The Meaning and Purpose of Suffering – Beneath the Surface

By: Paul Murano – Feb. 2017

There may be no greater difference between secular progressivism and Christianity than in how suffering is viewed. As part of the human condition, the world sees absolutely no value in suffering. The Christian sees it much differently. This season of Lent is a good time to reflect on and reevaluate the meaning of suffering.

First, suffering is not fun. In itself it is not a good. Second, only humans suffer. Animals feel pain, but do not suffer, for to suffer one must possess self-consciousness and the ability to reflect on one’s pain – whether it be physical, emotional, or psychological. Third, no one of sound mind enjoys suffering.

There are three general ways to react to the reality of suffering. The secular progressive response is to avoid it at all costs. This, in effect, passes on suffering to someone else or others. The eastern Buddhist response is to deny the existence of self in order to deny suffering. In other words, anesthetize the patient to kill the pain. For the Christian, suffering is an evil in itself and a consequence of original sin. The Christian response, however, is neither flight (like the secularist) nor denial (like the Buddhist), but rather one of courage. It is to face it head on, and to embrace the suffering we cannot legitimately avoid.

Why? How is this reasonable? First, by doing this we do not pass on the evil to others, thereby, we avoid selfishness. Second, we do not deny reality. When we deny the reality of the self we deny both suffering and joy, and become shells of ourselves. Lastly, in one sense we all deserve suffering. The Christian knows, if we accept our crosses humbly we can satisfy justice and become better persons. Let’s go beneath the surface on what this means.

Sin is the ultimate offense against God and ourselves. It diminishes our wholeness and ability to be happy, as it separates us from the Source of all goodness and life. As a cure to sin, two things are necessary: forgiveness and atonement. Christians believe God’s forgiveness is now free for anyone who humbly seeks it: Christ paid the price for mankind’s sin on the cross. To receive this forgiveness Catholics visit the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation) which Christ established for this purpose. Yet, often we need suffering in order to wake up and accept God’s grace to seek His forgiveness.

Atonement, on the other hand, recognizes sin not just as incurring guilt, but as creating both injustice and illness. Accepting or embracing the suffering we cannot legitimately avoid, without bitterness or complaining, serves as expiation to redress the wrongdoing. Suffering serves also as medicine, to combat the spiritual disease of sin within. It is rehabilitative to an ego that thinks it’s in total control. If we respond humbly to suffering we both ‘pay the price’ due to the injustice we made and we purify our souls in the process.

The current age does not understand the value of embraced suffering. For example, when college students in my ethics class stated with certainty that euthanasia was a merciful act, I asked how they were so certain. Consider this: There are two basic ways to view the question of euthanasia: a secular progressive (non-religious) perspective, and a Christian one. Let’s look at both:
a) The non-religious perspective offers two options to the suffering patient: living with the suffering or total annihilation. Here, euthanasia does not relieve a person of their suffering in order to exist without it, but rather it annihilates the person forever.

b) The Christian perspective understands life as a supreme gift from God. The intentional taking of innocent human life (including one’s own), regardless of circumstances, is a rejection of this gift; and hence of the gift-Giver. Therefore, euthanasia deliberately chosen with a right mind, full consent, and without repentance, is the choice for an eternity in hell. The suffering one might experience on earth isn’t close to the depth of never-ending suffering experienced by those in hell.

So there is the logic. The options seem to be: a) life with suffering vs. annihilation and non-existence (the non-religious option); or, b) temporary suffering vs. everlasting suffering in hell. The choice to end suffering by killing the person is not a positive one, from either perspective.
In short, to choose the progressive answer and short-circuit a person’s life by euthanasia denies the opportunity to turn suffering into a great spiritual good, and could mean the difference between heaven and hell for all eternity. This choice is not merciful, but foolish.

Life is not lived to the full with a Progressive or a Buddhist view of suffering, where physical or psychological death is preferred. Only the Christian view of unavoidable suffering, which is to take up one’s cross for the purposes of expiation and purification, enable us to embrace life fully as a pilgrim journey full of joy and suffering.

Paul Murano teaches philosophy at Rivier University and North Shore Community College and is host of Beneath the Surface radio show on 980 WCAP, Mondays 10-11pm (podcasts available He teaches adult enrichment at St. Patrick’s in Nashua, is founder of Heartbeat Pregnancy Help Center in Burlington, and is a guitarist & singer. E-mail Paul at