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Monday, March 27, 2006

Pain and Suffering

The Problem of Pain and the Mystery of Suffering
Reflections of C.S. Lewis and Bishop Fulton Sheen
Shared with the staff in our regular weekly meeting.

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes, “The first – and lowest – operation of pain is to shatter the illusion that all is well…pain is not only an immediately recognizable evil, but an evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and our stupidities; we can even ignore pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to…God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”

Pain is a reminder or our own mortality. Being in a Christian Community forces us to encounter a wide range of individuals at various points in their journey, and in such encounters, protect ourselves from the urge to be judgmental, proud, and short-sighted. We are humbled by those who are further along than us, and empathetic regarding those who are struggling. The suffering, pain, and even death of others serves as an opportunity for us to be reminded of our own mortality and is an opportunity to engage in acts of mercy.

Lewis continues, “The second [operation of pain] is to shatter the illusion that what we have – whether good or bad – is our own and sufficient for us. As long as what we call “our own life” remains agreeable, we will not surrender it to Him…we are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people…(but) try to believe – if only for a moment – that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. Therefore, He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover.”

When we speak of someone who “doesn’t deserve” pain or suffering, we forget both our own guilt (“For ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and the redemption of the Cross. This pain that reminds us of the temporary nature of this world is the pain and suffering of Christ. A Christ who came as a political savior would have reaffirmed the sufficiency of this world, but this world is not sufficient. A savior who came as a Suffering Servant shattered the illusion that this world is ours and is sufficient. Fulton Sheen, in The Life of Christ, writes this; “…both Peter and Satan tempted Christ from His cross and therefore from Redemption…Peter thought it was unworthy of Christ to suffer; but to Our Lord such thoughts were human, carnal, even Satanic.” Christ, more so than any other, “deserved” no hint of pain and suffering. Christ, more than any other demonstrates the redemptive power of suffering. Christ in the Resurrection illustrates the final victory over pain, suffering, and death.

The third operation of pain is the, “full acting out of the self’s surrender to God.” Lewis contends that only in doing something we do not like, look forward to, or enjoy are we sure of doing the Will of God. In other words, if – while in the service of God – we find ourselves only doing things we enjoy or like, we should approach our perceived obedience with suspicion. We may not be actually sacrificing our self. It may just be a happy coincidence that God’s Will and our interests coincide. We may be what God wants done, but it may be equally true that we have not fully surrendered our will to His. Lewis says, “We cannot know that we are acting at all for God’s sake unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations, or in other words, painful.” Suffering is not something any of us wish for, but suffering in a way that subordinates the self to the Will of God demonstrates a powerful self-denial.

This is the pain of Christ’s agony in the garden: wanting something different, easier, less violent, but being willing to embrace that pain as the Will of God. “If this cup should pass from me…Not my will, but thy Will be done.” Much of what Christ was to do within the Will of God was agreeable and enjoyable to him. In a similar manner, much of what we do in ministry to others will utilize our talents, our interests, and our joys. Yet, it is only when we do something outside our “comfort zone” that we are sure of pure motives. What is MORE outside our comfort zone than physical pain and suffering?

Fulton Sheen, again: “God gives his answer to the world’s question about the meaning of suffering through a demonstration. The dramatic climax of the demonstration of God’s love for the world, and the capacity of that love to give meaning to the most intense suffering, is the cross of Christ. When the Son takes all the world’s evil and sin and suffering upon himself and offers it to the Father in a perfect act of obedience, and when God vindicates that act of radical obedience and love in the Resurrection, suffering itself is transformed. When Christ redeems us by his suffering, suffering itself is redeemed. The Christ who died for all offers a share in his redemption to all – and offers us the possibility that, by identifying our suffering with his, we too can participate in his redemptive suffering for the world.”

Bishop Sheen's conclusion: “Suffering isn’t a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be engaged in love.”

Heavenly Father,
Because of Your love for me, You endured the Cross
And I am willing to suffer because you suffered, and I love You more than I love even myself
O, my Jesus
I unite my pain with the pain You suffered
Give me the virtues of meekness and patience
So I may willingly carry my cross for You.


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