WebDef: Suffering

Suf·fer·ing /səf(ə)riNG/- Noun: the experience of distress; a part of the human condition.

So universal is suffering, so much a part of the human condition, that the late Irish poet Seamus Heany entitled one of his poems, simply, "Human Beings Suffer."1 We all experience distress when our body feels pain or when we suffer loss or unwelcome change in our lives. But we can learn ways through it that also include joy, and hope, and wellness, because there is wisdom to be found in scripture. Jesus teaches us not to judge the suffering of others (John 9), and not to live in fear (Matthew 10:28-31). He also teaches us, through his Beatitudes offered during the Sermon on the Mount, the various ways to approach life and live in a state of blessedness.


The book of Ecclesiastes is one good place for wisdom on how to live a fulfilling life. It is told as a tale by a person who has tried it all and has decided that a rush after comforts (hedonism) didn't bring joy, that too much study brought exhaustion, that ambition and building and all other endeavors are unimportant, because for everyone they end in death. The writer concludes that the simple pleasures of a well-lived life are the way to go.

The Book of Job

In The Sufferings of Job, the stage is set for a debate about why the righteous might suffer. Although it's a very unsatisfying beginning (the setting of the stage, a conversation between God and the enemy), the next few chapters are very insightful. Job suffers greatly. And his friends offer no comfort. Instead, they blame Job. Job replies:

"I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. Shall vain words have an end? or what emboldeneth thee that thou answerest?I also could speak as ye do: if your soul were in my soul's stead, I could heap up words against you, and shake mine head at you. But I would strengthen you with my mouth, and the moving of my lips should asswage your grief. Though I speak, my grief is not assuaged: and though I forbear, what am I eased?" – Job 16:2-6

Job does not turn against God, but keeps asking to plead his case before God. This wish is ultimately granted, and Job learns that there are things he just cannot understand, as a human. If Job cannot fathom the vastness of the created universe, how can he begin to understand the moral universe under which God operates? Job is restored fully and abundantly, but the friends who have accused him of deserving his suffering deserve to be punished. It is only when Job prays for them that God forgives them. There are many lessons to be taken from Job, including not judging those who suffer, and the value of intercessory prayer.

Minister as Wounded Healer

Our greatest strength in our call to healing may come from our recognition that we, too suffer. In the 'Hippocratic Oath and the Ethics of Medicine' Steven Miles notes that swearing by Apollo linked the physician to a 'moral song' and "reverberates to a cosmology that sings of the origins, purposes and limits of medicine."(p22) . This is because according to the legend, Apollo got into trouble with the Gods for trying to restore his beloved wife from the dead. We're human, we suffer grief, and there are limits to the human condition which we must learn to accept… and there's a gentleness and nonharming outlook that eventually arises when we can come to terms with this reality and still place ourselves at the service of others who are in pain.

1In "Human Beings Suffer," Heaney wrote of how we torture one another, and it's hard to see how it can be put right, and that, "History says, don't hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme." He continues by advising us to hope for a great sea-change, a wave of justice that pours out like a river, and that we can reach it, on this very shore. He advises us to believe.

What are WebDefs?

WebDefs – simple definitions of key terms relating to ministry and healing arts – are a regular feature of NHM Ministrants. Offered (where applicable) in conjunction with select key scriptural passages and analysis, WebDefs can be a useful starting place for exploring a topic of interest.

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