[REFLECTIONS] Why do we suffer?

Michael Demetrius H. Asis
[REFLECTIONS] Why do we suffer?
Let us not focus on the suffering, but on what we can do to alleviate it

It’s a first in world history: an online Holy Week for millions of people, even in Vatican City, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rappler presents a series of reflections to help you, our reader, enter the spirit of Holy Week even in quarantine.

Last Palm Sunday, I noticed that all the readings more or less speak of the same theme: the experience of hope amid adversity.

The First Reading reminds us that the prophets have been raised time and again in history to speak on behalf of Yahweh amid the crisis of foreign invasion (the oppression that goes with it), exile, and injustice. And in the midst of all the turmoil and misery, the prophetic voice always calls for quiet, patient suffering, and restraint in the face of so much evil.

In the Second Reading, Paul eloquently directs our attention to Christ’s act of complete self-emptying despite his consubstantiality with God. The Greeks call it kenosis – self-emptying love.

A question I’ve always asked is this: Does God suffer? Does God ever suffer? The metaphysical God of the philosophers, or so they claim, does not suffer, for how can God suffer when God is pure spirit? God is not embodied. God does not have a body.

But the unique insight of both Jews and Christians is that God does suffer. Moses heard Yahweh’s words, “I have heard the cry of my people.” And Christians believe that God suffers in Christ, who is the personal embodiment of God.

But why do we suffer? There is no answer. Job, the proverbial suffering man of the Old Testament, asked God why he had to deal with so much loss – family, properties, livelihood. God is silent, but directs Job’s attention to creation. “Were you there when I created the world, the oceans, the stars?” God asked Job. In the magnificence of the universe, who are we to complain? And Jesus in the Gospels had to rebuke his enemies for presuming that suffering is God’s punishment for sinners.

Christ never gave an answer to the problem of suffering, but he went about alleviating it by healing the sick and giving hope to the downtrodden. And Christ himself absorbed suffering in his firm but quiet acceptance of death.

You see, Christ never focused on himself, but the Kingdom of God. Ray Aguas in a recent Facebook post quoted Bruce Lee saying, “It is like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t focus on the finger, lest you lose sight of the splendid beauty of the moon.”

Let us not, then, focus on the suffering, but on what we can do to alleviate it. Let us not focus on the sufferings of Christ, lest we lose sight of God’s Kingdom – a divine reign of justice and righteousness, which calls for our complete, unequivocal commitment. Suffering should only be a consequence of that total commitment. Such is a mother’s love. She does not mind suffering for her children, because this is a fruit of her undying love.

We celebrate not the suffering, but the kenosis of Christ – the self-emptying love that is willing to give completely even to death. And that love is always life giving, redemptive, salvific.

Utter helplessness, a loss of control, a fear of the uncertain and indefinite future, and the fear of dying alone. These are feelings that rage within us all, brought about by the dreaded virus.

The crisis makes us ask the hard questions. “Why?” “Will this ever end?” “Will I die alone?” “Will my loved ones die alone?”

And searching for answers, we long for our rituals, for with them we can hang on or hold on to something, “some things,” that reassure us that God is always with us. He will never abandon us.

The sacraments and all our sacred rituals should never be the focus of our religion and spirituality. But why are they there? Our sacred rites should be moving visible reminders that God continues to touch and impel us to focus not on life’s peripherals (what groceries to buy, what food to put in the fridge), but on life’s essentials. God says through the prophet, “It is mercy and compassion I desire, not sacrifice and burnt offerings. Let justice flow like an endless stream and righteousness like a mighty river.” Food for the hungry. Drink for the thirsty. Clothes for the naked. Freedom for the captives. These are the actions that render true worship to God.

The challenge for the Church today and all other religious institutions, then, is to always build small communities of faith, basic ecclesial communities (BECs) that engender empathy, compassion and sensitivity to others’ needs. Never ever forget what our sacred rites truly represent – God moving about our lives that we may care more for our neighbor, most especially the neighbor in most need.

Our frontliners, doctors, nurses, security personnel, food delivery persons, garbage collectors, grocery cashiers, police and military personnel. All heroes. All point to the kind of love and fidelity to duty that is willing to give even under the threat of death. And a love that gives even to death is truly, in the words and example of Christ, a love that will truly give life. It will redeem. It will always save. – Rappler.com

Michael Demetrius H. Asis is former chair of the theology department of the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University. He is also a three-time book awards finalist at the Catholic Mass Media Awards. 

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