Most of the essays that I write and post on my blog THE MODERN AUGUSTINE and elsewhere are written for the residents of an institute for mental disease (IMD) who attend our Knights of the Magisterium Mental Health Ministry services. I am extremely grateful for all of the other readers that I have, which are important to me, but I write most of my material primarily for them.
That being said, this particular essay is not just written primarily for them (it of course is also written for you as well), but it is also dedicated to them: to all 95 current clients of the facility that I currently serve, at and to all of the former clients whom I have been able to teach and mentor over the recent years. For their privacy, I will not mention any of their names or mention where I work and serve at. if I happen to refer to any of them in this essay.
This essay is going to address the subject of suffering: understanding what it is, the different forms it takes, the necessity of suffering, and how many of coped with it. I really do hope that this essay may be of help to you no matter who you are who reads this.
WHAT IS SUFFERING AND WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Suffering is more than just pain, it is agony. Suffering may be temporary, but it can also be long lasting. We experience suffering via four forms: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Sometimes one form leads into another form or it can be a combination of multiple forms.
Physical Suffering refers to the suffering felt in your body and we tend to associate it with a severe illness. However, it can also be torture in its various forms, starving from lack of food and proper nutrition, dehydration as you suffer from thirst and its effects, as well as other examples.
Emotional Suffering refers to suffering in a manner where you emotions are in pain. Your feelings are a byproduct and an extension of your emotions. They do not come from the heart, as some people actually believe, but from your brain. This form of suffering deals with the emotions and feelings related to grief, sadness, anger, among others.
Psychological Suffering refers to the suffering of your mind that is more than just Emotional Suffering. You are not feeling just sorrow, you are feeling severe depression. You are not just worried, you are anxious and you may be dealing with panic attacks that make you physically sick and exhausted. Your intellect and your emotions are both strained. Even worse, you may have a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, which warps you view of reality with grandiose or paranoid delusions or hallucinations that can affect all five of your senses. Imagine being paranoid that everyone is truly to hurt you, or seeing monsters that are not real, or hearing voices in your head that are always insulting you and commanding you to do bad things.
It is important to briefly note what a mental illness is. It is a psychological disorder of one form or another that arises due to the chemicals and physiology of your brain and affects your emotions as well as your intellect. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who associate mental illness with demonic possession. This is not true. In terms of demonic activity, demons act upon humans in the form of demonic possession (where the host is actually possessed by a demon), demonic obsession (where the demon severely attacks the mind and the body), and demonic oppression (where the demon may attack you physically, but will tend to harass and frighten you). When a Catholic exorcist investigates a possible case of demonic possession, he has to be the biggest sceptic in the room and will investigate the case with medical professionals to isolate any possible medical reason (whether psychological or physiological) for why the person is experiencing what he/she is. Only as a last resort, when all natural explanations are unable to explain the problem, is an exorcism performed.
Mental illness is not a form of demonic possession. There may be demonic obsession and oppression involved, but the demons are exploiting and exacerbating an existing weakness in someone that they did not cause. Prayer for these people is of extreme importance (and please pray for them!), but so are medication, counseling, and therapy. They will never be cured per se, but with help many people who suffer with severe psychosis can live normal and productive lives.
Spiritual Suffering, which is much more abstract to articulate, refers to times of spiritual dryness, like a spiritual desert or the Dark Night of the Soul described by St. John of the Cross. You do not feel God in your life no matter how much you strive to pray and serve Him. At times you may doubt that He exists or believe that He does not love you as an individual. Or worse, you feel the absence of God’s Grace because you are well aware that you are in the state of Mortal Sin and you need the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) to bring you back to that state of Grace. This form of suffering could actually be a psychological delusion for some, but for others this is much more. Depending on the level of Spiritual Suffering, you may experience all of the other forms of suffering as well.
