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The World Wide Web has lived up to its inventor’s dream of providing a brand new form of communication that complements the more traditional forms of print and conversation. But even before hypertext was the quiet revolution of e-mail. This unassuming stepchild of the Web has already created whole new genres of literature including “group humor”. You know the antecedent, the xeroxed cartoon that circulated via copying machines and was invariably pasted above the coffee pot or the fax. In the same way group humor circulated via e-mail, accreting modifications and additions in the process. One of this genre passed through my e-mailbox recently, which I repeat briefly:

Comparison of Religious Theory in the Late 20th Century

Capitalism – He who dies with the most toys, wins.

Communism – Everyone gets the same number of toys, and you go straight to hell if we catch you selling yours.

Catholicism – He who denies himself the most toys, wins.

Hari Krishna – He who plays with the most toys, wins.

Branch Davidians – He who dies playing with the biggest toy, wins.

Mormonism – Every boy can have as many toys as he wants.

Jehovah’s Witnesses – He who sells the most toys door-to-door, wins.

Pentecostalism – He whose toys can talk, wins.

Anglican – They were our toys first.

Greek Orthodox – No, they were OURS first.

Non-denominationalism – We don’t care where the toys came from, let’s just play with them.

Atheism – There is no toy maker.

Polytheism – There are many toy makers.

Evolutionism – The toys made themselves.

Church of Christ, Scientist – We are the toys.

Existentialism – Toys are a figment of your imagination.

Agnosticism – It is not possible to know whether toys make a bit of difference.

Confucianism – Once a toy is dipped in the water, it is no longer dry.

Taoism – The doll is as important as the dumptruck.

Voodoo – Let me borrow that doll for a second.

Hinduism – He who plays with bags of plastic farm animals, loses.

7th Day Adventist – He who plays with his toys on Saturday, loses.

Church of Christ – He whose toys make music, loses.

Amish – Toys with batteries are surely a sin.

B’Hai – All toys are just fine with us.

Hedonism – To heck with the rule book!? Let’s play!

Baptist – Once played, always played.

If one takes happiness as the opposite of suffering, one could replace “toy” in the above humor with “happiness”, and most of the sentences would still make sense. Although I do not endorse any of the views expressed above, it strikes a resonant chord that we should associate denial (and suffering) with Catholicism. Pope John Paul II’s Salvici Dolores, listed in the appendices, records all the benefits that suffering brings. In contrast, the appendix on theodicy lists all the arguments defending God from the crime of causing unjust suffering. Is suffering and denial a good thing or a bad thing? Was God doing Job a favor or an insult to afflict him so heavily? How can I even ask such an obvious question? In our modern Western culture we have perhaps lost any sense of the value of righteous suffering, a concept that was well understood by the ascetics and martyrs of past centuries. Perhaps it would be beneficial to examine this story from such a perspective.

The Types of Suffering

Since human suffering (not to mention animal suffering!) has often been equated with unmitigated evil, it would make the remainder of this chapter an oxymoron unless we can carefully distinguish between the two. Clearly evil is a moral judgment, for though we might call a murderer evil, it would not seem correct to call a man-eating tiger evil. In contrast, suffering, for the most part, is amoral, for we might again say that a long drought causes animals to suffer without saying that the drought is evil. Evil seems to require that a sentient being freely chose to cause suffering in some manner. We will come back to this choice, but for the moment, let us look objectively at types of suffering.

Physical Pain

Dr. Brandt, in his book with Phillip Yancey, Where is God when it Hurts? discusses his medical work at a leprosarium. Because of the social stigma associated with the disease of leprosy, which goes back at least as far as the Mosaic Law, lepers were often forced to live in a quarantined community, a leprosarium, despite the relative difficulty in actually contracting the sickness. Dr. Brandt discusses the nature of the disease and its consequences, a bacterial infection of the nerve endings that causes a cessation of feeling, particularly of pain. The disfigurement that is associated with leprosy is almost entirely a secondary result of lacking the sensation of pain. He tells the story of a rusted padlock that would not yield to his efforts to unlock it. A young patient ran over and said, “Here, Dr. Brandt, let me help you.” The fellow gave a quick turn of the key and the lock opened. The amazed Dr. Brandt seized the boy’s wrist and said “Let me look at your hand.” The lock had been so rusty that the key cut the boy’s fingers right down to the bone, to which he was completely oblivious. Pain, Dr. Brandt argues, is essential for living, it is a necessity for survival.

