He was in third grade when his mother died; his only sibling, an older brother, died three years later; he discovered his father dead on the floor in their apartment. Karol Wojtyla was an orphan at twenty. Nor were his troubles were not limited to the loss of his whole family. The Nazis overran his country, and he did hard labor in a stone quarry. During the Nazi rule, many of his friends were killed, some in concentration camps, others shot by the Gestapo for the crime of studying for the priesthood. He was run down by a German truck and nearly died. When the Nazis finally left his beloved Poland, he and his countrymen again came under the rule of a dictator when the iron boot of Joseph Stalin replaced that of Adolf Hitler. Later in life, his beloved Church was torn apart by the storm that followed the Second Vatican Council. At sixty, an Islamic assassin shot him in his own front yard, and he nearly died again. As an old man, he suffered from debilitating Parkinson’s disease that rendered him immobile, distorted his physical appearance, and finally took his ability to speak. Pope John Paul II knew about human suffering.
Yet, as was evident to all who saw him, he was a man overflowing with joy. He experienced the mystery of suffering and the affliction endured by every single human person, but he also discovered the meaning of suffering. He had found an “answer” to the problem of pain.
An Inescapable Feature
He explored this theme in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). Suffering is part of human existence from birth until death, and every human person suffers in a variety of ways: physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The Bible provides many examples: one’s own death, the danger of death, the death of children or friends, sterility, homesickness, persecution, mockery, scorn, loneliness, abandonment, remorse, watching the wicked prosper while the just suffer, the unfaithfulness of spouse and friends, and the misfortunes of one’s homeland (SD 6). Suffering in one form or another accompanies each of us every day. It is an inescapable feature of human existence.
Suffering naturally leads to questioning. Why do I suffer? Why do others suffer? How can suffering be overcome? Is there any meaning to suffering? To find an answer, John Paul turned to revelation:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love. In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering . . . we must above all accept the light of revelation. . . . Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ. (SD 13)
For John Paul, the story of Jesus Christ is the story of humanity. Every human life is a question, and it is the Lord who answers the question. Therefore we must look to Christ to understand the meaning of suffering. But our understanding of God is fragile and incomplete, because we are not capable of comprehending pure love and goodness. It follows, then, that our understanding of suffering cannot be definitive. This is especially true when we are dealing with suffering in its subjective dimension. Words fall far short when we are undergoing suffering, and reasoning cannot remedy the profound sense of the offensiveness of suffering.
In looking for an answer to the “problem of pain,” the Pope avoided reducing all suffering to a single justification but looked at various aspects and meanings of suffering. Reducing suffering to a single solution does not do justice to its complexities.
Sometimes suffering makes an important good possible. If God eliminated that suffering, the corresponding good also would be eliminated.
We could say that suffering . . . is present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love that stirs in his heart and actions. (SD 29)
Suffering can bring us closer to what is good and can draw us away from obstacles to achieving happiness. Pain can prompt rehabilitation, a turning from evil to embrace stronger relationships with others and with God (SD 12). Suffering breaks down that most fundamental of human proclivities: our desire to be God. The atheistic existentialist Jean Paul Sartre wrote: “To be man is to reach toward being God. Or, if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.” The original sin of Adam and Eve was an attempt to reorder the universe so they could determine what is good and what is evil. This is replicated in every human sin. The sinner orders the universe according to his own will and sets aside the will of God. Suffering is redemptive in part because it reveals to man that he is not God, rendering him more receptive to the divine:
To suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. (SD 23)
Only when we are weak do many of us rely on God and explicitly repudiate our own divine ambitions.
History provides many examples of sinners transformed into saints through suffering.
Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation. (SD 26)
It may be that some suffering is permitted by God as a way of waking someone from a dream of self-sufficiency or illusory happiness. Life-saving surgery is painful.
Often our sinful actions lead directly to painful repercussions—the drinking binge leads to the hangover, unreasonable anger to injured relationships, laziness to lack of achievement. Suffering can serve as punishment for wrongdoing, a just retribution for personal sins.