What causes your suffering? I will provide five main causes that I can think of at the moment. You the reader may be able to think of more. These five causes are (1) YOU may be the cause due to your actions, words, thoughts, or inactions; (2) OTHERS may cause you to suffer, whether intentional or not; (3) Your ENVIRONMENT and CIRCUMSTANCES may be the cause for you to suffer; (4) SATAN and his demons may cause you to suffer; and (5) GOD may (and likely will) cause or allow you to suffer as a form of PUNISHMENT for your actions or as a form of TRAINING and PURIFICATION to make you stronger than before.
1. YOU may be the cause due to your actions, words, thoughts, or inactions.
Everything we do, say, think, or even do not do has consequences, whether positive or negative. All of your choices in life will affect you in one form or another, but they will also likely affect others. The bad things that you do (your sins) will especially have negative consequences on yourself and others and even if you repent and are forgiven you may still have to deal with them. You can look at David and Bathsheba as examples, and you can look at the repented drug addict who had a drug induced psychosis that is irreversible or you could have had unprotected sex and contracted an STD such as HIV that has manifested into AIDS and is killing you slowly. (As a brief side note, the best form of protected sex is the Sacrament of Matrimony if you both enter into it clean and are loyal to one another for the rest of your lives.) You can be the cause for all four forms of suffering. Maybe you are too hard on yourself or maybe you are not hard enough on yourself. Maybe it is not just the consequences of your actions that make you suffer, but also some of your personal desires that you cannot attain, as both Christianity and Buddhism teach. There are many reasons why you could be the cause of your suffering.
2. OTHERS may cause you to suffer, whether intentional or not.
There may be other people who will cause you to suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Maybe these people do not like or actually hate you so they are going to do and say things to cause you great pain. Maybe they will do these things unintentionally/accidently due to negligence on their part or honest ignorance that they would hurt you. Maybe they think they are doing good for you when they are not and had good intentions for they did or say what they did. Or maybe they have their own issues, such as a mental illness, which causes them to intentionally or unintentionally cause you harm.
3. Your ENVIRONMENT and CIRCUMSTANCES may be the cause for you to suffer.
Sometimes no matter how hard you work and no matter what good you do, you may be in a situation that is beyond your control which is not easy to get out of. Maybe you are at the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe its economic troubles, or maybe you are in a war-torn country or are facing persecution. Maybe you manifested a physical or mental illness through no fault of your own. There are probably many more examples that you can think of that I did not list here.
4. SATAN and his demons may cause you to suffer.
Satan and his demons hate you as an individual and humanity as a whole. They will cause you to suffer if you are living a life of sin and they will attack you and cause you to suffer if you are on the path to holiness to become a Saint. They will be the cause of all four forms of suffering if you allow it or if God allows it (think of Job and of Christ). They will torment you and entice you to sin, hoping to break you, so that they can damn you to Hell with them forever. They are very intelligent creatures who know the human mind and body more that the most intelligent of humans do. Moreover, since they are not mortal creatures (they are spiritually dead, in a sense, but they still exist and cannot die), they are not bound by time or space save for what God has restricted them to. They will study you for years and will exploit every weakness that you have if they are able to.
Now, we cannot blame Satan and his demons for every bad thing that we do; they may exploit your weaknesses when they attack you and cause the temptation for you to sin and compel you to, but they do not force you to do so. If Satan and his demons never sinned against God, as many Jews and Muslims believe, and even if Adam and Eve did not sin against God in the Garden of Eden, somewhere down the line someone would have and they would not have Satan and his demons as an excuse. The responsibility for your sins falls upon you.
5. GOD may (and likely will) cause or allow you to suffer as a form of PUNISHMENT for your actions or as a form of TRAINING and PURIFICATION to make you stronger than before.
God will chastise you. Although Jesus Christ paid the price for our salvation from sin on the Cross, you still have to accept Salvation and atone for the consequences of your sins. For those who reject Salvation, they may have to face temporal punishment and/or death as a punishment for their sins. And if they die unrepentant of their sins, the eternal punishment awaits them. To deter the eternal punishment of Hell, God often uses temporal to give you the chance to repent and change your ways before it is too late. Even Christians are allowed to go through temporal punishment as a consequence of their sins for the same reason, as well as to discipline them to remain obedient to His Will.