Pain, in and of itself, appears to be distinct from suffering, however it is often associated with suffering, and in fact is the most common explanation for suffering. Since we don’t want to say “suffering is essential for living”, we must somehow again distinguish between them. One might try to say that great pain, or chronic pain produces suffering, but it seems too easy to find counter-examples. My children, for example, are quite capable of turning a mosquito bite into impossible suffering, particularly when they should be asleep in bed. Thus it appears that suffering has to do more with the attitude taken toward pain than the pain itself. In his book, 1984, George Orwell presents a “hero” whose resolve collapses under torture, the torture being the fear of pain, rather than the pain itself. In contrast, one might distill from the stories of great heroes of the past the definition that true heroism is the ability to overcome fear in the face of pain. So we see that suffering is an added dimension to pain, it requires a certain type of emotional response, which, though triggered by pain, is independent of the amount or duration of the pain itself.

Emotional Distress

Even without physical pain it is easy to find examples of suffering, particularly in those, such as Job’s wife, who are forced to observe the pain of someone they love. In fact, as others have remarked, it is this group of sufferers who write most of the literature on “the problem of evil”, since those enduring the hardship of pain most often lack the energy or the drive to philosophize. It is really not even fair to label this “vicarious” suffering, because the observer experiences it so vividly himself. Into this group one could put all other forms of “painless” suffering: broken relationships, discrimination, rejection, betrayal etc. What they all have in common is an emotional viewpoint toward the circumstances that makes one a victim or object of suffering. Only when this viewpoint changes can the suffering be remedied. The most moving account of this process that I have encountered was C.S. Lewis’ pseudonymous book, A Grief Observed, in which he describes the death of his wife. How one reaches this resolution is probably unique to each person, and forms the subject of a vast body of literature in the field of counselling. Nevertheless, it is probably true to say that when emotional distress is combined with physical pain it produces the most stubborn form of suffering known to modern psychology. Job fits in this category, and is therefore an archetype of the most pernicious type of human suffering.

Spiritual Rebellion

There are lengthy debates as to whether the Old Testament supports a two-part separation of man into Body-Soul, or whether a three-part separation is justified, Body-Soul-Spirit. Without intending to take sides in this debate, let me venture into neo-Platonic territory with St. Augustine and propose that evil has no objective reality, rather it is the absence of reality, in the same way that a shadow is the absence of light. We can define suffering in a similar way, so that emotional distress is not so much an objective condition as it is the absence of emotional well-being.

Physical pain is not so easily defined away. Physical pain, as a neurologist might say, is caused by the firing of certain pathways in the brain, generally stimulated by messages from the nerves. But since it is interpreted in the brain, a “short-circuit” in the brain is possible that produces pain without external stimulation, so that, for example, a man with an amputated leg might still feel pain in his now absent appendage. In such cases, electrical stimulation of the nerve endings of the stump or in the spinal cord can prevent the short-circuit from generating pain. In fact, meditation and biofeedback techniques have proven very effective in treating cases of “phantom” pain. So despite its very real existence on electro-encephalograms, one could still view physical pain as a disruption of the normal alpha-wave pattern of a healthy brain.

What have we gained from such neo-Platonic word play? The ability to define spiritual suffering, i.e., if physical pain is a disruption of a “normal mode” brain wave, and emotional distress is a disruption of “emotional well-being”, then spiritual suffering is a disruption of “normal mode spiritual well-being”. And what, pray tell, would that be? Well if Genesis 1 and Job 1 could be said to define the normal state of heaven and its footstool, Earth, then the Fall in Genesis and the Suffering of Job constitute an anomaly, a disruption in the Heavenly order. Such a lack of “rightness” in the spiritual realms constitutes “spiritual suffering”. Without impugning God, one might say that Satan’s presence in the court of heaven caused God spiritual suffering.

Now the origin of this spiritual suffering is beyond our understanding, consisting as it does, in the origin of Satan’s rebellion. That angelic rebellion spread to Man in the Fall, and from thence to Job, as described in Job 1. Job’s plight then takes on a third dimension, beyond the physical and emotional torment, to a realm of spiritual suffering in the heavenlies. The “why?” of Job’s pleas are thus far more than expressions of his agony in the particulars of his own situation, but the cry of all the innocents who have died at the hands of merciless men, “from Abel to Zechariah”. If we can say that the most stubborn form of human suffering lies at the interface between body and soul, we see that the most profound form of human suffering lies at the interface between soul-body and spirit, between heaven and earth. It is the resolution of this spiritual suffering that is, in some sense, the important answer that the book of Job holds for those who ask the question.

