Suffering Defined

In the world there is suffering in the form of evil, pain, grief, death and depression. There is no doubt about it — it touches every life at some point. But always we ask, why me? Why now? What is God doing?

Suffering is a tool God uses to get our attention and to accomplish His purposes in our lives. It is designed to build our trust in the Almighty, but suffering requires the right response from us if it is to be successful in accomplishing God’s purposes.

Suffering forces us to turn from trust in our own resources to living by faith in God’s resources. Our example of how to do this is Mary, whose Feast we celebrate as the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. In this article, I will try to define what is suffering and the nature of suffering.

Suffering Defined

What is suffering? What are these bends in the road that God puts in the path of life that we are to carefully consider? Simply stated, suffering is anything which hurts or irritates. Suffering covers a wide spectrum; it can be pain or grief even emotional pain on a personal level.

True suffering can be the look in the eyes of an abused, starving or sick child when there is nothing you can do to help alleviate the situation. In the design of God, suffering is also something to make us think. It is a tool God uses to accomplish His purposes in our lives in a way that would never occur without the trial or irritation we encounter on our life’s journey.

Illustrations of Suffering

It may be cancer or a sore throat. It may be the illness or loss of someone close to you. It may be a personal failure or disappointment in your job or schoolwork. It may be a rumor that is circulating in your office or your church, damaging your reputation, bringing you grief and anxiety.

It can be anything that ranges from something as small and irritating as the bite of a mosquito or the nagging of a gnat to the charge of an elephant or having to face a lion in the lions’ den as Daniel did (Dan 6).

General Causes of Suffering

• We suffer because we live in a fallen world where sin reigns in the hearts of humans.

• We suffer because of our own foolishness. We reap what we sow (Gal 6:7-9).

• We sometimes suffer because it is God’s discipline. “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son He receives” (Heb 12:6).

• We may suffer persecution because of our faith — especially when we take a stand on biblical issues, i.e., suffering for righteousness sake (2 Tm 3:12).

Of course, all of these do not apply at the same time. All suffering is not, for instance, a product of our own foolishness, self-induced misery, or sin. It is true, however, that rarely does suffering not reveal areas of need, weaknesses, and wrong attitudes that need to be removed like dross in the gold-refining process (1 Pt 1:6-7).

The Nature of Suffering

1. Suffering Is Painful
Suffering is hard. It is never easy. Regardless of what we know and how hard we apply the principles, it is going to hurt (cf. 1 Pt 1:6 — “distressed” is lupeo, Greek meaning “to cause pain, sorrow, and grief”).

2. Suffering Is Perplexing
Suffering is somewhat mysterious. From Scripture, we may know some of the theological reasons for suffering, yet when it hits, there is still a certain mystery. Why now? What is God doing? In this, it is designed to build our trust in the Almighty.

3. Suffering Is Purposeful
In spite of its mystery, suffering is not without meaning. It has as its chief purpose the formation of Christ-like character (Rom 8:28-29). It fulfills its purpose when the suffering is for the sake of God.

4. Suffering Proves and Tests Us
“Trials” in James 1:2 is the Greek peirasmos which refers to that which examines, tests and proves the character or integrity of something. “Testing” in this same verse is dokimion which has a similar meaning. It refers to a test designed to prove or approve.

Suffering is that which proves one’s character and integrity along with both the object and quality of one’s faith. Compare 1 Pt 1:6-7, where the same Greek words are used along with the verb dokimazo which means, “Put to the test; prove by testing as with gold.”

5. Suffering Is a Process
“We know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance, proven character (Rom 5:3-4). “Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect (mature) and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:3-4).

As a process, it takes time. The results God seeks to accomplish with the trials of life requires time and, thus, also endurance.

6. Suffering Is a Purifier
No matter the reason, even if it is not God’s discipline for blatant carnality, it is a purifier, for none of us will ever be perfect in this life (Phil 3:12-14).

7. Suffering Provides Opportunity
Suffering provides opportunity for God’s glory and for our transformation, testimony, ministry, etc.

8. Suffering Requires Our Cooperation
Suffering requires the right response if it is to be successful in accomplishing God’s purposes. We all want the product: character, but we don’t want the process: suffering. Because of our make up as human beings, we can’t have one without the other.

9. Suffering Is Predetermined and Inevitable
No one may be disturbed by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this (1 Thes 3:3). Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Pt 4:19).

The question we must each face is not if we are going to have trials in life, but how will we respond to them.

10. Suffering Is a Struggle
It’s going to be a battle all the way. That’s why they are called “trials” and “testings.” Even when we understand the purposes and principles of suffering and know the promises of God’s love and concern given in the Word of God for handling suffering, dealing with the trials of life is never easy because suffering hurts.

Trials simply give us the capacity to cooperate with the process (Jas 1:4). They allow the process to work and allow us to experience inner peace and joy in the midst of our trials.

It is obvious that in many respects suffering nowadays is experienced, assessed and overcome in ways different from those of Bible times.

There is no single answer to explain suffering in human life. It is to promote union with the sufferings of Christ through union with the special suffering that Our Lady endured as the Mother of God. By uniting ourselves with the passion of Christ and with His Holy Mother, we enter into Jesus’ heart and honor Him greatly.

FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., Tamil Nadu, India, a writer and contributor to The Priest magazine, has written articles for international and national journals. Presently, he is pursuing a master’s degree in Anthropology.