Many today labor under the delusion that the reality of suffering is a difficulty for Christianity – as if Christian doctrine would lead us to expect little or no suffering, so that its adherents should be flummoxed by suffering’s prevalence. As I have discussed in previous articles, this is the reverse of the truth. The Catholic faith teaches that suffering is the inexorable consequence of original sin and past actual sin. It is an essential part of the long and painful process of sanctification, of overcoming sinful habits of thought and action. It is the inevitable concomitant of the persecution Christians must face for preaching the Gospel and condemning the world’s wickedness. It is an inescapable punishment for sin, which we must embrace in a penitential spirit. By way of suffering we pay both our own temporal debt and that of others for whom we might offer up our suffering. By way of it, we most closely unite ourselves to Christ’s Passion. The extent and depth of human suffering thus confirms, rather than disconfirms, the claims of Christianity.
As I proposed in those earlier articles, bafflement at suffering is less the cause than the consequence of the modern West’s apostasy from the Catholic faith. It also reflects the softness and decadence of a dying civilization that has become accustomed to affluence and cannot fathom a higher good beyond ease and beyond this life, for the sake of which we might embrace suffering. Nor is it apostates alone who exhibit this blindness. The spiritual rot has eaten its way deep into the Church, afflicting even those who are otherwise loyal to orthodoxy and Christian morality. And in our disinclination to accept suffering, we are only ensuring ourselves more of it.
Here as elsewhere, the great St. Augustine sees clearly and speaks frankly where we moderns deceive ourselves and obfuscate. In chapters 8-10 of Book I of The City of God, he discusses how and why evil and suffering befall the good as well as the wicked in this life. As our own age descends into ever deeper moral, political, social, and economic disorder, we would do well to meditate upon his bracing teaching. If the faithful believe they will or ought to be spared the brunt of the punishment that the sins of our civilization are liable to bring down upon it, they are sorely mistaken. Things are likely to get worse for all of us, even if only so that divine providence can ultimately bring something better out of the chaos.
In chapter 8, Augustine notes that while there is in this life some connection between evildoing and suffering on the one hand, and righteousness and blessings on the other, it is very far from tight. The wicked enjoy many good things, while the good suffer much misfortune. To be sure, this will be redressed in the afterlife, when the good will be rewarded with eternal happiness and the wicked with eternal torment. “But as for the good things of this life, and its ills,” Augustine writes, “God has willed that these should be common to both; that we might not too eagerly covet the things which wicked men are seen equally to enjoy, nor shrink with an unseemly fear from the ills which even good men often suffer.”
When we wonder why God permits us to suffer even though we try to obey him, part of the reason is precisely that we might be saved. For if we pursue righteousness only when it is easy to do so, our virtue is bound to be shallow and unlikely to last. Nor, if the connection between virtuous behavior and material blessings is too tight, are we likely to pursue the former for the right reasons. We cannot achieve happiness in the world to come if we become too attached to the world that is, and suffering is a means of preventing the latter.
Moreover, says Augustine, the difference between a truly righteous man and a wicked one is often exposed precisely by suffering:
Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke… so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them.
Now, so far Augustine is addressing suffering that is unmerited. But there is also suffering that good men can merit and bring upon themselves, as Augustine explains in chapter 9. This is so in several ways. First, of course, nobody’s perfect. Even those who avoid the more blatant violations of Christian morality still typically exhibit moral failings of various lesser kinds:
Although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account.
But there is also the attitude that the good man takes toward those who do live especially wicked lives. There are many who disapprove of such wickedness and would never practice it themselves, but who nevertheless, out of cowardice, refrain from criticizing it in others. Here Augustine makes some remarks that are especially relevant to our times, and worth quoting at length:
Where can we readily find a man who holds in fit and just estimation those persons on account of whose revolting pride, luxury, and avarice, and cursed iniquities and impiety, God now smites the earth as His predictions threatened? Where is the man who lives with them in the style in which it becomes us to live with them? For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them, sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are ashamed to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners.
Here Augustine teaches that it is not enough to refrain from the sins of wicked men. The Christian must also criticize them for their wickedness, and try to get them to repent of it. To be sure, Augustine goes on to acknowledge that there may be occasions where one might justifiably opt to postpone such criticism until an opportune moment, or refrain from it out of a reasonable fear of doing more harm than good. But he teaches here that it is not justifiable to refrain from such criticism merely because it is difficult, or because we fear causing offense and losing friends, or because we don’t want to risk losing status or other worldly goods. For the wicked are in danger of damnation if they do not repent, and we “wickedly blind ourselves” if we shirk our duty to encourage them to do so. Even if we avoid damnation ourselves, we will justly suffer alongside them when divine providence visits this-worldly punishments upon them (social and economic disorder, natural disasters, and the like).