The Consequences of Suffering

It is, in general, a very dangerous thing to give reasons for suffering, which will be construed wrongly no matter how carefully put. But in practice, most of the supposed “causes” for human suffering are inferred from the actual consequences, so that many of the purported explanations become merely tautologies that make better expressions of faith than of logic. Attempting to avoid this trap, we focus instead on the consequences of suffering, not from a secret desire to defend suffering, but rather in the hope that one’s view of suffering will broaden and become enriched, permitting a shift in viewpoint from victim to participant, from sufferer to worshipper, from prophet to priest.

Depression, decay, and Death.

Suffering, whether emotional, physical or spiritual, is the shadow of negation, of emptiness, it is the onslaught of Hell. Its natural consequence is depression, decay, of erosion of all that is bright and good and joyful. Such natural responses easily become self-fulfilling, self-sustaining, so that the end result of suffering is naturally death. If there be anything good resulting from suffering, it must be exceptional, it must be unnatural. As Simone Weil, a mystic and sister of a more famous mathematician, put it, “The spiritual laws are as fixed and certain as the physical law of gravity. Only grace violates all laws.” If this chapter is to continue, then we must consider this most irrational of all results of suffering, the consequence of grace.

The firebreak for evil.

There is a tendency today to despise the retributive justice system of our childhood innocence and claim that “an eye for an eye” is barbaric and uncivilized; that the only justification of a retribution is the prevention of further crimes, which is obviously ineffective. But what is overlooked in these debates about justice is the presence of evil, the existence of spiritual suffering. When a surgeon operates on a suspected cancerous tumor, he will often remove a great deal of “normal” tissue on the chance that the tumor has metastasized and spread invisibly into to the surrounding region. When a forest fire is spreading toward inhabited areas, firefighters may start secondary “controlled” fires to burn off the available fuel before the fierce heat of the uncontrolled wildfire approaches. In the same way, suffering can be a firebreak for evil.

Consider the detailed instructions given by Moses concerning the discovery of a dead body out in the fields (Deut 21). After ascertaining that no one will admit to the crime, extensive ceremonies are carried out involving the elders of the nearest village, blood sacrifices, and petitions that God will not hold this guilt against them. For, as Moses warns about the death of the innocent, “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.” (Num 35:33 NASB). A concrete, yet disturbing example of this principle is given in 2 Samuel 21, where the land of Israel is suffering a three-year drought. Probably children are dying, so King David beseeches God for an explanation for this suffering. He is told that his predecessor, Saul, broke a treaty with the Gibeonites and shed innocent blood. So David arrests seven surviving relatives of Saul who are handed over to the Gibeonites to be killed and so expiate the blood guilt. The principle is clear, suffering of the innocent may sometimes act as a firebreak against the spread of evil and even greater suffering.

The cause for repentance.

Without a doubt suffering catches our attention and forces us to rethink our course of action, just as surely as a state trooper with his lights flashing causes us to check our speedometer. The book of Judges has example after example of God given suffering that caused the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. This is not to be confused with discipline. If my daughter wants to play with the pretty flame on the stove top, the pain of disobedience is not discipline, it is a wake-up call that something is seriously wrong. Suffering grabs our attention, it can be a call to repentance.

The construction of character.

Suffering also forces us to change our decision process. When I caught my 3 year old jumping on the couch, in flagrant violation of house rules, I told her she was due for a spanking. She objected on the grounds that she had forgotten this particular house rule. In a moment of inspiration I replied that this was exactly why I was spanking, to help her remember. In the following years I have repeated this answer countless times as I get out the spanking spoon. “Do you know why I am spanking you?”, I ask. “To help us remember?” they reply. By use of corporeal punishment I am trying to change their behavior, to encourage self-controlled, disciplined actions, to get them to internalize their decision process so that when they get too big to spank, they will have formed the good habits that will last a lifetime. In short, suffering builds enduring character.

The redemption of men.

