian life (Mt 5.10–12). Like Christ, the disciple will be persecuted (Mt 10.24; Jn 15.19–21). Following Christ, he must deny himself (Mt 16.24; Mk8.34–35; Lk 9.23), must learn to suffer unjustly (1 Pt4.15–19), with joy (Jas 1.2; 1 Pt 4.13), for Christ's sake (2 Cor 4.9–11; Phil 1.29). So the Apostles rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer for the name of Christ (Acts 5.41; 2 Tm 1.8, 12; 2.9, 12). Yet man's present suffering cannot be compared to his future glory (Rom 8.18). St. Paul adds another reason: the suffering of the Christian benefits not only himself but the whole mystical body. Paul rejoiced in his suffering, for it gave consolation to others (2 Cor 1.4–7) and effected their salvation (2 Tm 2.10). In Baptism he died to sin (Rom 6.1–11), carried the marks of Christ's suffering in his own body (Gal 6.17), and longed for the fellowship of the suffering of Christ (Phil 3.8–10) in order to fill up what was wanting in the suffering of Christ for the Church (Col 1.24).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 2340–45. o. a. piper, g. a. buttrick ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 4:450–53. e. f. sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (London 1955). j. a. sanders, Suffering as Divine Discipline in the Old Testament and Post-Biblical Judaism (Rochester, New York 1955). j. scharbert, Der Schmerz im Alten Testament (Bonn 1955). c. r. north, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (2d ed. London 1956). j. j. stamm, Das Leiden des Unschuldigen in Babylon und Israel (Abhandlungen zur Theologie des Alten und Neuen Testaments 10; 1946). h. h. rowley, Submission in Suffering and Other Essays on Eastern Thought (Cardiff 1951). j. kremer, Was an den Leiden Christi noch mangelt (Bonn 1956).
Traditional Christian ascetical theory and practice have been shaped by the scriptural teaching set forth above; and a distinctively Christian attitude toward the suffering, adversity, and death that are inseparable from the human lot, as well as toward voluntary self-denial and works of mortification, developed and has been maintained in spite of wide differences in the particular manifestations in which it has found expression.
Baptism. The Christian has been baptized into Christ, into His death and Resurrection, symbolically but really, through the Sacrament of Baptism (Rom 6.3–5). Just as a man who is submerged into the water dies of drowning, but when he is pulled up, he is saved from death, so does Baptism work spiritually in the soul of the Christian. Baptism gives the Christian life in Christ, but it does not liberate him from an internal state of struggle. There is another tendency in him that drives him away from the love of God and neighbor, that inclines him to listen to temptation. The period until the coming of Christ at the end of time is one of struggle (Rom 7.21–25) and calls for self-denial and control (1 Cor 9.27; Eph 4.22). Thus is the Christian faced with a paradox: although as one who has accepted and believed in Christ he already has a share in Christ's life even here on earth and in that sense is "saved," he must nevertheless mortify his bodily members (Col 3.5). Like St. Paul, he sees the need of "chastising his body and bringing it into subjection" (1 Cor 9.27). He is one of those to whom Christ referred when He said: "After the bridegroom has been taken away, the disciples will fast" (Mt 9.15).
The paradox is resolved by the fact that Christian fasts and self-denial take on an eschatological meaning. Those who believe in Christ are saved, but they have not yet reached their final goal. They still move through a valley of tears and are beset with danger. But above all, Christians endure suffering and even undertake voluntary austerities "because the bridegroom has been taken away." They long for the day when they will "see Him as He is"; the messianic banquet—Christ—is not theirs yet, and they must wait in patience and love, but prudent as serpents against the enemy, the devil, who "goes about seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pt 5.8). The Christian's patient endurance of tribulation and the fasting and other mortifications he undertakes become, then, an appeal to the invisible Spouse to speed the day of His coming. By their endurance and by their mortification, by their prayers and sacrifices, by mysteriously "filling up those things which are lacking in the passion of Christ," Christians help bring closer the second glorious coming of Christ.
Voluntary Suffering. Christian tradition has seen the aspect of the voluntary submission of affliction and works of self-denial also as a way of imitating Christ's own love. The Christian is in a sense the prolongation of the presence of Christ in space and time, and as such he must continue Christ's actions in his own life (see Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, ch. 1–5). Christ died for all men because He loves all men; Christians must continue this loving suffering and mortification for those who are, either potentially or in fact, their brothers in Christ. In his apostolic letter Salvifici doloris (1984), John Paul II said that Christ's passion "raised human suffering to the level of redemption" (19): Christ has become a "sharer in all human suffering" and each person who suffers discovers "new content and new meaning" in his suffering, through faith (20).
