Suffering: Why?

There was a traffic accident in Downers  Grove last week. I was told it was very similar to the one I experienced in Wisconsin about a month ago. In the Downers Grove accident, three people were killed. Besides a bad case of whiplash, I did not incur any serious injury that I know of; and the person who hit me was not injured. I was also informed by a doctor that the rather painful and stiff condition in my neck called end of the line arthritisprobably saved me from more serious injury. A doctor that I consulted with said that my arthritic stiff neck probably saved me from serious neck and head injuries.

Comparing the two crashes, reflecting on the paradox of a painful disease actually helping me, I have been nudged into the realm that Job speaks of throughout the Book of Job. We hear a passage from Job in the first reading today.

Job encounters a great deal of loss and suffering in his life. While he is initially accepting and faithful regarding his suffering, he rather soon falls into a pattern of asking his friends and God why he is suffering so much. Indeed, when we experience suffering, or hear of great suffering and tragedy entering people's lives, all of us rush to the "why" question.

The Book of Job is a direct confrontation with the conviction held by many Jews at the time of the writing of the Book of Job. There were groups of people who believe that suffering was always the direct result of sin. If a person sinned, suffering would enter his or her life. Job's three friends try to get Job to admit his sinfulness as the reason for the suffering in his life.
Another dominant theme in the Book of Job is Job's moral and spiritual arrogance. Job feels that he has been without fault throughout his lifetime, therefore he ought not to have any suffering in his life. In addition to moral and spiritual arrogance, Job shares in the conviction that suffering flows from sinfulness.

The Book of Job ends in chapter 42, with Job admitting that understanding the mystery of suffering is beyond his ability, beyond his comprehension. He adds, however, that the mystery of suffering in his life has led him to a profound encounter with God. He says, "before I only knew you by hearsay. Now I have seen you face to face."

When we have pain or suffering in our lives, or when we hear of the pain and suffering of others, when we, in Job-like fashion pursue the "why" of human suffering, let us be reminded by Job that the mystery of suffering is something that we will never completely comprehend. Somehow, however, it is the experience of many people down through history that pain and suffering can lead to a deeper, closer encounter with God.

Jesus is portrayed, in the Gospel of Mark, as someone who does not run from, but rather embraces, people in their brokenness and suffering. After healing Simon's mother-in-law, Jesus experiences many people coming to him for healing and health. In these healing miracles, the power of people's faith encountered the healing power of God emanating from Jesus, thus resulting in many cures.

In Mark's Gospel we get a glimpse of how Jesus resourced Himself for his ministry to suffering people. Jesus is depicted frequently in the Gospels as going off alone to a deserted place to pray. I believe it was in prayer that Jesus became replenished with the Holy Spirit of God. And probably it was also in prayerfulness that Jesus began to gain insight and intuition into the paschal nature of life. Jesus began to see that some suffering does not go away, but rather leads to the painful and fearful experience of death itself. In his moments of solitude and prayer, Jesus began to understand the dynamic present in the mystery of suffering: that suffering, even death itself, always leads to some experience of new life, and ultimately, everlasting life.

The Reign of God contains many values, attitudes, and behaviors that we are to live, but at the core of Jesus is teaching about the Reign of God is His proclamation about the Paschal Mystery, about how suffering becomes more endurable because of our conviction about the paschal nature of life.
Suffering is always going somewhere, toward new life, toward eternal life. That is the core revelation of Jesus. That is why after the words, "This is my body. This is my blood," at the Eucharist, the presider invite us, "let us proclaim the mystery of our faith." At that point in the Eucharist, we proclaim the depth of our conviction about the mystery of life, death, and resurrection.

Let the image of Jesus at prayer in the desert remind all of us this weekend of the importance of prayer in each of our lives, to renew us in our conviction about the paschal nature of life, to renew in us our conviction for living, and to renew us in communion with the Holy Spirit of God. Do each of us have a regular time, and even a regular place, for prayer?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago a sign in front of a Protestant Church recently struck me. It read "Prayer is the time and space when we become fully human." Let us not deprive ourselves of this centering experience.
Both Jesus in the Gospel and Paul in 1 Corinthians speak of an urgency that they have to share the good news of the Reign of God. Some evangelical Christians have related with all of us, with some urgency, but the urgency seems to center around a simple understanding of what salvation is. Such proselytizers seem urgent and eager to inquire whether we are saved, or indeed, to try to save us.

Rather than engaging in a mechanistic understanding of salvation, I think all of us, as Christians, ought to have a greater urgency to share with people in our lives, who were suffering and struggling, the Good News of the paschal nature of life. This need not be done in a manipulative, heavy-handed way. Let us be present to people when they are experiencing the pain of being human, and let us remind them gently of the New Life that always comes through struggle, and the eternal life that can be ours through the experience of physical death.

We all spend time on the cross during different periods of our lives. They all such periods lead us to the humble conclusion of Job at the end of the book of Job: "Before my sufferings I only knew you by hearsay. But now I have seen you face to face."

Let anyone struggling this week be comforted by this core good news.

In Jesus,
Pat Brennan

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