There is a sense in which all of the above consequences of suffering are small redemptions: the uncle who died in France while opposing the Nazi war machine; the woman saved from suicide by a flat tire; the student who resisted peer pressure to begin a revival. Yet there is a more acute sense in which suffering is a purification, a sanctification, even a salvation for a stained soul. Having said that, I must be quick to clarify what I didn’t say. For we must be careful, when talking about any of these consequences, that we do not turn them inside out and say “we must suffer in order to have these good effects”. Flannery O’Connor in her book, Wise Blood, explores the consequences of searching for salvation in self-inflicted suffering. Somehow, just as it is impossible to tickle oneself, it is also impossible to benefit from self-imposed suffering. Nevertheless, suffering that is out of our control, suffering that only God can stop, can be suffering that saves our souls.

Continuing the analogy with cancer, a tumor that has metastasized sends virulent cells, nascent tumors throughout the body. These cells are indistinguishable from healthy cells in most respects so that the defenses of the body’s formidable immune system are rendered powerless. Yet these cells have become, well, evil; excreting enzymes that allow them to tunnel through capillary walls, they burrow into every organ of the body where they throw off every constraint, multiplying furiously while demanding new blood supplies and killing neighboring tissue. The medical establishment has very few remedies, their most effective being poison which attacks growing cells. Even then the cancerous tumors develop resistance to these chemicals, so that multitoxin cocktails have become the norm in chemotherapy. The dosage is found by trial and error, increasing the levels of poison until the entire body is on the verge of death: weak, nauseous, bald, and anemic. It is no wonder that my aunt chose rather to forego treatment than to have a cure worse than the disease. The hope this suffering holds is that the cancer will fare worse than the patient and the body will be cleansed. Suffering then can be salvation.

The participation with God.

As an Old Testament study, we are on hermeneutical thin ice if we argue that Job believed God could suffer, much less that our suffering made us any more like God. If anything, Job seemed to say quite the opposite, that a transcendent God could never understand our very human suffering, arising as it does from our powerlessness and finitude. Yet in another sense, Job did understand God’s suffering in a way that Elihu never could. Job knew that the death of the innocent and the fat of the wicked were abhorrent in God’s sight, that it caused God pain. The three friends said, “Impossible!”. Elihu said, “God doesn’t even notice.” Job said “Speak for yourself, my God cares.” Otherwise, why would Job have wasted his breath directing his speech toward God? Somehow Job knew God to be compassionate, and therefore a God who concerned himself with Job’s pain.

Many years ago I spent a summer internship in Haiti, in the impoverished, voodoo infested highlands near the capital of Port-au-Prince. One’s first impressions of a person or a place are usually the most profound, and I had an impression of deep beauty and deep pain. The very trees that lined the road flamed with red blossoms, six-foot hedges of poinsettia bloomed all year round. Yet the deforested valleys were scarred with white, where tropical storms had created such runoff that the undercut limestone walls were crumbling into the valley floor, making these streams into rubble strewn wastelands as alien as the cratered moon. The slash-and-burn agriculture had created bedrock deserts out of lush rain-forest. Among the mobs of children were those with mottled red hair, characteristic of protein starvation, due not so much to want, as to neglect. The pain of a culture cobbled together out of a thousand African tribes under the slash of the slavemaster’s whip, finding in fear a religion that unified their many tongues. I stood one night, under a tropical moon so bright that I could tell red from blue, mourning the death of my host’s son, hearing the voodoo drums in the valley, feeling the pain of existence, crying out to God like a woman in labor, wordless tears washing my face–”God, don’t you know?” And though I never heard an answer, my pain was lessened, not because the world had become any better, but because God had heard, because my pain was shared. So it was with Job, when God appeared and he finally knew that God had heard his voice. Suffering, spiritual suffering, is solidarity with God.

The Benefits of Suffering

I have listed above some of the consequences of suffering, but have not yet applied them to the characters of this story. In one sense I really can’t apply it, because I would be putting words into their mouth. Imagine, for a moment, that you have a teary-eyed 3 year old who has just burned her fingers on the stove. After giving her a cup of ice water to hold her fingers in, you begin to tell her the benefits of her suffering. Chances are that she will respond poorly, not believing that you are truly sympathetic. In the same way, I can identify potential benefits, but whether the sufferer actually benefits remains a highly subjective response. Suffering, the same identical suffering, can either bless or destroy depending on the participant’s response.

To the Three

It may seem strange to say that Job’s suffering benefitted these men. They were such bitter enemies of Job’s religion, so intent on tearing down his defenses, so desirous of extracting a false confession, how can we say that his suffering was in any way beneficial to them? As Job tells them himself, “You see something dreadful, and you are afraid”. But it is exactly in showing them their fear, their duplicity, their disloyalty that Job’s suffering provided them a warning, a call to repentance. When Job, at God’s instruction, prayed for his friends, we can see that perhaps this suffering even provided for their salvation. Certainly someone wrote down the story of Job or at least composed and recited it. Surely that someone was present throughout the debates recorded in the book. Could it be that this book is testimony to the transforming power of Job’s suffering in the lives of his friends?

