“Wisdom, the Word of the Father, who created human beings, concerns himself with the whole creation, and as the physician of the whole person heals both body and soul.” —St. Clement of Alexandria
There was once a young man who grew up marginally Christian in a loving home somewhere in the middle of America. His family was well-off, and he never really experienced what it was like to be poor or to go without a meal. He was persuaded by the ideas of the world and concluded, as he grew up, that he would refuse to believe in a god who allowed people to suffer. He felt compelled to do something, to help others who were suffering because there was no god who could (or maybe would).
After graduating from college, he decided that he would put off searching for a job and instead join an organization that brought relief to the starving people of Africa. Never having experienced such agony and suffering, he was overcome with emotion as he labored to provide food, clothing, and clean water to a people so poor. He fell into a depression and began thinking that there was no hope in this world, no reason for anything.
This changed one day when, deep in Africa, the young man met a Catholic deacon. He had a ragged appearance, grizzled and underweight, but he was beaming with the greatest of smiles as he feverishly worked cleaning, dressing, and feeding some elderly Africans who were in dire need. The deacon made a comment to the young man about how the true joy of God made all the hard work bearable. This offended the young man to his core and he hastily replied, “There is no god! There is only man! We are the only ones saving these people!” The deacon, without missing a beat, replied, “You, my friend, coming to the most desolate place on earth to feed and care for these people is proof that God loves these people and seeks to care for them. Believe it my son, you are an answer to prayer!”
God’s plan to conquer suffering
Mankind has known suffering since the Fall of Adam and Eve. God, as a God of love, has battled against suffering with a plan ever since the Fall. But God does not act alone in this plan. He calls us to share in his response to suffering. God answers the problem of suffering by inviting us to comfort others in their affliction. We do this by putting others first out of self-sacrificial love.
We find God teaching his people this kind of love throughout the Old Testament. He teaches it in the laws concerning sacrifice, the legislated preference for the poor and helpless in the Torah, the love of neighbor mandated in Leviticus 19:17-18, and commands concerning almsgiving (we will explore these responses to suffering in future posts). Through these commands, God was calling his people to enter into his plan to conquer suffering by loving others sacrificially in imitation of Himself.
However, there was a significant difficulty in the Old Testament: the problem of how to imitate an invisible God. The Israelites could know some of God’s traits through his actions of love, but it is extremely difficult to imitate one who is not visibly present. Fortunately God not only tells us how to love sacrificially—He shows us.
The Suffering Servant
The portrayal of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 describes how someone’s suffering can be redemptive for others. Jesus ultimately fulfills this prophecy, of course. But even before God Himself comes to suffer and die for his people, he raises up many leaders who serve his people through suffering in a way that brings about some kind of salvation.
In Genesis 39–41 we see Joseph suffering the pains of slavery and imprisonment—suffering that proves redemptive for his family and even the rest of the known world beginning in Genesis 41:53, because it is only through coming to Egypt as a slave that he is in a position to save people from the great famine.
Moses intercedes over and over on behalf of the disobedient children of Israel and is even willing to have his name stricken from the book of life for the sake of his people (see Exodus 32:7–14, 30–34). God spares the Israelites as a result of Moses’ faithful and sacrificial intercession.
David risks his life to fight against the enemies of Israel even as the evil King Saul pursues him with murderous intent. And the prophet Jeremiah weeps for his rebellious people and continues to speak God’s words to them even as they plot against him.
These leaders point forward to the Messiah, the perfect fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant. He is the one who will come to his people to dwell with them and make himself an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:10), pouring out his soul unto death (Isaiah 53:12). In his annunciation, birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus reveals the fullness of what it means “to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Imitators of Christ
Through his sacrifice, Jesus shows us that God wants to meet us in our suffering and unite his suffering to ours in charity (as we see in his submission to John’s baptism). King Jesus, through his wounds, bears the sins and illnesses of this world and takes upon Himself the punishment due to his people. The Messiah comes to liberate his people from slavery, conquer the slave master, and heal his people of the wounds of their slavery. This is the good news that is preached to the poor in Luke 7:22.
It is through this communion with man—uniting with us in our suffering—that God draws us out of our suffering and brings healing and comfort by giving us life and forgiving our sin. And as the Suffering Servant, Jesus not only reverses the sin and suffering of Adam but demonstrates how He wants us to participate in this same mission—by sacrificial love.
In this quest into the problem of suffering we find that God is our healer, and that he invites us to participate in healing others. It is truly amazing how we are loved and how we are called to love. As St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:1–2, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Let us imitate Christ our Lord and strive to love amazingly by sacrificing in love for others for the love of God.