PODCAST 4 – The Problem of Suffering
This Podcast is available for listening at Ancient Faith Radio
Glory to Jesus Christ, Glory forever.
This is Deacon Mark for A Christian Ending.
In our previous podcasts we’ve tried to get a better, more patristic understanding of the problem of death. We talked about the fact that each and every human being since the very beginning is created as a unique person, a unique unity of body AND soul, and that each of us has ultimate value to our creator. He values us so highly that He will never violate our own free will to choose good or evil, life or death, love for God or love for our self above all.
This is very important to remember as we go forward discussing the care we provide for one another in life and in death. If God values us so much then how should we value one another?
We also talked about the three kinds of death, our death to sin in Baptism, physical death (which is not really death), and spiritual death, the separation from God, which according to the fathers of the church is the only TRUE death.
It is our understanding that, since God didn’t create death, then, Death is not natural. It is not part of life as God intended it and therefore, death is not Natural.
This stands in direct opposition to what the world teaches us about death.
So, If God didn’t create death, then it is clear that He didn’t create sickness and suffering either. Sickness and suffering are also very simply a result of sin and our rejection of God. When mankind lived fully within the Grace of God nothing bad could happen. God is goodness and truth and life. He still wants what He wanted for us all along, Peace, Health, Life, Salvation, Visitation and furtherance in every good thing.
Just as sin sent shock waves cascading through the cosmos, man’s NOW frail, fleshly body became subject to all the maladies we are aware of today; Everything from indigestion to cancer, from sadness to madness.
But like all things, even as we said about death, God in his infinite love, has the ability to take the very worst about us and what we do to ourselves and turn it to our good………….. if only we allow Him to.
Think about it for just a moment.
When we have good health and all is well we tend to become prideful and forget God. We start thinking, Oh my diet and exercise program are doing great. Or look at what a good business or professional career I’ve built.”
When illness and trials come, we return once again to rely on God. Now God doesn’t “cause” illness and suffering just so we will return to Him. NO we can’t blame God for what we’ve done to ourselves.
Of course the archetype of all suffering is Christ Himself.
Of course the archetype of all suffering is Christ Himself.
But of the many examples of suffering in the Old Testament, Job is foremost. Job lost everything, his entire family and all his wealth. It’s even as if his wife survived just to torment him as she counseled him to “curse God and die.” His best friends tested his patience as well.
For us the story of Job, as it relates to our illness and suffering, is that to “curse God and die” is to turn away from God and die the only true death, separation from God.
This according to the Father’s is the only truly evil death.
In this regard suffering is a temptation to turn from God and die the final spiritual death. We know that Job didn’t do that.
Instead he blessed God for all his ways, and bore his suffering.
His reward was the restoration of all his wealth beyond what he had before.
For us, the reward then, even after death, is restoration to joy and “true life” in the eternal presence of God.
The only true death is separation from God. You can be alive and healthy, vigorous, successful and be truly dead.
Or you can be old and sick and dying and be truly alive in Christ.
In deed those who die in Christ are more alive than most of us breathing today.
To die in Christ is better than to live a tempting and beautiful lie that leads to separation from God and true death.
At least, while we are alive, we have the opportunity, at any time to turn around. To repent and return to God.
After we die, that opportunity is lost, forever.
According to the Father’s – “Good health is good. As it is the way we were before the fall.”
However good health in and of itself is worthless to a person unless it is used with an aim toward the fulfillment of the commandments, the acquisition of virtue and the Holy Spirit and to Glorify God.
St. Gregory Nazianzus says, “Do not admire every form of health, and do not condemn every illness”
And again he says,”know, then how to despise an insidious health that leads to sin.” – St Gregory Nazianzus Discourse 14.34
Is it really death that we fear so much?
Or is it the idea of the illness and suffering that so often precede death.
You’ve heard all the platitudes.
We pray for a Christian Ending to our lives “Painless, blameless, and peaceful.” Often when confronted with a tragic sudden death, the best we can say is, “well at least he didn’t suffer.”
If death is not natural, and it is truly the final enemy, then it follows that sickness, suffering and disease which precede death are not a natural part of life either;
By LIFE, we mean true life, life in Christ. This is most easily shown through Christ’s own earthly ministry.
Most of what we know of his earthly ministry we remember from the scriptures as his teaching ministry.
Yet much of his teaching revolved around his healing ministry, and many of the stories we know of his healings were because he used them as teaching moments.
