Dealing with Suffering: The Augustinian Way

Revd Dr. Mike Michielin

Introduction

How do we deal with our trials, tribulations, and suffering in life? We typically respond in two ways. One, we ignore them. That’s why many, men in particular, don’t like going to the doctor. It’s better to live in ignorance than to know something might be wrong with me. Two, we treat illness and suffering as an enemy as if it can be defeated and controlled. How many times do you hear people say, so and so is ‘battling’ cancer, as if they are at war with an enemy? Or, when people who support Doctor Assisted Suicide say, it allows people to control their suffering, rather than letting it control them? Suffering is an enemy that must be either defeated, controlled, or removed at all costs, even one’s life.

In both cases, we avoid dealing with the actual problem, suffering itself and what it does to us physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we should not do everything we can to alleviate suffering. Still, whatever we do, we’re never going to defeat and rid ourselves of it forever. Therefore, we have to figure out how to live and deal with it. The Bible is certainly a good place to start, in particular, the Psalms. St. Augustine’s interpretation of Psalms that deal with suffering[1] offer helpful insights into how we can deal with suffering in a productive way. To do so, Augustine suggests we must understand how we worship by considering what we believe in, hope for, and love. What we believe in, hope for, and love enables us to grow in Christian character and in the process, experience God’s joy. When our desire to know God and His joy is realized, even though we can only experience it in part in our lifetime, we can then face suffering with courage, hope, and joy.

Worship and Faith

I’m assuming in this essay an ‘expanded’ understanding of the word ‘worship’, and that everybody, whether you are religious, agnostic, or atheist, worships something. I am taking the lead here from Augustine who believes the key to understanding what we worship is based on what we ultimately desire in life. As Augustine says, in our earthly existence we are all aflame with desire, yet not everyone thirsts for God (III:233). Whatever ‘inflames our desire,’ that is the object of our worship. The object of Christian faith, or our desire, is not primarily ‘what we believe in’ – doctrines, creeds, church confessions etc. – although they are important for Christian understanding. Rather, the object of our faith/desire is to know and encounter the living person of Jesus Christ. Faith is desire to, not just know about Jesus, but rather, know Jesus because what makes me whole is to seek God Himself (I:285).

How is our desire to encounter the person of Jesus Christ developed? The psalmist’s desire for God evolves out of his grief, tears, misery, and groaning in life (I:274), struggle (III:231), and when feeling bruised, trampled, and squeezed (IV:184). Augustine goes as far to say, unless we have first experienced our thirst in the desert, in this bad situation where we are, we shall never reach the good with God, (III:236). Augustine compares the shaping of our desire for God in our trials and suffering to what happens in a winepress. The reason we are under pressure and crushed in this life is so we can begin to seek that rest which is not afforded in this earth (IV:186). As the process of pressing grapes and olives in a winepress produces wine and oil, so too can our trials and tribulations strengthen our desire for God (IV:187).

Yet, just as good wine and oil takes time to mature, so too does our desire for God. We must be willing to struggle (IV:195) and trust that God is arranging ascents in the heart (IV:196) to Himself while facing our trials and tribulations. When we are feeling impatient with God’s response during our struggles, let’s not, as Lot’s wife did, look back and rest our desires in what this world offers us (IV:188) because we shall find neither the way, nor any comfort (III:237). Instead, let our hearts gaze beyond all things you are accustomed to think about which are derived from the flesh (I:279). Besides, we should not expect immediate results in our search for God when we are suffering because we are still in our pilgrimage (IV:189) while on this earth. Still, encountering the living Christ is possible in this lifetime, at least in part, if we patiently persist in longing after Him (IV:187).

Worship and Hope

What is it that we can hope for when we encounter God? Augustine does not say exactly what it is, but he does describe it in very intimate terms. Because God has anointed us through the shedding of Christ’s blood and belong to Him (I:275), we can dwell in the Lord’s house all the days of our life (I:278). In the Lord’s house we can enter the inner recesses of the tabernacle where we can encounter Christ who is our High Priest (I:278). Augustine is clearly making OT references to the ‘Holy of Holies’ of the tabernacle in the temple of Jerusalem where the Jewish people believe God is present. In Jewish thought, no one can enter the ‘Holy of Holies,’ except the Jewish High Priest who once a year offers a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of God’s people. Yet now that Christ is both the atoning sacrifice for our sins and our High Priest, we all can.

What happens when we do? According to Augustine, the psalmist desires to appear before God so God will appear before him (III:236). In particular, the psalmist is seeking God’s countenance (I:285), that is, to see God’s face turn towards himself so he can experience the Lord’s delight. This experience of God’s delight is so great and beyond his imagination (I:278), that whatever is not of God holds no sweetness for him (I:285). And when this happens, nothing, even our suffering, can compare.

Worship and Love

Yet, how is our faith/desire to see God’s face realized in our hope that it will occur? In Augustine’s Enchiridion he makes the following statement,

When the mind is filled with the beginning of that faith which works through love, it progresses by a good life even toward a vision, in which holy and perfect hearts know that unspeakable beauty, the full vision of which is the highest happiness. This is without doubt what you are seeking, what we must hold first and last, beginning with faith and ending with vision. This is what the whole body of doctrine amounts to.[2]

For Augustine, the bridge that allows us to move from our desire for God to a vision of His unspeakable beauty, presence, and delight in us is love. The person who truly loves God and his neighbor has a holy and perfect heart and lives a good life. Let’s be clear, Augustine is not suggesting we can live a perfectly good life and have a perfect heart. His doctrine of sin is too robust to suggest that. Nevertheless, how we love God, others, and develop the necessary virtues to do so is crucial to realizing our hope.