To Job

I am not the first to find some benefit for Job, nor will I be the last to be blasted for trying. Surely the restoration of Job’s fortunes and the birth of 10 more children–even if they were the most beautiful daughters in the land–surely these blessings were not the result of Job’s suffering. Indeed, he might have been even wealthier if he had had the capital to invest. Nor would one expect debilitating disease to make one more virile than before. No, it appears that these blessings were not a result of but in spite of his suffering. If one is to find a silver lining in Job’s trials, then it must lie somewhere between his final complaint and his restoration, somewhere between chapters 31 and 42. I cannot find much encouragement in Elihu’s speech, nor even in God’s. So I am astonished by Job’s reticence to speak in chapter 40.

However chapter 42 perhaps holds an answer that shows Job has finally obtained what he sought. If there is one thing this suffering has done, it has brought Job closer to God. Job answers God’s question “who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” by replying that he has said things he didn’t understand because they were too wonderful for him. Now this is quite different from his previous complaint. God’s ways had been just as obscure to him then as well, but then they had been dark, heavy, and oppressive; now they are full of wonder. How did this transformation take place? Job’s next phrase indicates that God had asked this very question. “It happened,” Job replied, “when instead of just hearing you, or hearing about you, I saw you. That’s when my whole outlook changed.” Job’s suffering has not only brought him solidarity with God, it brought him into God’s very presence.

To God

If I was skating on thin ice before, now I am surely over my head! How can suffering benefit God? If God is transcendent, dwelling in unsearchable light in whom there is no shadow due to changing, who am I to claim that suffering can modify His already perfect condition? Let me tiptoe lightly around these lethal theological landmines, and say that we are talking not of God’s essence, which is transcendent, but of His interaction with Man, of His communication with Man, which is His concrete revelation. For whatever reason, God has chosen to interact in a causal way when He speaks to us. The court of heaven in Job 1 has convened to hear Satan’s accusations. These accusations and God’s response would not make a lot of sense if the order were inverted or scrambled. Therefore God takes the limitations of human existence into account when He deals with us. Suffering cannot benefit God’s essence, but it will impact on His revelation. Is that impact beneficial?

Let us go back to the “firebreak for evil” section, and ask, “Why does blood guilt pollute the land?” If we believed that God is totally free to enact any legislation He wants governing the spiritual realm, why does His law say that the innocent must suffer to stop another creature’s evil? I can not answer that, other than to say that God’s being is primary, and therefore God’s interaction with Man, His revelation, is limited by His essence. Thus the Bible says, “God cannot lie.” Somehow this question of suffering is tied into God’s essence and where that leads I cannot follow. Recognizing our inability to ask the limitless “Why?”, we nonetheless can still learn something about suffering and God from examining His revelation to us.

In our Augustinian section we argued for the existence of spiritual suffering, of disorder in the heavenly realm. In the section on pain we pointed out that suffering can be a firebreak for evil. Arguing from analogy, what is it that can stop the creeping spiritual darkness, the spreading negation of evil? Is it not a lamp or a light? Well if suffering is a firebreak for evil, could it not also be a spiritual light as well? Slow down, didn’t I just say that suffering is negation of all that is good, how then can it be something good in itself? This is the mystery of grace; that God can make something good out of suffering. But then is it correct to define suffering neo-Platonically as an absence of good? No, it is not entirely correct, and we must look to see what is the nature of this thing that God can use for both good and evil.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil was the title of a famous tree. Like that tree, created by God and declared “good”, suffering can be used for infinite gain or infinite loss. Suffering is the currency of heaven, redeeming sinners (Isaiah 53) and damning them (Isaiah 51). Suffering has been part of the human condition since the Garden, where God planted the tree of pain. And since the Fall, suffering has been the only way back into the Garden, where Adam once conversed with God. The story of Job is an inside-out Garden, a story of a man forced to eat of the tree and gaining knowledge “too wonderful for me” that led him back into God’s presence. The story of Job is a reversal of the Fall, a story in which God beats Satan at his own game. It becomes the archetypal story of victory over suffering and the defeat of death.

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