But strictly based on volume, Christ’s ministry was primarily a healing ministry.
He healed our human nature by his incarnation and baptism.
He healed our slavery to sin and death by his passion and resurrection.
That’s what He did for Mankind. But His ministry was also to individual persons.
He went around the entire region healing all their diseases, driving out demons and teaching the people how to love.
There is a recurring passage in the Gospels that I have really come to love. It occurs at least three times in Matthews Gospel (4:23, 9:35 and 12:15.) But the theme is throughout all the gospels.
In these passages we find a line that is easily missed.
(Matt 4:23 ) “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.” (Matt 4:23)
We remember the miraculous healings that are written down in detail. But sometimes we forget that He healed literally everyone. There is no wonder the multitudes followed Him around. He was healing everyone. Every time he’d stop it says, “He healed everyone.” At times he wouldn’t even stop; he just kept going and healing as He went. I another place it says, “He went around all the region healing every disease and infirmity.”
His healing ministry was so abundant and fruitful that it is merely punctuated and recorded when it becomes a profound teachable moment. Christ came to heal mankind AND individual people. He came to heal you and me.
God loves us as a father. He doesn’t want us to be sick or to suffer.
Sickness and suffering are simply a consequence of our turning away from God. Just like the Prodigal Son who took his inheritance and squandered it, he ended up feeding pigs and nearly starving until he returned home. We, having squandered our inheritance, have ended up sick and suffering in a foreign land far removed from God.
It is true that Christ has eliminated the necessity of sin, has put an end to the devil’s tyranny, and has removed the sting from death;
but he has not ended sin,
nor the actions of demons,
nor physical death,
nor in general the consequences of sin, for he did not want to violate the freedom of the human will which is the cause of these things.
By separating ourselves from God we exposed human nature to all kinds of evil but Illness and suffering are not evil, in and of themselves.
Remember the story of the man born blind. Jesus said that neither he nor his parents sinned, but it was so the Kingdom of heaven could be made manifest to them.
John 9:3 “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.
The Father’s mention that the proof that suffering is not directly caused by individual sin is the fact that the Saints face illness too; often very serious illness.
The only real evil is sin, turning away from God and his commandments. In as much as illness and suffering “can” lead us back to repentance and reliance upon God, then illness and suffering “can” be to our spiritual benefit.
This too is part of Christ’s healing ministry.
We are still in the world but not of the world. In this world, suffering and disease are quite “normal” but the fact that they are normal is in reality quite unnatural.
In Christ, suffering is not removed, it is transformed into victory. The final defeat itself becomes the final victory, an entrance into the kingdom, and this is the only “true victory”.
Just as Christ’s own humble suffering on the cross, endured for all mankind, became the final victory over death;
human suffering endured patiently for, and accompanied by, Christ, provides the ultimate victory, an entrance into the kingdom.
This is the only true, real and permanent healing.
The Lord said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” Matthew 11:12
The battle with suffering, loss and disease, endured patiently for, and with, Christ as well as the battle against the passions and sin, is part of the meaning of this passage.
This is suffering as a redemptive act.
We CANNOT make a blanket statement about suffering being redemptive. Obviously it is all in how we approach and respond to it.
What we can say is that suffering CAN be redemptive
Illness does not have the power to separate man from God.
Saint John Chrysostom said “If the soul is in good health, bodily illness can in no way harm a man.”
Through Christ’s own suffering, ALL suffering has acquired meaning, and is given power. Through Christ’s passion, the very fact of death has become a way to Life, TRUE LIFE, Eternal Life in Christ.
Of course, God, ever respecting our free will to choose, STILL leaves the decision of which way suffering affects us and how we respond to it completely up to us.
So, how do we, as Church, take all this and use it to assist those of us who are suffering?
What is it you expect your priest to do?
What is it you expect the church to do?
What can you as an individual do?
Because of advances in medicine, technology, and bio-mechanical engineering, disease and illness have often come to be seen as purely physiological rather than in a holistic, and traditional Christian way.
This is not meant to slight any health professionals at all. We have health care professionals in our church as well as social workers and all of them are very caring people who genuinely want to help their patients.
As Christians we know that each individual is a unique whole person. The medical profession, through no fault of their own but simply by training and professional focus and sheer volume, regard illnesses of all kinds as purely physical and subject to the appropriate range of treatments. Quite naturally, We as patients come to feel much the same way; divorcing our “self” from our disease. It’s just another “thing” to deal with. Any spiritual or psychological needs are dealt with by Other Professionals who also name a malady and treat it in a similar fashion.