Desiring God is not something we can simply ‘will’. Someone who desires God is reflected in a person’s acts of love, which require the development of Christian virtues, and consequently, turning away from one’s vices.  This is why Augustine says we must struggle to present ourselves in the best way possible if God is to show Himself to us (III:236). This happens by making our eyes (or the ‘heart’), clean (I:283; Mt. 5:8). We do this by committing ourselves to developing a virtuous life by keeping our vows (i.e., to love God and our neighbour as ourselves) to God (IV:189). Here Augustine is following Paul’s lead who says in Col. 3.9 the Christian life involves the gradual stripping of the old self, and to be clothed with the new self. The more we turn away from desiring earthly things, and a life of vice and sin, and redirect our desire towards God, so, by God’s grace, we can develop a virtuous life, the more we can experience His presence, joy, and delight.

What are these virtues? In his interpretation of Psalm 83:8-10, Augustine lists the virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Prudence differentiates between good and evil. Temperance controls bodily impulses. Justice renders every person what is due to them, owes no debt to anyone, and loves all. Lastly, Fortitude bears all vexations so one is not overwhelmed by annoyance, frustration, and anxiety. We develop these virtues as we practice them, most especially while facing trials and tribulations (IV:198). That is what Augustine means when he says in Enchiridion, when the beginning of … faith … works through love, it progresses by a good life … toward a vision, … . In developing these virtues, we progress to the one single virtue – contemplating God alone (IV:198).

Still, we must not trust that we can develop these virtues on our own. We can only get there by the grace of God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 7.24-25) as God takes us by the hand (IV:196). In our suffering it’s normal to enter into a valley of weeping. Of course, we weep because we are suffering. Yet, we also weep because of the sickness that lies in us due to sin that the Law reveals in us (IV:197). The worse thing to do is to attempt to keep the commandments by our own strength. Instead, we should let our weeping become tender tears of a contrite heart (IV:196) and acknowledge in humility that only God can help us.

Concluding Reflections

We live in a culture that does not know what to do with suffering. Therefore, Christians are in a good position to show others, by the way we deal with our own suffering, what to do. Unfortunately, in my experience as an Anglican Priest, I’ve seen very little evidence of this. For instance, our silent response to our government’s approval of Medical Assisted Dying. Why? There are many reasons, but I’ll list just a few. First, our Christian hope is not focused on the right thing, God Himself. The desire of our hearts is wrongly placed. We desire ‘what God can give us,’ rather, as I suggest above, ‘God Himself’. Consider what we (including the clergy!) normally pray for when we are sick? We pray for healing to get good news from the doctor, and that the suffering will go away. We treat God, not as God, but like a car dealer from whom we expect good service. Inevitably, as we want to think with a car dealer, we are disappointed with God because He does not give us what we want. We ask what ‘God can give us,’ rather than what God offers us, Himself.

You might be thinking, how is experiencing God going to help me in my suffering? What I need is relief from it? But what suffering do we most need relief from? We assume it is relief from physical suffering. Yet, as Augustine teaches us, this is not the case. The greatest suffering is living this life apart from God. For Augustine, the psalmist’s greatest fear is the possibility that God will turn His face away from him. The suffering most feared is to be left alone, apart from God, not physical suffering. That is what Jesus most feared and why, just before He died on the Cross, He cried out, why, O why my God have you forsaken me. Accordingly, Augustine says in his confession, my desire can only be satisfied when it can rest in you.

The second reason our Christian hope is not focused on God Himself but rather on what we can get from Him is because we are not willing to be challenged about our misplaced desires and poor behavior when we are suffering. It’s considered ‘insensitive’ by many clergy and lay people to challenge anyone about the nature of their faith and character when they are suffering. It’s not the time to challenge people about their behaviour, but instead a time to offer comfort. I do not deny it is the responsibility of both friends and clergy to assure the suffering person of God’s love and presence. Yet is that person open to the comfort God wants to give her in her suffering.

The misplaced desires and vices controlling us all at the best of times, are always magnified when we are suffering. For instance, if we are selfish in the best of times, we will be unbearably selfish and full of self-pity when we are suffering. If we are unkind to others when all is going well, we will be vicious to even our friends and family when facing trials. If we pride ourselves in being in control of our lives when all is running smoothly, we will not likely accept any help from anyone when suffering. I am sure you have met such a person and, if you are honest with yourself, experienced the same tendencies. Unless we are open to be challenged about our misplaced desires and vices when we are suffering, there is no hope of experiencing God’s comfort, hope, and love through His presence. God does not wish suffering upon us, but God will, if you let Him, transform you, and give you what you really need, Himself. Pain and suffering are not the ultimate enemy. The real enemy is believing we can turn our face away from God and going it alone in our suffering.

[1] For this essay I am drawing from Augustine’s interpretations of Psalm 26, 62, and 83. There are, of course, other psalms that address suffering. Yet, for the sake of time and space, I’ve limited myself to these three. For a source, I am drawing from ‘The Works of Saint Augustine: Exposition of the Psalms,’ (New York, New City Press), Vol. 1, 3, and 4. The format of each reference that will be included in the text henceforth will be (I:176, or II:190, or III:399) indicated the volume and page.

[2] Augustine, ‘The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century,’ in On Christian Belief (Hyde Park: New City Press), pp. 274-74.The

Dealing with Suffering: The Augustinian Way