The Orthodox Pages
QUESTIONS FROM ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Hi Father I understand that suffering of humans is a result of the original sin of Adam which resulted in a fallen world. In a gospel account, when Christ healed a blind man, He repudiated the claim, common in the ancient world, that suffering is necessarily a result or punishment of an individual's personal sins or the sins of His parents by stating that the man's blindness was not because of His sins or those of his parents but in order that the glory of God may be manifest. In addition, God allowed Job in the old testament to be tested by Satan seemingly in order to test him and in a "bet" between Him and Satan to see whether he would blaspheme God's name if the Lord ceased to bless him. Yet, even a priest I spoke to many years ago concerning an earthquake which occurred in Turkey simply said that sometimes we have to pay for our sins! My question is simply what are the reasons that God may allow an individual to suffer? A further question is how are we to embrace suffering which is seemingly more than we can handle despite the assurance that we won't be sent more than we can handle?
Answer to Question 31
As you say you already understand the suffering of humans is a result of Adamís original sin then there is no need for me to explain this further other than to say that suffering and death are the consequences of being separated from God.
All negative sufferings are nothing more than human nature going through the slow process of death. People ask: ďwhy was that person born with an illness or a handicap and why did that person get cancer at such a young age? They blame God for all the evils in the world, but God did not create these illnesses, God did not create anything evil. These are just the fruits of death; they are ways in which death acts on the human body. Human nature deteriorates, and as it does so, this deterioration is expressed with various illnesses and diseases. Thus we shouldnít blame God for these evils: they do not come from God. If we are to blame anyone it must be man himself because they are the results and consequences of the fall.
The Jews believed that all suffering came from God and that if someone had an illness it was a punishment for his sins or the person was suffering because of the parentís sins, in other words they believed that sin was inherited. This is partly because of how they misinterpreted one of the Ten Commandments. The commandment in question says: "recompensing the sins of the fathers upon children unto the third and fourth generation unto them that hate Me; and doing mercy unto thousands, unto them that love Me and keep My commandments." Where God says that he will punish the children for the sins of the fathers that hate him up to the third and fourth generation, we must be careful to read exactly what it says. He does not say that he will punish the children for their father's sins up to the third and fourth generation, but only of those fathers that hate him. The key words for the proper understanding of this verse are "them that hate me".
Thus he will be longsuffering and compassionate upon the fathers that sin and their children, because there is no man that shall live and not sin, but if their descendants turn from him and hate him as did some of their ancestors then he will bring upon them punishment up to the third and fourth generation. The punishment is only temporary up to the third or fourth generation, but he is far more lavish with his rewards to those that love him and keep his commandments with love and mercy unto thousands of generations. Because of this misunderstanding of the Law the Jews believed that the children were punished by God for the wrongs of their parents and that is why the disciples asked Jesus concerning the Blind man: who sinned the blind man or his parents?
The question suggests that every suffering is a result of sin and so judges that everyone who has a severe illness must be a great sinner. Christ answers the disciples that neither the Blind man nor his parents sinned to cause the blindness. What he is saying is that they should stop thinking like the Jews, especially as the man in question was born blind so how could he be responsible while being in his motherís womb of committing any sin? Christ also refutes the belief that sin is inherited by saying that the manís blindness is not a punishment for his parentís sins. This is what the Orthodox Church has always taught: that we inherit the consequences of Adams sin but not Adamís guilt, whereas the Roman Catholic Church, based on the writings of St. Augustine, teaches that man inherits Adamís guilt.
But what Christ did say is that the manís blindness was foreordained to give an opportunity to reveal the divine power in the miracle. Thus Christ is teaching his disciples to not concentrate their attention to the mysterious cause of the sufferings, but on the purpose for which God allowed them and the results of salvation which we can obtain through sufferings. The story of Job also concentrates on this great questions which has troubled and often disturbed the hearts of men: Where do sufferings come from, who is to blame, what are the causes of the multitude of pains, and why the suffering of the righteous. It would take too long to go into depth on the Book of Job, but in short the evil came from Satan even if God allowed it for the sole purpose of testing and perfecting the righteous. For your comment on the earthquake I gave you my answer in your previous question on the various natural disasters. I do not agree with the priest that told you that sometimes we have to pay for our sins. This would be to say that God is vengeful and punishes the world and not the loving Father who forgives and is longsuffering.
For your next question on why God would allow an individual to suffer, I will let St. Paul answer. After describing how he was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, he was in danger of glorifying himself for his holiness if he didnít remember that he had a bodily ailment of the flesh which constantly reminded him that he was only human. In his own words he says: ďI will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be, or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12: 5-10)
Thus we should look upon our infirmities and difficulties as a blessing from God for they are often a source for us to grow stronger in faith. We should remember that nothing in our lives happens without a reason. This doesnít mean that illnesses and troubles come from God. They are the result and consequences of the fall, but by accepting them as blessings we use them for spiritual growth.
When health problems arise People often say within their hearts: why me O God, why have you allowed this to happen to me, me of all people who believes in you, who goes to Church every Sunday, why have you kept in good health that person who doesnít believe in you, but have dealt with me in this way. This attitude reveals that we only have love of ourselves; our main concern is ourselves and definitely reveals our lack of faith in God. On the other hand, if we accept everything as Godís plan, then our troubles, our weaknesses become instruments that help us come closer to Godís love. That is why holy people never pray for their own afflictions, but only for Godís mercy. This doesnít mean that we should not pray for otherís when they are in need. Praying for others is an act of love and as God is love and loves all of mankind, then we should also show love to all mankind.
Usually the first stage where someone will seek Godís intervention is when either they themselves or someone close to them is suffering from a serious illness. It is then that they remember God and seek for a miracle. If there was no illness then they would not remember that there is a God, so the illness is in fact a blessing in disguise: it forces the person to accept that there is a God and for the first time they reach out to God for his help. A communion with God has begun where before it was nonexistent. In these first stages God often responds and gives the person more opportunity to seek him. If the person responds positively then God will slowly guide him to what is necessary for his salvation.
Your last question on how are we to embrace suffering was answered above, but you also ask how can we cope with sufferings more than we can handle despite the assurance that we won't be sent more than we can handle? God does not send us sufferings; it is not Godís will that we should suffer anything. But since illnesses and diseases are in the world because of the fall, we can say God allows them to test and strengthen our faith so that we may find a better salvation. Can we cope like Job? Only God knows as he knew that Job would cope.