Spirituality of trials in the Christian Tradition

                                         Spirituality of trials in the Christian Tradition

To speak of the Christian tradition involves speaking of Scripture, which includes the Hebrew Scriptures (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) as well as the New Testament. Christians interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through Christian understanding, which is not always the way Judaism interprets them. Interpretations in this reflection are from a Christian perspective.
The story of creation and of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is told in the book of Genesis. In this story, the suffering of Adam and Eve (including the need to work and to die), and subsequently of all human beings is a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. It is clear from much Scripture that many people living in the times when the books of the Bible were written down believed that all suffering was the consequence of sin. However, there are many passages showing that, although suffering and death does result from sin, not all suffering and death is the result of sin. Does “result” of sin mean “punishment”? There are many places in the Hebrew Scriptures where this was the understanding. However, it is not always punishment. Clearly there are instances where suffering results from sin. For example, if I abuse drugs and alcohol, it will affect my body. This is a natural consequence rather than a punishment as such.

The Book of Job explores this problem. Job is an upright man who suffers the loss of everything: wealth, family, friends and ultimately his health. Satan predicts that Job will curse God. Job’s friends try to explain that there must be some reason for Job’s suffering. They also try to console him. But Job does not curse God. He does not falsely accept responsibility for his situation. He is not consoled by his friends’ words. But he does question God about why, and tell God that this all seems very unjust. God responds, basically, by telling Job that he, Job, doesn’t understand anything at all. God’s response to Job could be summed up in these words: “Where were you when I created the world, that you think you know such things? You know nothing.” Job’s response, ultimately, is “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the end all that Job had lost was given back to him.

The book of Sirach is one not accepted as scriptural by all Christian denominations, but the Catholic denomination does accept it. But it expresses a sentiment that is common: Those who serve God will be tested “as gold is tested in fire”. The correct response to this is to set one’s heart right, cling to God, accept whatever befalls you, and do all in patient. Trust God, be filled with hope, and act rightly.  Then God will help you, just as God has been faithful to and has helped all those of faith who have gone before you. This theme is also repeated in Psalm 22, which all Jews and Christian accept as part of scripture. It is the psalm whose first line Jesus would recite on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” It is commonly understood that to recite the first line of a psalm is to intend the entire psalm.

In the ninth chapter of the gospel of John, the idea that sin causes suffering and trials is disputed directly by Jesus. A man who was born blind is presented to him with the question, “Was it the sin of this man or the sin of an ancestor that has caused his blindness?” Jesus’ answer is that it was not the sin of anyone who caused it. But rather the man was blind so that the glory of God could be revealed. Jesus cures the man of his blindness, and the man comes to faith in Jesus – both are signs of the glory of God.

The main theme in Christian theology, which is present in seed form in some passages in the prophet Isaiah, is that innocent people sometimes suffer for the good of everyone. The suffering and death (followed, of course, by his resurrection) brings about salvation for all people. His attitude in that suffering and death is what Christians are invited to embrace: He trusts the Father (this is expressed at times as obedience or submission to the will of the Father); He never falters in love, even asking the Father to forgive those who crucify him. Because Christians believe that Jesus and the Father (and the Holy Spirit) are one God, Christians would say that “God would rather die on the cross for us than see us die in our sinfulness”. Christians are invited to see their own suffering as a participation in this ultimate act of love. Our suffering then, becomes part of the mystery of death and resurrection.

A sub-theme in all of the above, of course, is that the mystery of trials, suffering and death is bigger than we can understand. God alone ultimately has the wisdom to know its full purpose. A corollary is that we are invited to trust that God truly does have a plan.

Suffering, trials and death are never good in themselves, but they can be used by God for good.

Is suffering and death sometimes a punishment for sin? There are places in scripture that would seem to say so. There are Christians who believe it to be so. But overall, I think the correct interpretation of Christian understanding of scripture is that “punishment” is not to be taken literally, especially not in any sense that might be vindictive or legally punitive. For example, God would never make you sick to punish you for your sins. However, if you smoke too much, there are consequences ranging from a cough to lung cancer. These are consequences, however, not punishment.
Brian Zimmer, Director of Mission, St. Paul's Hospital,
1702 -20th Street West, Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7M 0Z9
Phone 306 655 5819,