Bibliography: Christian Asceticism and Modern Man, tr. w. mitchell et al. (New York 1955). p. r. rÉgamey, The Cross and the Christian, tr. a. bouchard (St. Louis 1954). g. boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove 1997). d. a. carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Atlanta 1981). e. gerstenberger and w. schrage, Suffering (Nashville 1977). j. hick, Evil and the God of Love (rev. ed.; New York 1978). b. l. whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil, 1960–1991 (Bowling Green, Ohio 1998). john paul ii, Salvifici doloris (Vatican City 1984).
The presence of suffering in the world poses a problem for religion insofar as it seems to contradict the notion of an all powerful benevolent God. It would seem that if God were good, He would not want His creatures to suffer, and if, all powerful, He would be able to prevent their suffering. Judaism has attempted to cope with the problem of suffering in various ways. The Bible is from the very beginning aware of suffering as a characteristic of human existence (Gen. 3:19; Job 5:7), as is rabbinic Judaism (pr 189b). In kabbalistic doctrine the existence of the world and man as distinct from God by definition entails the pain of separation from God. A similar position is taken by Leibnitz when he defines suffering in the "best of all possible worlds" as a necessary feature of finiteness, and Paul *Weiss when he says "No matter how good and concerned God might be, there is always metaphysical evil to mark the fact that the universe is not God and God not the universe" (N. Glatzer (ed.), The Dimensions of Job (1969), 193).
Some religious philosophies overcome suffering by denying either its importance (Stoicism) or its reality (Spinoza), or by seeking release from existence in the world (Buddhism). A certain other-worldly emphasis is also characteristic of certain types of Christian thought. Augustine formulated the classic philosophical view of evil which states that since everything that exists must have been created by God and must be good, evil is not an existent but is merely privation, i.e., the absence of good. This essentially neoplatonic doctrine also has a long tradition in Jewish philosophy, Maimonides being among those who adopted this view (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:8–25). While he does not deny that suffering does exist, he believes that the particular evils which befall one are for the good of the universe as a whole. He opposes the doctrine that the innocent sometimes suffer in order to be rewarded in the *olam ha-ba, holding that all suffering is punishment for priorly committed sins (Guide, 24). Among modern Jewish philosophers, Buber holds that evil is really only a "turning away" from the good toward "nothingness." He adhered to this view even after the Holocaust, explaining that there is a turning away that is so far gone that it can never be turned back (M. Buber, Good and Evil, 1952). Judaism in its nonphilosophic form acknowledges the utter reality of evil and suffering. Indeed, God Himself is often described as suffering with man. Man is challenged to remedy suffering wherever it can be remedied, and to endure it without complaining wherever it is irremediable. M. Bred in Heidentum, Christentum, Judentum (2 vols., 1921) considers the attitude toward suffering the major distinguishing factor between Judaism and Christianity.
Compassion for the Suffering of Others
Judaism demands that man extend active sympathy toward the suffering of others. So that it may be remediable, the essence of suffering must be perceived not in death or natural catastrophes but in illness and poverty. "The poor are God's people," and they exist so that others may help others out of their poverty (bb 10a). Man is admonished to share in the suffering of the community and not enjoy himself while others are suffering (Ta'an. 11a). The historic Jewish penchant for medicine and social reform may have its source in the biblical and rabbinic attitude toward suffering. It is forbidden, according to Jewish law, to inflict suffering on animals (ẓa'ar ba'alei ḥayyim; bm 32a; Ex. 20:10). With the coming of the Messiah, illness, poverty, and even death will be abolished (Ex. R. 46:4).
Punishment and Purification
The primary traditional explanation of suffering is that it constitutes punishment for sin: "When a man sees that he is being chastised let him examine his ways" (Ber. 5a; Sanh. 27b). There is a didactic element in this explanation insofar as it encourages man to refrain from sin in order to avoid suffering. However, it is difficult to uphold this explanation in the face of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked (Jer. 19:1, Eccles. 7:15, Job). One way of coping with the moral imbalance in the world is to formulate a doctrine of *reward and punishment in the *afterlife. Another explanation of the existence of suffering is that it is a process of purification. The Talmud terms such suffering "afflictions of love" (yissurin shel ahavah). Suffering was thought to be the ultimate form of divine purification leading to unio mystica (A. Rote, Shomer Emunim, 1 (1959), 111a, ch. 8). Nevertheless there is room within Judaism for protest to be leveled at God when suffering is thought to be undeserved. Among those who reproached God for inflicting suffering unjustly were *Abraham, *Job, and *Ḥoni ha-Me'aggel, and *Levi Isaac of Berdichev. The *Holocaust has in the 20th century aroused much concern with the problem of suffering.
