Viewpoint: How Christians Can Deal with the Experience of Suffering

by M. Francis Mannion

Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford (U.K.), wrote a book some years ago titled Art and the Beauty of God, which has become something of a classic.

Hidden away in the book is one of the best (if incomplete) summaries I know of the problem of suffering and how the Christian can deal with the matter and live through it.

Harries begins by saying, “The almost overwhelming objection to believing that there is a wise and living power behind the universe is the existence of so much pain and anguish in the world.” Christians can live with this objection by recognizing that the problem of suffering can never be answered in this life. But, for non-believers the problem is insurmountable.

Harries’ first explanation of suffering is that God has given humanity genuine independence. “We are genuinely free, within limits, however narrow, to shape our destiny; and that means being free to choose what is harmful to others and oneself, as well as what is beneficial.” Given God’s overall purpose in creation to bring about free, rational beings like us, it could not be otherwise.

Think about it: If all of a sudden, human beings were to change fundamentally for the good, exercising their freedom for good purposes only, how radically different the world would be.

Harries’ second explanation concerning suffering is that “in the person of Jesus, God himself has come among us and shares our anguish to the full, even in the darkness of the Cross.” This is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so consoling to Christians. “Christ,” said French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “dies until the end of the world.”

God is not absent in the experience of suffering; he is in the midst of it. God is not distant, in a remote heaven, apathetic to human suffering. He is the God who, in Christ, carries the Cross through history.

Harries’ third explanation is that “in the Resurrection of Christ we have a sign and promise that in the end God’s purpose of love will prevail; will overcome all that is destructive and evil, all suffering and death. There will be a “glorious consummation” of the whole creation. The whole human and physical world will find its proper fulfilment.

Harries quotes Romans 8:21, the fullest biblical statement about the end of the whole created order: “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” All will be “transfigured and irradiated by the glory of God in Christ; all will be translucent to the divine beauty.”

I add my own additional “explanations” to Bishop Harries’ list. First is the truth that God is present in suffering and illness through doctors, nurses, healthcare personnel, and hospice workers. Their healing power is the creation and gift of God. The sacrament of Anointing before surgery is profoundly connected to the gift of medicine; it complements it.

When a person dies in or after surgery, we should not imagine that God’s gift in the Anointing rite has failed. It has to be placed in the context of God’s gift of eternal life offered to the deceased person.

A final principle: God is present and active in the sickness and dying of a friend or relative through us, through our being at the sick or dying person’s bedside.

We are participants in God’s gift by being with the sick person, not primarily by talking or offering explanations of sickness and dying, but simply “being there” in loving compassion and solidarity.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.



  1. “God is present in suffering and illness through doctors, nurses, healthcare personnel, and hospice workers.”
    True; but not only through them. God is present in suffering also through the family and friends who offer care or accompaniment; those who share tears and laughter, a glass of water or a glass of wine, a flower or a chocolate or a grape. It is the universal Christian vocation.
    But in a unique way, God is present through and in the person who suffers – present both to that person, and to all to whom that person is present. As I suffer, God is closer to me than I am to myself.
    In my ministry to those who suffer, I have been blessed with the presence of God in those very persons.
    I cannot prove these things to another. I only know that this is my experience.

  2. What a wonderful reflection. Padraig’s comments are all spot on and speak to something profound in our faith. I don’t doubt Padraig’s experience for one second.

    I wonder why original sin isn’t mentioned in all of this–unless it’s implied in the discussion of free will.

  3. Another excellent exposition by Msgr Mannion of what is referred to in my tribe of Christianity as “The Theology of the Cross” well developed my Father Doctor Martin Luther of the University of Wittenberg in the late 16th Century. I find great comfort in the Crucifix, and when in my parish before retirement, the Crucifix was present throughout the campus, in spite of the Protestant iconoclasts that fail to understand.

    My earlier career was as a Paramedic and college professor of human anatomy and physiology. While I had the primary ministry to the family, being the first ones there, I was admittedly distracted from my pastoral care by my duties of resuscitation. I was able to provide lay pastoral care in those days.

    Now, as “the Ordained” type I am often not even called in by the family or am an afterthought. I take comfort in the little book by Father/Doctor Henri Nouwen called “The Living Reminder”, which I try to read yearly, even in retirement. I wish there was a local Roman Catholic parish that could see fit to call me as a Chaplain to the parish. With thousands of families, and one priest in the parish, the poor pastor cannot possibly minister to all of his sheep. I am very underutilized in retirement and would welcome advice on how to approach a Catholic parish to offer my services as an Ordained [riest/pastor who is an expert in pastoral care.

    Thanks in advance for your prayers and thoughts..

  4. I find all the explanations for suffering wanting …

    1) Man’s free will as the cause of suffering. This has been refuted by so many, from Karen Kilby to Marilyn McCord Adams. We don’t really have much of a free will – certainly the God of the bible doesn’t always allow people to exercise it – but even if we did, that would not explain all the suffering in the world that existed before man came along, and it doesn’t explain stuff beyond man’s control like natural disasters.

    2) How does Jesus having suffered do anything to explain or reduce our suffering? This seems like a “misery loves company” theological explanation.

    3) Suffering may end after we die, but that doesn’t explain away why it’s part of our lives before we die.

    I’ve read a lot about theodicy, trying to find some answer to the question of why God allows so much suffering, but I’ve not yet found one that works.

  5. I really appreciate both the post and Padraig McCarthy’s comment.

    The beginning of 2nd Corinthians appears frequently in the Liturgy of the Hours, and I have often puzzled over it:

    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.”

    In the translation in my liturgical book, “encourage/encouragement” is given as “console/consolation”. Perhaps “encourage” is the more literal meaning(?), but “consolation” gives it a bit of a different spin.

  6. I think that we all understand that there can’t be any spiritual growth without suffering. At a minimum, casting off the old person in order to put on the new involves a certain amount of ascetic renunciation. This is painful. We trade the pain of giving up our pursuit of the world’s pleasures for the consolation of Grace–we trade up, as it were. The literature shows that Saints and others who grow closer to God also suffered greatly in this endeavor. For them, suffering was a great teacher; it still is.

    Here’s Rahner on illness: “Faith knows that all illness–even that illness which is not due to individual guilt and which is borne in a holy manner–is a sign of the sin in the world…Whenever this suffering is undergone in faith…then it is a life long practice for that readiness for liberating death…illness is of a most profoundly dialectic nature: it can be both a manifestation of sin and a manifestation of redemption…it turns this fate of the ‘body of sin’ into the carrying out of redemption and into dying with the Redeemer’. the essay goes on to describe the healing miracles in the Gospel as being a clear sign of the redemptive power of grace.

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