The emphasis we place upon the body and the “enjoyment” of physical life makes the refusal of all forms of suffering and the suppression of pain the highest value of civilization.
At the close of the 18th century hope was born that, through science and the enlightenment, sickness and suffering would totally disappear and the world would be restored to its original state of health and well-being. This continues today through our belief in the continual march of science and technology including genetics, bio-engineering and bio-mechanical engineering.
Currently this is carried to quite an extreme with a rather large and very well-funded group of philosophers, educators and members of scientific, medical and engineering fields advocating a new philosophy and indeed a new Human objective of Trans-humanism. According to them, this would lead to a new species of Homo-Evolutis – or a species that controls its own evolution.
I encourage you to search for trans-humanism online if you are curious and unaware of the implications.
Sickness itself can’t purify one from passions, or aid in the acquisition of virtues. For a person to profit from illness or any tribulation, he or she needs to have a proper attitude, or perhaps Orientation would be a better word. He or she needs to have a proper Orientation. To be prepared for misfortune one must be oriented toward God. With this orientation we open ourselves to God’s grace and strive to acquire it. In suffering, as in all things, it is essential for us to collaborate with divine grace. Its purpose is to promote our spiritual health and salvation.
We must avoid passively submitting to illness and suffering and allowing ourselves to be dominated by it.
At the same time God sends, or more correctly allows trials, He also sends the means to overcome them. He grants the strength to resist the temptations of the Enemy.
1 Cor 10:13 God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Cor 10:13
Heb 13:5 “I will never fail you nor forsake you” –
The difficulty with illness and trials is often not due to severity but to the length of time that one must endure. The demons disquiet the soul with thoughts of discouragement, sadness, boredom, irritation, annoyance, despair, and revolt.
Therefore the fathers recommend an attitude above all of patience, endurance and steadfastness.
Lk 21:19 “The Lord said, it is by your steadfastness that you will save your souls.”
Psalms “I waited patiently for the Lord, and He heard me”
Mt 10:22 “He who endures to the end will be saved”
In sickness the Christian finds first of all an opportunity to manifest and strengthen his faith.
Prayer in all its forms is essential. Personal corporate, and liturgical
Illness, like death is not natural, it is a negation of God’s natural order and therefore is evil and must be resisted. We must resist it with all the resources available to us; both medical and spiritual.
To this end I would like to commend to you a book by Dr. Paul Myendorf,” The Anointing of the Sick.” His book is an explanation of the place of the Anointing of the Sick in the life of the church and a call for its renewal in regular practice.
We must also address the healing of the Whole Person, just as Christ did. We do this by using the best medical and technological means at our disposal as well as the prayers of the entire church, united in a rite that seeks to restore and reintegrate a sick person back into the community. Since sickness, like sin affects the whole community then the whole community should be involved, praying for the sick person and receiving anointing as well.
And don’t forget that miracles do happen.
A few years before our parents moved in with us, Elizabeth and I were involved in a program called Home-Share with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. We took in Schizophrenic patients that were coming out of the Mental Hospital but were not quite ready to be on their own. It was a sort of a halfway house situation.
One of our clients was a young man named Joey, who, while living with us, stepped out in front of a Taxi going 50 miles an hour. He was in Intensive Care for XX weeks.
We were in his room 3 times a day praying with tears. His dad brought holy water from Lourdes, France. Fr. John Breck anointed him with soil from St. Herman’s grave in Alaska. This kid had IV’s in every appendage. He was intubated and had a feeding tube.
At one point the Dr. called Joey’s dad in and showed him the xrays that revealed he was surviving on only 10% of one lung. He was sure to die.
A couple of days later, when we walked into the ICU the nurses were practically dancing in the halls, comparatively. Compared to their very businesslike, almost sullen demeanor before, they were quite joyful, smiling and talkative.
Joey was recovering. One of the nurses confided, “It’s a miracle”. Another one said, “We really needed this.”
Joey recovered and is on his own now.
Never give up. Trust in God and keep praying that His will be done.
His will is all good.
Well there’s much more that can be said but we are trying to keep these podcasts to a reasonable length. I hope you’ll tune in next time when we’ll begin to talk about elder care and end of life issues that are facing so many of us these days.
Please remember to send your questions and comments to us at AChristianEnding.com
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Thank you for listening. This is Deacon Mark for A Christian Ending on Ancient Faith Radio,
May God grant you many, many years.