Three responses to suffering


In the readings at today’s Mass, we begin by listening to the book of Job. Job is a man who has suffered through the loss of his property by natural disaster, then the loss of his children, physical illness, and finally, the unhelpful comments of his friends, who continually try to justify his suffering. Job’s friends cannot accept a world in which God permits unjust suffering, and so they attempt to find ways to justify that Job suffers. One says that he must have sinned. Another, hearing Job ask, “If I have sinned and deserve this, tell me what my sin is,” suggests that perhaps his children sinned, not the most comforting words for a mourning father. A third criticizes Job for making a complaint, arguing that God ought to punish him for the complaint on top of the suffering, when complaint is one of the few avenues that Job has to release his suffering.

Jesus acts differently. When Peter’s mother-in-law is sick and they seek him out, he responds and heals her. He grasps her hand and pulls her up, which symbolizes not only her physical healing but also Jesus’ hands-on approach to healing: we never in the Gospels see him shy away from suffering, but rather allows himself to be touched by lepers, a hemorrhaging woman, and others that are normally thought to be untouchable. He becomes so popular that when he retreats to solitude for prayer, others come and seek him, and he responsively leaves his interior world and engages with their needs.

St Paul follows in this mode of action, in his own activity of preaching. Rather than justifying suffering, or arguing for why it exists, St Paul instead does what Jesus does: he engages in and enters into human weakness. He says of himself, “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave….To the weak I become weak, to win over the weak.” I understand St Paul to mean not that he pretends to be weak in order to win converts, but rather that he enters deeply into his own sense of human weakness through really engaging in his own limits and vulnerability.  St Paul cannot heal quite the way that Jesus does, but he enters into being with others as a weak human being, just as they are.It is that engagement and acceptance of his own weakness that allows him to connect to others and to preach to them the good news of God’s love.

We can then look to these different options for how we ourselves respond to others’ or our own suffering: do we seek to justify it or blame others for what they suffer, in order to protect ourselves? Or do we enter into that shared human weakness that even God was willing to touch and to feel, in order also to share in the healing power of God, and the victory of God’s love?