[Steven S. Schwarzschild]
Suffering is the result of a feeling of alienation and insurmountable ambivalence; being a defensive attitude, its aim is the reduction of anxiety.
When Sigmund Freud asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a) that "the three sources from which our suffering comes" are "our own body. . . the external world. . . and our relations to other men" (pp. 86, 87), he could not make it clearer that human suffering opens up the entire field of psychopathology. The classical medical tradition has always sought to name the condition that causes the patient to suffer, thus to satisfy the patient's wish for their suffering to be less mysterious. Psychoanalysis escapes this preoccupation with diagnosis in that it demonstrates the ubiquity of a suffering that is at once undergone and created by the subject.
If suffering marks the entry into the treatment, the orientation of the treatment itself is towards a demonstration of how this suffering is provoked by the individual subject, in the name of a particular search for pleasure "in a different place" (Laplanche, Jean, 1976 , p. 104). Suffering is thus not only the source of the complaint, but also the necessary lever of its own mobilization and even its own transcendence by the treatment.
In the tradition of Freud's work on "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g ), Melanie Klein (1935) treated accession to the depressive position as a fecund moment in the development of the child's object-relationships and the harbinger of the processes of symbolization. The same intimate connection between suffering and thought-processes informs Christian David's notion that man is in a sense "destined to suffer": "We cannot avoid being permanently confronted by separation and loss, by absence, by intersubjective and intrapsychic splits whether fantasied or actual.. . . If the psyche drew no strength from its own division, it would no doubt be unable to tolerate this state of affairs for long and would be liable to disintegrate at the first jolt" (1983).
Interpretation during the treatment depends largely on the effectiveness of a process of working-through, toward the relief of suffering. As arduous as this work may be for those who embark on it, they feel motivated to do so by a wish to live better, even to be "cured." It is by no means certain that insight leads to cure. Analysts are only too well aware of the effects of the repetition compulsion and of primary masochism, only too familiar with clinical pictures that lie beyond the reach of the regulatory mechanism of the pleasure-unpleasure principle. The "work of the negative" may even become indistinguishable from what is irreducible or radically unthinkable due to the opacity of suffering—merging, in effect, with what Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1981) calls the principle of pain, jouissance, or agony (in the sense of Donald Winnicott's "primitive agonies" ): "The logic of unpleasure/pleasure seems to give way to, or even to be completely overwhelmed by a logic of despair that reduces our logic, that of the primary as much as that of the secondary processes, to despair."
See also: Autism; Breakdown; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Cure; Failure neurosis; Guilt, feeling of; Helplessness; Hypochondria; Masochism; Need for punishment; Negative, work of; Negative therapeutic reaction; Pain; Passion; Pleasure in thinking; Primitive agony; Psychoanalytic treatment; Psychotic potential; Self-mutilation in children; Sadism; Self-punishment; Traumatic neurosis.
David, Christian. (1983). Souffrance, plaisir et pensée, un mixte indissociable. In Souffrance, plaisir et pensée. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
Freud, Sigmund. (1916-17g ). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.
——. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
Klein, Melanie. (1975). Contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. In Love, guilt and reparation and other works, 1921-1945 (The writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 1), London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis; New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence. (Original work published 1935)
Laplanche, Jean. (1976 ). Life and death in psychoanalysis. (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.) Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1981). Non, deux fois non. Nouvelle Revue de PsychanalySE, 24.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1974). Fear of breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1, 103-7.
From the Latin sufferre, "to undergo," suffering is a situation of pain, sorrow, and/or anguish that is experienced physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Suffering can be personal and intimate as well as experienced by a group of people. This makes it difficult to distance ourselves from the emotional impact of suffering completely or consistently. Suffering can be the result of natural evil (e.g., earthquakes, diseases) or human evil (e.g., war, injustice).
For centuries, people have raised the question of why suffering occurs. This is referred to as the question of evil or the issue of theodicy (If God is all good and powerful, why do people suffer?). In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one school of thought believes that if a person or group suffers, it is punishment for sinful behavior and actions and a manifestation of divine justice. In Islam, suffering is not a theoretical problem, but a very concrete and practical reality. For Muslims, suffering is part of what it means to live and is not seen as a problem. This is due, in large measure, to the fact that the Qur'an (the sacred text of Islam) emphasizes God's omnipotence, love, and compassion. Allah (God) controls all suffering, and faithful Muslims must endure it.