All humans have to face the possibility of going to Hell for eternity. Hell is the ultimate form of punishment full of great suffering because you would be eternally separated from God. Hell is actually an act of mercy to those who consciously reject Him for He will not force them against their will to be with Him for eternity. Hell is also an act of justice for every sinner who rejects God has to face the ultimate consequence of their sins. If there were no Hell, and if God did not force sinners to be with Him in Heaven for eternity, then the only other option would be oblivion (the end of existence) of the soul of the sinner. Some religions believe in this concept, but if Hell did not exist, then there would be no true justice for the evils that individual humans and fallen angels have committed. Satan and every other unrepentant sinner could basically say, “So for every great evil that I have done, this is the only consequence for my actions in the end? If I truly knew this before that my ultimate punishment in the end would be to cease to exist, I would have done a lot more!” Hell is thus true justice and a true mercy to the unrepentant. But since God does not wish for everyone to face this eternal punishment as the consequences for their sins, He often uses temporal punishments to guide them to Himself. As the Lord says in Jeremiah 31:18-20:
Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading: “You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the Lord my God. For after I had turned away I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.” Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.
(The only exception to this is Satan and his fallen angels for their sins were greater than any human being’s and were committed with the full knowledge and understanding of what the consequences would be. Repentance and salvation for them is thus impossible for them, not due to any lack of mercy on God’s part, but because they would still reject the offer of mercy if it was made available to them.)
However, God is not a divine dictator who simply demands obedience simply because He wants it; as God He is indeed entitled to it though. Unlike the gods or concepts of God found in other religions, God has revealed Himself to us in Christianity is the perfect Father. To demonstrate He has made holy and binding covenants with His people saying, “You will be My people and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Jeremiah 30:22). Rather than demanding from us the obedience that He is entitled to for being our Creator, through the covenant God says, “I am yours and you are Mine,” and, “I am your Father and you are My children.”
God is thus our divine and most perfect Parent. A good biological parent, foster or adoptive parent, or parental figure wants the best for his or her child and will discipline, teach, and train the child to live a good and productive life. God, as a loving Father, also wants the best for us and will also discipline, teach and train us to not only live good and productive lives, but also to draw us closer to Him, to become more obedient and loving to Him, to evangelize to others about the Gospel of Christ, and to combat the natural and spiritual evils of this world. God wants us to be His children and He also wants us to be His soldiers in the Kingdom of Heaven. Hebrews 12:7-13 makes these points very clear:
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
THE NECESSITY OF SUFFERING
God as Father thus uses suffering as a means to purify those who want to draw closer to Him. He does not just want good and obedient children, but also soldiers who are able and willing to fight against the natural and spiritual evils of this world. God thus educates and trains us to become soldiers through purifying us of sin, our weaknesses, and of selfishness and self-centeredness. This purification, which St. John of the Cross referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul, turns our pride into humility, purifies us from our sinful desires, detaches us from what we attach to that is not good for us, strengthens us in times of great trouble, helps us grow in virtue, helps us become more empathetic and charitable to others, helps us acquire great wisdom, as well as many other benefits. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 5:1-5:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, KNOWING THAT SUFFERING PRODUCES ENDURANCE, AND ENDURANCE PRODUCES CHARACTER, AND CHARACTER PRODUCES HOPE, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Even Job’s suffering had great purpose. In the Book of Job we see God allowing Satan to test Job’s faith by losing his children, losing all of his wealth, and baring many horrible physical sicknesses. Job’s wife encouraged him to curse God and his friends tried to comfort him with false wisdom. In the end, Job cries out to God and God talks to him in the form of many rhetorical questions, his health and wealth are restored, and he has more children (or his children were raised from the dead, depending upon the interpretation and tradition). On the surface, this story appears to be an almost pointless test of faith that Job had to go through because God allowed Satan to attack him. However, as St. John of the Cross points out in The Dark Night of the Soul:
Even so likewise the preparation which God granted to Job in order that he might speak with Him consisted not in those delights and glories which Job himself reports that he was wont to have in his God, but in leaving him naked upon a dung-hill, abandoned and even persecuted by his friends, filled with anguish and bitterness, and the earth covered with worms. And then the Most High God, He that lifts up the poor man from the dunghill, was pleased to come down and speak with him there face to face, REVEALING TO HIM THE DEPTHS AND HEIGHTS OF HIS WISDOM, IN A WAY THAT HE HAD NEVER DONE IN THE TIME OF HIS PROSPERITY. (THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, Book 1, Ch. 12, Paragraph 3; translated by E. Allison Peers, emphasis added)
St. John of the Cross believed, as do I now, that the ultimate reason why God allowed Job to suffer so much was not just to test his faith, but also to give Job wisdom through these experiences so that God could personally commune with him in a way that He would not have been able to when Job was comfortable with his wealth and prosperity. Job was a wise and holy man before these trials, but he was an even wiser, holier, and more prosperous man after them because of them. Although not all of us have to suffer in the same manner that Job did, many billions of people in the world today and in the past do; some even suffer or have suffered more than Job. The example of Job is for us to not only remain faithful to God in times of suffering, but also to cry out to Him and be open to receiving humility and wisdom from our times of great tribulation. As St. John of the Cross said:
For, if the soul be not tempted, exercised and proved with trials and temptations, it cannot quicken its sense of Wisdom. (THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, Book 1, Ch. 14, Paragraph 4)
This purification can be a very long process and it can be a series of processes. As we see with Job, God will allow all four forms of suffering (Physical, Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual) to transpire to serve this purpose utilizing the first four causes of our suffering (yourself, others environment and circumstances, and Satan and his angels). God may also (or instead0 use these four forms Himself without the four other causes as the source for your purification. Again, as St. John of the Cross said:
For how long a time the soul will be held in this fasting and penance of sense, cannot be said with any certainty; for all do not experience it after one manner, neither do all encounter the same temptations. For this is meted out by the will of God, in conformity with the greater or the smaller degree of imperfection which each soul has to purge away. In conformity, likewise, with the degree of love of union to which God is pleased to raise it, He will humble it with greater or less intensity or in greater or less time. Those who have the disposition and greater strength to suffer, He purges with greater intensity and more quickly. But those who are very weak are kept for a long time in this night, and these He purges very gently and with slight temptations. Habitually, too, He gives them refreshments of sense so that they may not fall away, and only after a long time do they attain to purity of perfection in this life, some of them never attaining to it at all. Such are neither properly in the night nor properly out of it; for, although they make no progress, yet, in order that they may continue in humility and self-knowledge, God exercises them for certain periods and at certain times in those temptations and aridities [spiritual dryness]; and at other times and seasons He assists them with consolations, lest they should grow faint and return to seek the consolations of the world. Other souls, which are weaker, God Himself accompanies, now appearing to them, now moving farther away, that He may exercise them in His love; for without such turnings away they would not learn to reach God. (THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, Book 1, Ch. 14, Paragraph 5)
God will often allow this and do this in our lives, but for those of us who die in His Favor and who are not yet fully purified from the consequences of our sins and are not yet made ready to see Him face to face, the beautiful mercy of Purgatory is made available to us on our journey to Heaven. However, the topic of Purgatory and of the Church Suffering has to be explored at great length in a separate essay and my focus of the subject of suffering is on those of us who are alive and are members of the Church Militant.
CHRISTIANITY AND SUFFERING
Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?
Jesus, LUKE 24:25-26
In Christianity, suffering has a purpose and the focal point of the Faith is the suffering of Christ before and during His Crucifixion on the Cross, His Death, and then His Resurrection. Our salvation is dependent upon these events! Many Christians will honor and remember Christ’s suffering, but they tend to focus more on His Resurrection. We Catholic Christians, however, focus on both, which is why we tend to wear crucifixes with the corpus (a statuette of Christ) on the cross, whereas the other Christians tend to wear crosses without the corpus. The crucifix is a visual reminder that is worn over the heart to remember the suffering that Christ went through for us so that we can be grateful for our salvation and so that we can be all the more jubilant for the Resurrection.
