I was recently asked by a friend who is currently undergoing a difficult time, “Why must people suffer?” and “Why is there suffering in the world?” We all know the head knowledge about how suffering is redemptive, and that which would eventually lead us to deep joy when we find meaning in the suffering and when we unite our suffering with the wound and Passion of Jesus. Yet for those who are actually suffering, it may be difficult to speak about a philosophy of suffering that will justify why a mother had to be separated from a child when a nation was taken over by a military stronghold, causing a family to become refugees; or to speak about the actualisation of an individual, of hopes, lofty ideals, and dreams, when a family is scraping the bottom of the barrel in a bid to pay off the bills, make ends meet and to feed the family members; or when someone is working two or three jobs but still cannot provide for his or her own family; or when someone is suffering from a debilitating or chronic illness; or when a child is born a stillborn to parents who had been eagerly anticipating the birth of a child; or when a miscarriage happens; or when a spouse betrays another spouse in adultery; or when a child or spouse is abused physically through violence in the home; or when someone is struggling with addiction, with same-sex attraction; or when one is a caregiver to someone with mental disorders or special needs… there are too many examples of how someone may be in the throes of woes. How do we justify suffering to a person whose daily bread consists of pain and anguish?

The issue with suffering may very well be not so much that there is suffering – suffering is a fact of life, but more to do with how people deal with suffering and how people talk about suffering. It is very easy to say something in an attempt to justify and to console someone, without empathising with another person’s suffering. It is even easier to take on a moralising and patronising attitude. However, to the person who is undergoing mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and material suffering, saying, “too bad, so sad, you just have to deal with it,” does not quite cut it. There must be a better way to talk about suffering, especially when it is the Christian who is talking about suffering. The problem is that we are all looking out for a quick fix – we either sweep the issue under the rug, we dismiss the issue, we fail to listen to the person who is sharing about his or her suffering, and we conveniently justify the incidence of suffering as, “Oh this is God’s will for you.”

Interestingly, the etymology of the word, “suffering”, may be traced to a mid-13th century understanding of undergoing or of the experiencing of grief, torment, punishment, judgement, death, pain from the root Anglo-French word, suffrir or the Old French, sofrir, meaning to endure, bear, resist, permit, tolerate, allow. Further excavations take us to the Old English root of the early 14th century for “suffering” – þolian, þrowian, which means to “submit meekly to” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.).

We also read in Philippians 2: 5-11, “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

There is something moving and powerful about how GOD who made all life, humbled Himself, and submitted fully to the yoke of death. The story of Christ’s Kingdom would have ended on the cross, if the Resurrection did not occur, but in His obedience and docility in his complete submission to death, and in his rising and triumph three days later, the grave was conquered once and for all, gifting us with this same hope of eternal Life with God our Father.

At the heart of suffering is a mystery. The Book of Job is an exegesis in suffering:

Job is put through several severe afflictions and temptations, and his righteousness is tested. Yet, Job is found steadfast despite his sufferings. He does not question the purposes of God, nor does he curse or rant at God. However, his seventh trial would prove to be his hardest and most difficult, when his good friends Eliphaz, Baldad, and Sophar, come to console him. These friends are convinced that Job’s sufferings are a result of something wrong that he did. His closest friends then accuse Job of hypocrisy and categorise him as a terrible, sinful man. These wrongful accusations hurt Job deeply, and in his assertions of his own innocence, fails to revere God. Job’s protests that he is being wronged and that he does not understand the reason for his suffering, and this juncture is exactly where Job’s indignation causes him to curse the day of his birth and long for death to end his sufferings. Job’s friends had pushed all the wrong buttons, which stirred up a proud response. Job rejects the proposal that his friends are putting forth, and calls for God to personally contend with him and to justify the suffering that he was undergoing.

God thus answers Job’s plea, not by justifying his actions before men, but by referring to His own omniscience and power. With this, Job becomes content, and recovers his attitude of humility and of trust in God. Job having gone through the crucible of purification in and through suffering, takes on a new maturity and perspective. Job’s experience of suffering thus deepens the relationship that he has with God (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, n.d.).

The reasons for suffering can stem from various origins and suffering is a philosophical question that can be seen in varying degrees. According to Saint Pope John Paul II, suffering creates many things in a human being. It is a way to bring about compassion in fellow human beings, it leads to profound respect of the forces, circumstances, people, and events which shape us, and in suffering is drawn the great and wondrous impetus for the deep need for faith, which expresses a deep longing hidden in the human heart (Pope John Paul II, 1984). However, what we can do with our suffering is found in the supreme example of Jesus, who conquered suffering with love, to the extent that he drew near and is still drawing near to those who suffer, to the point of taking on humanity’s suffering upon himself – the fatigue of human living, the toil, the heaviness, and was in turn, insulted, ostracised, persecuted (Pope John Paul II, 1984). In Christ’s suffering, humanity is liberated. As the prophet Isaiah says,

“He had no form or comeliness that we should look
at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53).

In suffering, we also open ourselves to the salvific redemption of God. As St. Paul eloquently puts it, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

While we may not understand in our finite capacities the need for suffering and how it ties in with the salvific work of the Lord, we can as Catholics, unite our sufferings with the sufferings of the Lord, and to offer up these suffering moments as prayers expressed for the needs of those who suffer. Suffering also allows us to unleash the intensity of love that only Christ can give. Like the Good Samaritan, who suffers together with his downtrodden fellow human being, and who becomes Christ ministering to the wounded and the lost, a Catholic perspective on suffering requires us to accompany the person who is suffering, and like Simon of Cyrene, help carry the load and the cross. That cross is different from the one which we bear on our own, but in supporting the person who is carrying the cross, the person may be able to walk a longer journey.

It was never God’s plan for suffering and death to enter the world. These are a result of the fallout from man from God in the fall of Adam and Eve.

Bearing these in mind, there are thus some ways that we may view suffering:

  1. Suffering purifies us from the things that take us away from God and from living the life that we are meant to live with God.
  2. Suffering is curative and serves as reparation for our sin. While the time it takes us to be cured through suffering, may seem long and difficult, it is a necessary time for us to be healed fully.
  3. Suffering is a time of preparation and works as a means of training us and preparing us for the mission that God has in store for us.
  4. Suffering teaches us and helps us to love.
  5. Suffering is the bridge that will lead us to life. Looking at Jesus suffering for us on the cross, we can help others who may have undergone the same struggles in their own life to overcome as well, so that they may pass from a living death, into Life.

At the heart of suffering is the message of love. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Accordingly, “Faith holds fast to this promise, although the experience of suffering and evil in the world may make people wonder whether God is really loving. In the experience of suffering, God is doing something incredible: He does not destroy us. At the same time, he is not carelessly looking away. He allows the full force of human tragedy to touch his heart — a heart full of mercy. He sent what he loves the most — his son — into our realm of death. This is supposed to tell us that where people suffer, God suffers as well.” (Meuser, 2020)

We will most likely in anyway not be able to understand fully the mystery of suffering, yet how beautiful the thought, that when we suffer, our God is with us in and through the suffering, and that our God is suffering too.

By the Grace of God,

Brian Bartholomew Tan


Pope John Paul II. (1984, February 11). Salvifici Doloris. Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). Suffer. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 9, 2021 from, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=suffer

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (n.d). Introduction to Job. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved September 10, 2021 from https://bible.usccb.org/bible/job/0

Meuser, B. (2020). Why is there Suffering in the World? YOUCAT. Retrieved September 10, 2021 from https://www.youcat.org/credopedia/why-is-there-suffering