The Jewish and Christian traditions do not emphasize suffering as a result of natural disaster. Both traditions ask why humans suffer. There is considerable debate as to whether suffering is the result of human disobedience that results in punishment from God. The story of Job in the Hebrew Bible and the words of Jesus in the Christian New Testament Gospel of Luke contest this view of suffering as punishment. Both traditions recognize that some sins, especially those that are the result of human excesses that are sinful (e.g., substance abuse), may bring about suffering (e.g., poor health). This is not seen as a form of divine judgment but as a correlation between sinful behavior and suffering.
From the first Jewish narratives of creation in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, suffering has been seen as going against the goodness of creation. All forms of domination (e.g., classism, sexism, racism), hostility between peoples, and hostility between people and nature bring forms of suffering that signal a rejection of our connectedness to each other and from God.
For many Jews, Christians, and Muslims, suffering is believed to help contribute to one's moral character. For Christians, suffering is seen in the context of God's redemptive and sustaining love and of God's will. Some suffering is attributable to evil, but undeserved suffering must be endured by faith. Within Judaism and Christianity, contemporary liberation theologies challenge the idea that suffering may be good or redemptive. These theologies point to the suffering of those victimized by oppression and abuse. It is important to differentiate among suffering that is natural to life; suffering inflicted on others; and suffering that experienced as the result of injustice, oppression, or abuse. None of these are good or redemptive in themselves. Liberation theologies point to the suffering that result from choices made by a person who is trying to change or right a situation of abuse or oppression that contain the possibility of being good and redemptive.
Bowker, John. Problems of SufferinginReligionsoftheWorld. 1970.
Jonas, Hans. Mortality and Morality:ASearch forGoodAfter Auschwitz. 1996.
Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happento GoodPeople. 1983.
Soelle, Dorothee. Suffering. 1975.
Townes, Emilie M., ed. A TroublinginMy Soul:Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. 1993.
Emilie M. Townes
- aloe symbol of suffering. [Flower Symbolism: Jobes, 71]
- Andersonville horrible Civil War prison where 12,926 Union soldiers died. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 18]
- Bataan site of U.S.-Filipino army “death march” (1943). [Am. Hist.: EB, I: 867–868]
- Black hole of Calcutta 146 Britishers imprisoned in small, stifling room (1756). [Br. Hist.: Harbottle, 45–46]
- Chiron centaur, gave up his immortality in order to end the intolerable suffering accidentally inflicted by one of Heracles’ poisoned arrows. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 194]
- Concentration Camps where millions of Jews were starved, experimented on, and exterminated by Nazis (1939–1945). [Eur. Hist.: Misc.]
- Gethsemane garden east of Jerusalem where Jesus suffered in anguished fatigue. [N.T.: Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32]
- Hiroshima where the atomic bomb was dropped (August 6, 1945). [Am. Hist.: Fuller, III, 626]
- Io having been changed into a heifer by Zeus, pestered by gadfly sent by Hera. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 292]
- J.B . Job’s trials in modern setting and idiom. [Am. Lit.: J.B. ]
- Job beset with calamities. [O.T.: Job 1:13–22; 2:6–10]
- Mauperin, Renée undergoes lingering and anguished death from guilt. [Fr. Lit.: Renée Mauperin ]
- Orestes persecuted and tormented by Furies. [Gk. Myth.: Wheeler, 271; Gk. Lit.: The Eumenides ]
- Philoctetes Greek hero, bitten by a serpent, suffers agonies for ten years. [Gk. Drama: Sophocles Philoctetes in Magill III, 741]
- prisoner of Chillon chained for years in a damp, dark dungeon with his brothers, watches them die. [Br. Lit.: Byron The Prisoner of Chillon in Benét, 817]
- Prometheus chained to rock while vulture fed on his liver. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 221]
- Raft of the Medusa, The realistically portrays anguished ship’s crew. [Fr. Art: Daniel, 166]
- Smith, Winston beaten and tortured with rats for conspiring against the totalitarian regime. [Br. Lit.: George Orwell 1984]
- Tantalus condemned to Tartarus with food and water always just out of reach; hence, tantalize. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 253]
- Valley Forge winter quarters of Washington’s underfed, under-clothed Continental army (1778). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 519]