The friends of Job sought to universalize this judgment, falsely concluding that all suffering is the direct result of a person’s sin. If Job is punished, they reasoned, he must have sinned against God. But the innocent do suffer:
While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. (SD 11)
In the New Testament, Christ teaches the same truth by his Passion. The Lamb of God—who is entirely without fault—endured rejection, beating, taunting, flogging, and crucifixion at the hands of evil men. By suffering himself, the Son of God removed the moral stigma from suffering. No longer could it be said that personal suffering always indicates moral failure nor that it is a sign of God’s abandonment or disfavor.
Christ strikes at the root of our sin and our suffering by overcoming evil with good. Indeed, the suffering of Christ overcomes the worst possible suffering of the human person—permanent alienation from God, the source and summit of all goodness. All suffering in this life—like all happiness—is imperfect, partial, and finite. Even the worst possible human life, spread over the longest spans, comes to an end. Hell does not. It lasts forever. In comparison to the pains of hell, the worst human suffering on earth pales. Jesus saves his people from hell.
The only begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection. (SD 14)
Jesus saves us from the suffering by entering into it. The physical pain endured by Christ is well beyond what most of us have personally experienced: beaten by soldiers, imprisoned, scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, forced to carry the cross, and finally dying by crucifixion.
His suffering has human dimensions; it also is unique in the history of humanity—a depth and intensity that, while being human, can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only begotten Son himself: “God from God.” Therefore, only he—the only begotten Son—is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: In every sin and in “total” sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth. (SD 17)
John Paul echoes a long tradition, going back at least to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, that the physical, mental, and spiritual suffering of Christ was the greatest human suffering possible. In addition to the physical pain of the passion, he endured the greatest pain of all: alienation from the heavenly Father caused by the totality of human sin.
Suffering and Salvation
What comes of this great suffering? What is its purpose in the divine plan? From the greatest possible evil, God brings about the greatest good: the salvation of the human family, redemption from pain and suffering for those who do not merit it.
Precisely by means of this suffering [Jesus] must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life.” Precisely by means of his cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. (SD 16)
The suffering of Christ redeems suffering itself and opens up the possibility that the sufferer can share in the redemptive work of Christ (SD 19). The suffering of Christ leads to his glory; so, too, does the suffering of Christians. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:10–11). John Paul wrote:
Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. . . . Christ has accomplished the world’s redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. (SD 24)
The Christian approach to the problem of pain does not imply an indifference to human suffering, and for this reason Christians have always sought to express their faith in charitable works.
Christ’s revelation of the salvific meaning of suffering is in no way identified with an attitude of passivity. Completely the reverse is true. The gospel is the negation of passivity in the face of suffering. Christ himself is especially active in this field. (SD 30)
The works of Christ were to restore sight to the blind, heal the leper, and give food to the hungry. He taught that we should love God and neighbor and gave us the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate the duty of all Christians to look after the needs of others. The final judgment hinges on our care for suffering people:
Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matt. 25:34-35)
A Reason to Live
Christ’s approach to the problem of pain is not an intellectual answer to an academic puzzle. Not every problem is abstract, intellectual, or academic. Theodicy—reconciling the existence of an all-good God with evil—can be tackled in this manner, but the problem of real pain is concrete, experiential, and personal. Its resolution does not come through words but through the Word alone. As the great Pope put it:
Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. The answer that comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!” Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. (SD 26)
The author Victor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning describes his horrifying experiences in Nazi concentration camps. He notes that although all the prisoners were in the same material circumstances—the most horrible imaginable—they did not all react in the same way. Some prisoners killed themselves by walking into electrified fences; others clung to life and even found joy despite the atrocities occurring around them daily. What made the difference? One way to put it is that man can endure anything if he has a reason (logos) to live. Conversely, man can endure nothing if he does not.
A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person “completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. (SD 27)
Christ gives us a reason to live, however much we suffer.