By Fr. Anthony Mourad – Parish Priest from St. George & St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church, Ottawa, Canada.
Today my beloved we discuss a question that plagues many Christians and non-Christians alike. If we truly believe in an all powerful, all knowing, and all-loving God, then Why does He allow pain and suffering? First let me begin by saying that we cannot possibly speak of pain and suffering without first discussing evil – for as most of us would agree, many types of pain and suffering are the consequences of evil. And to have a better understanding of Evil, I would invite all of you to watch Fr Gabriel Wissa’s video on “Did God create Evil” which can be found on the Coptic Orthodox Answers website and social media pages. For now, however, lets summarize a few fundamental things to set the table for our discussion.
As the Church has always taught us, God is not the author of evil. As a matter of fact, as Christians we do not believe that Evil is something in and of itself. As St Basil tells us,
“…Evil is not a living and animated substance, but a condition of the soul which is opposed to virtue… [St Basil the Great – Hexaemeron, Homily 2:4-5]
Now, if we agree that most of the pain and suffering we experience in our lives is a by product of evil, and that God is not the author of evil, how then do we make sense of where pain and suffering come from and why God does not stop it? For this we must go back to the very beginning of creation, and make sure we properly define a few things.
In the Liturgy of St Basil, the prayer of reconciliation says:
“O God, the Great, the Eternal, who formed man in incorruption; and death, which entered into the world through the envy of the devil, You have destroyed by the lifegiving manifestation of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Now this prayer seems to point to the fact that God, as clearly stated in in the Genesis Chapter 1, created everything GOOD – in incorruption. And yet, as expressed in this prayer, something entered into the world that distorted everything and introduced chaos into God’s creation. And what was introduced was death; sin; corruption; evil!
St Athanasius of Alexandria, when he speaks of what happened in the fall of mankind, he explains that part of this corruption and death that we introduced through our disobedience, also brings about the suffering and pain that we experience today. He says:
“For bringing them [humanity] into His own paradise, He gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption.” [St Athanasius – On the Incarnation 3.]
What we discover here is very clear: when God created us in his Image and Likeness, He instilled in us the gift of free will. It is therefore the abuse of our free will that leads to the state of corruption in creation. Rather than remaining in God’s presence, under the shadow of His care, compassion, and abundant love, we instead chose to be the authors of our own lives. And in choosing ourselves over God, we separated ourselves from Him and introduced ourselves to a state of evil, corruption, pain and suffering. This is perfectly summarized in the Liturgy of St Gregory when he speaks of himself as if He were Adam:
“You are He who formed me, and laid Your hand upon me, and inscribed in me the image of Your authority. You have placed in me the gift of speech, and opened for me Paradise to enjoy, and have given to me the learning of Your knowledge. You have manifested to me the tree of life and made known to me the sting of death. Of one plant have You forbidden me to eat, that of which You have said to me, “Of it only do not eat.” But according to my will, I did eat. I put Your law behind me by my own counsel and became slothful toward Your commandments. I plucked for myself the sentence of death.” [Liturgy of St Gregory the Theologian – Anaphora; ‘Holy Holy Holy’]
What is worse is that when we plucked for ourselves the sentence of death, we brought all these consequences not only on us as humans, but on all of creation. St Paul in the book of Romans makes reference to this by stating that “[…] the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
St John Chrysostom says “where man leads, creation will follow…” In this very sense all of creation was now subject to corruption and chaos because of that is where man lead it. And for this very reason, because of the fall of mankind and the fall of all creation, we now find ourselves in a state where we suffer pain and evil both morally from the ungodly choices of others, as well as from the chaos that was introduced into the natural world.
That being said, we must now turn our attention to what God does in light of all this evil, this pain, this suffering. Some may simply ask, why doesn’t God turn back time and stop the fall, or better yet why not simply prevent people from making horrible choices that will cause suffering on others… To ask this question is to demonstrate that we still do not understand God’s great gift of free will. If God interferes with our Free Will, then we are not free at all. And if He were to remove our freedom, then He does not love us and He becomes something that is contrary to His nature. All of these things are impossible for God for He will not ever go against all that He is. So what option remains? If He cannot forcibly remove evil from our hearts and in the process prevent pain and suffering, then what He does is to transform pain and suffering! He takes something that was the cause of corruption and evil, and He transfigures it into a path that can lead to holiness, salvation, and glory. And He does this by allowing Himself to be intimately acquainted with the pain and suffering of His creation.
Now some may argue that it is impossible for God to suffer and to experience evil and pain. And this is where the Christian faith is unlike any other. Our God came down, humbled Himself fully and took on our form in order to do for us what we proved incapable of doing ourselves. Therefore, boldly does the Christian tell everyone that my God, who was incarnate for me and for my salvation, suffered in the flesh, experienced pain and sorrow in the flesh, died in the flesh, and He also rose from the dead and ascended into the heavens in all glory IN THE FLESH! In doing so, He transformed the path of punishment, into a path of salvation. For this reason, St Paul explains that truly, “…if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:17-18)
It is also for this reason that the Saints who have proceeded us are capable of explaining that the reason they accept upon themselves suffering and all kinds of evil is because pain and suffering, in Christ, have been redefined and been transfigured.
St Makarios of Egypt expresses it beautiful when he says:
“However great the afflictions we suffer, what are they compared with the promised future reward, or with the grace of the Holy Spirit that visits souls even in this present life, or with the deliverance that we have received from the obscurity of evil passions, or with the enormous debts we owe because of our sins? As St. Paul says: ‘The sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.’ Hence, we must patiently endure everything for the Lord’s sake, like brave soldiers dying for our King.” [St. Makarios of Egypt – The Philokalia Vol. 3]
My beloved what is obvious from our discussion is that the question we posed in the start wasn’t even right to begin with. The question ought not be ‘Why does God allow pain and suffering’, but rather why do we allow it through our lack of repentance? Furthermore, our God has given us a path whereby our own pain and suffering can allow us to come closer and closer to Him, in sharing with Him what He also underwent at the hands of evil men. So let’s do just that – let us come to Him, knowing that He can relate to all that we suffer. Let us ask for grace and repentance so that we do not bring about evil on others. And let also ask for strength and courage to patiently endure whatever pain and suffering we ourselves experience.