Here too Augustine emphasizes that God allows the good to suffer alongside the wicked in part to wean them from their attachment to this world, where their reluctance to criticize the wicked is a symptom of this attachment:
What is blame-worthy is, that they who themselves revolt from the conduct of the wicked, and live in quite another fashion, yet spare those faults in other men which they ought to reprehend and wean them from; and spare them because they fear to give offense, lest they should injure their interests in those things which good men may innocently and legitimately use – though they use them more greedily than becomes persons who are strangers in this world, and profess the hope of a heavenly country.
Augustine is especially hard on Christians (such as clergy) who do not have family obligations and the like to worry about, yet still shrink from doing their duty to condemn the wickedness that surrounds them:
[They] do often take thought of their own safety and good name, and abstain from finding fault with the wicked, because they fear their wiles and violence. And although they do not fear them to such an extent as to be drawn to the commission of like iniquities, nay, not by any threats or violence soever; yet those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of they often decline to find fault with, when possibly they might by finding fault prevent their commission. They abstain from interference, because they fear that, if it fail of good effect, their own safety or reputation may be damaged or destroyed; not because they see that their preservation and good name are needful, that they may be able to influence those who need their instruction, but rather because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men, and fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.
The application to the present day is obvious. Consider the sexual sins into which our age has, arguably, sunk more deeply than any previous one. So as to avoid criticizing these sins too harshly or even talking much about them at all, even many otherwise conservative Christians lie to themselves about their gravity, pretending they are slight when in fact (and as the tradition has always insisted) they are extremely serious. Such sins have, among their consequences: the even graver sin of murder, in the form of abortion; fatherlessness and the poverty and social breakdown that is its sequel; addiction to pornography and the marital problems it brings in its wake; the loneliness and economic insecurity of women who in their youth were used by men for pleasure, and are later unable to find husbands; a general breakdown in rationality that has now reached the point where even the objective difference between men and women is shrilly denied; and the willingness to mutilate children’s bodies in the name of this gender ideology.
Worse, many Christians deceive themselves into thinking that it is love or compassion for the sinner that prevents them from condemning these sins too harshly. In fact, given the grave damage caused by these sins, and the difficulty so many have in extricating themselves from them, to refrain from warning others against them is the opposite of compassionate. Yet the present age is so addicted to them that, of all sins, sexual sins are those criticism of which puts the critic at greatest danger. People fear for their reputations, and even livelihoods, if they speak up. Hence, as Augustine says, “their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.”
The consequence, Augustine teaches, is that many sinners who might have repented had they been warned will end up damned as a result. And those who failed to warn them will suffer at least temporal punishments along with them, because they were too attached to the comforts of this life to help others prepare for the next. Augustine writes:
Accordingly this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal… For so long as they live, it remains uncertain whether they may not come to a better mind. These selfish persons have more cause to fear than those to whom it was said through the prophet, He is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand (Ezekiel 33:6).
In chapter 10, Augustine hammers on the theme that the treasure of Christians is to be found in heaven and not in any of the goods of this life, and that, accordingly, no worldly suffering can possibly truly harm them. He writes:
They should endure all torment, if need be, for Christ’s sake; that they might be taught to love Him rather who enriches with eternal felicity all who suffer for Him, and not silver and gold, for which it was pitiable to suffer, whether they preserved it by telling a lie or lost it by telling the truth. For under these tortures no one lost Christ by confessing Him… So that possibly the torture which taught them that they should set their affections on a possession they could not lose, was more useful than those possessions which, without any useful fruit at all, disquieted and tormented their anxious owners.
As this last remark indicates, the loss of worldly blessings – material goods, reputation, friendships, health, livelihood, even life itself – is permitted by God so that we might learn not to cling to these things at the expense of the beatific vision, the value of which trumps all else. God thus only ever permits suffering not in spite of his goodness, but rather precisely because of his goodness. As Augustine says, there isn’t “any evil [that] happens to the faithful and godly which cannot be turned to profit,” so that, with St. Paul, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)
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