Suffering and pain are an unavoidable part of sentient life. Suffering is viewed and understood in many different ways by people. Anything that has to do with human experience, like pain, is very complicated. Suffering is a frequent topic in scriptures, the Holy Fathers, sermons, and theological journals. Orthodox Christians, like the rest of humanity, are very concerned about suffering. Orthodox Christian views on suffering are guided by the experience of suffering in the life of the church and its narratives. We can’t fully understanding suffering—this common human experience—without first understanding who we are ourselves.
Suffering can be physical pain, psychological (emotional) pain, and spiritual pain. Pain is the result of some sort of harm. Pain is unpleasant. Fear, or mental anguish over pain, can cause just as much, or even more, suffering then the pain itself. Pain makes people unhappy, while pleasure does the opposite.
The basic view of pain and pleasure is that pain is bad and pleasure is good. Pain teaches us to avoid what harms us, while pleasure rewards us. Pain is a major motivator in human preservation and growth. In this respect, pain teaches us to avoid the bad and choose the good.
Pain and suffering may or may not be avoidable, it may or may not be useful, or even yet, it may or may not be deserved. These are three very different ways of looking at pain. The balance of these views ultimately determines how we handle suffering.
Since pain is a common experience among people, we share pain. Pain is communicated and shared. Sharing pain can help heal pain. Life’s experience of pain gives us empathy for those who are suffering. Life’s experience of pain contributes to our emotional growth and maturation.
Unavoidable pain seems the most undeserved. The pain of birth, sickness, and death, or pain caused by others, or by some disaster. Some people, including children, go through extreme pain and suffering. We feel for such people, and the complications of their pain can leave us confused when the causes are not clear to us. In a society that defines happiness as a lack of suffering, this is a tragedy.
Trying to find a purpose to such suffering doesn’t alleviate the actual pain for such people who are hurt. Nonjudgmental empathy at least helps keep such people from falling into alienation (“why am I not happy like everyone else?”). Good people hurt too, not just the bad. We need to treat the guilt associated with the loss brought by suffering with love and unconditional acceptance.
Orthodox Christianity is an experience of God. The authority of Orthodoxy doesn’t lay in books, but in our personal experience of truth. Self-imposed suffering through fasting and practice of virtue strips us of what prevents us from experiencing God. We come to understand suffering, and understand the meaning of Christ’s suffering for mankind. We learn to sacrifice ourselves and suffer for higher things. This is a very important stage in spiritual development. Suffering in this case leads to health, and to happiness and lack of suffering. Suffering is related to healing, and is rewarded with the happiness that comes from the good of the virtues.
How a good God can permit suffering is a question dealt with often in scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers. Suffering and pain is a permanent element in creation. How can a good God be the cause of both a heaven and hell, the kingdom of God and outer darkness? Why is this necessary? We are told God gave intelligent creation free-will, freedom to self-determine their own relation to God, and our original ancestors chose to love themselves over God, and they changed. Suffering was then introduced to visible creation without God, and in fact quite against His wishes. God would not dominate the first human’s free-will because doing so would destroy what gave them the ability to freely love. He then let a plan unfold that would open a door to humanity to return again to Himself through union with Christ. Humankind would now have to struggle with their fallen nature in order to come closer to God.
Orthodox Christian writers point to sin as the cause of suffering. Suffering is also associated with the struggle to be free from sin. This struggle is compared to the training of athletes for competitions: suffering leads directly to reward. Suffering is seen only as temporary, and necessary for future life. Suffering is inherently deserved because we are all enslaved to sin. The Roman Catholic idea of redemptive suffering is slightly different. Here, suffering itself is seen as virtue, as opposed to leading to virtue. Purgatory is a place where suffering alone purifies souls—an idea totally alien to the Eastern Church. The four Noble Truths of Buddhism goes in the exact opposite direction, but on the same level, where escape from suffering is attained by impairing the human faculty for feeling.
Modern medicine is not concerned with assisting the dying in coping with death. Psychology studies abnormal emotional or mental disorders, and death is viewed as a normal human process (anyone die “wrong”?). Rather, counseling is aimed at helping relatives and caretakers cope with loss of the deceased. Orthodox Christianity is just as concerned for the well-being of those passing away as for the survivors. Orthodox Christian rites are for the consolation of all.
Death is a normal stage of human experience and people need to emotionally accept death as a part of who they are. Acceptance of death is a part of human emotional growth. Orthodox Christianity has tools available to help both the dying and those left behind deal with this unescapable fact of our nature.