Suffering, whether physical, spiritual or psychological, is often an opportunity when many question the existence of God, or at the very least whom this God is who allows suffering, in particular the suffering of the innocent.
God, throughout the Old Testament, helps us to understand what he will fully reveal in the New Testament regarding suffering. We now know that God the Father has sent the Son to give us the Holy Spirit through the sacraments, one of which is referred to as anointing of the sick.
“Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters (priests) of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord…” (James 5:14). Here, St. James describes the essential elements of this special sacrament.
When it comes to understanding suffering, as well as death, the first thing that must be mentioned is that they are a result of original sin. St. Paul tells us, “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). Death is the most extreme form of suffering. Once sin entered the world through the free choice of our first parents, so did suffering and death, both physical and spiritual.
Throughout the Old Testament, we gain an understanding that suffering and death can be a consequence of personal sin. However, it is not the case that our heavenly Father is sitting up on throne of glory, waiting for us to sin, than exacting his pound of flesh because we have wandered from his ways. If anything, he allows us to suffer to divest us of the pride of having done things our way, to help us realize that our peace, joy and fulfillment lie in doing things his way. Nevertheless he is not going to force us to do things his way, but he is going to allow us to experience the consequences of our actions.
It could be argued that suffering is God’s way of punishing, but it could also be argued that suffering is part of God’s mercy. There is not a whole lot worse than living profoundly sinful lives while never experiencing the consequences of those actions: the man who lies, cheats and steals and gets away with it. Often it’s only when the drunkard finally sees that he has lost his wife, children and home that he turns things around. God, in his mercy, allows him to hit rock bottom.
It is also the case that in the Old Testament we do not only have the guilty suffering; the innocent also suffer. This, too, is a result of sin having entered the world. If it weren’t for the sinful choices of Adam, Eve and all men and women’s personal sins, the innocent would not suffer. It is not God’s fault that the innocent suffer; it is our fault.
However, God does prepare us in the Old Testament to understand what is going to take place in the New regarding the suffering of the innocent.
Most of us are familiar with the great icon of innocent suffering, Job. Job’s friends tell him that his suffering is a result of his own sinfulness. But Scripture tells us that Job was, “blameless and upright,” someone who, “feared God and avoided evil” (Job 1:1).
Job’s response teaches us something that will be fully revealed with the coming of Christ. Job proclaims, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust; whom I myself shall see: my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold him, and from my flesh I shall see God; my inmost being is consumed with longing” (Job 19:25-27). Job sees a link between suffering and redemption; he hopes for salvation even in the midst of suffering.
Then there is Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the forthcoming innocent suffering servant redeemer. “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity…yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…but he was pierced for our offences, crushed for our sins…Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear…and he shall take away the sins of many and win pardon for their offences” (Isaiah 53:3, 4, 5, 11, 12). The suffering servant of the Lord will bring about salvation.
It is also important to mention one additional aspect of the Old Testament regarding suffering and death that is typically associated with the New Testament, namely healing and raising from the dead. Both in the Old and the New Testaments, healing and raising from the dead show that God can conquer both, thus manifesting his glory.
The prophet Elisha, who prefigures Jesus, is an instrument of God’s healing and raising from the dead. In 2 Kings 5 we read how Namaan, who has leprosy, is told by the prophet to go wash seven times in the Jordan River. When he does so, he is cured and proclaims, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel” (5:15). These are profound words of faith from a gentile Syrian commander, not an Israelite.
In 2 Kings 4 Elisha raises a boy from the dead. “When Elisha reached the house, he found the boy lying dead. He went in, closed the door on them both, and prayed to the Lord. Then he lay upon the child on the bed, placing his mouth upon the child’s mouth, his eyes upon the eyes, and his hand upon the hands. As Elisha stretched himself over the child, the body became warm” (4:32-34).
All of this will help us more fully understand the meaning of suffering, death and anointing of the sick as fully revealed to us by Christ in the new and everlasting covenant, which we will turn to in the next article.