Moreover, remembering the suffering of Christ helps us also remember that “a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Jesus did not promise us a comfortable life for following Him full of temporal prosperity and wealth. No, instead He promised us that we would go through great suffering for following Him and said that unless we pick up our own cross and follow Him we cannot be His disciples. Jesus made this very clear in Matthew 10:16-39 and 24:4-13 (as well as many other places):
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus does not sugar coat things here; He makes it very clear that part of being a Christian is to suffer for being a Christian. And Jesus was not talking about persecution like American Christians think they are going through, rather real persecution that many Christians in the Middle East, China, and other parts of the world are experiencing to the point of torture and death. In 1 Peter 4 and 5, St. Peter gives courage to Christians who are suffering for Christ in this manner and tells them that their suffering is a sharing in Christ’s during His Passion and on the Cross and that like Christ they will later rise again in glory. St. Paul echoes a similar point to Peter and goes farther to say that this form of suffering serves as an example to others; in 2 Corinthians 4:8-11 he said:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
There are Christians, predominately in the United States, have forgotten this or have been taught a heresy known as the “Prosperity Gospel,” which is taught by various well known Christian televangelists. In this distorted view of the Gospel of Christ, some Christians believe that you do not have to suffer at all because Jesus already did the suffering for you so that you do not have to suffer. But if you do go through any form of suffering, all you have to do is pray and the suffering will be taken away or He will “rapture” you away from any real form of suffering when tribulation comes upon the Earth. And since God wants you to prosper, He will provide you with almost whatever you want so as long as you keep praying for it. These Christians unintentionally associate prayer as a form of magic and treat God as if He were a genie or fairy godmother that will grant you wishes. If this were an accurate view of God, why would St. Paul tell us the following about his own suffering?
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 CORINTHIANS 12:7-9)
If the “Prosperity Gospel” were true, why is it that Paul was tormented by a demon or ailment of some sort that he begged God three times to take away from him? Why would God allow to Paul suffer some sort of torment when God used him to heal many others from their torments and cast out demons from those possessed and oppressed by them? Paul makes it clear in the context of the entire passage that God allowed this to keep him humble in his work; by keeping Paul humble, God could use him more in the service of others and draw more to Christ by example. The power of God working through Paul was made all the more perfect in working through Paul by means of his humility and physical weakness. This also harkens back to what Paul was writing about earlier in the same letter in the previous passage of 2 Corinthians 4:8-11.
This form of “feel good” Christianity relies predominately on your feelings, serves as a form of distorted self-help psychology, and does little good to prepare believers in Christ for the tribulations that they will life. It is shallow and is contrary to what the Bible actually teaches.
Jesus Christ Himself had to suffer and die for our salvation. He made it clear that this was necessary and that it is also necessary for all of those who believe in Him that no servant is above his Master. He did not promise temporal prosperity, but emphasized that there would be suffering through tribulations and persecutions. St. Paul, St. Peter, and the writer of Hebrews (which may or may not have been Paul), all made it clear that the suffering of the faithful is for their good in purification and making them stronger and to serve as an example to draw others into the Faith. For the Christians in the Early Church, this was demonstrated to be true. It was not the blood of Roman soldiers spilt by the sword that converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, it was the blood of martyrs.
Due to the depth of this subject and the length of this essay so far, it is now necessary to break this into multiple essays. At this point, though, I am unsure exactly how many it will be since I there is so much that I hope to cover. In this first essay, I explained the different four forms of suffering, the five different causes for suffering, and the necessity of suffering in the Christian Faith. In the next essay, I hope to explore how to cope in the midst of suffering and what Joy is.
SUGGESTED SCRIPTURES TO READ:
2 CORINTHIANS 4:8-11, 12:1-10
1 PETER 4:1-2, 12-19; 5:6-11
HEBREWS 4:14-16, 12:7-13
MATTHEW 10:16-39, 24:4-13