Unjustifiable suffering challenges people’s faith in God’s benevolence and righteousness. People have difficulties relating unjust suffering with belief in a compassionate and generous God. Some people get angry with God in light of their suffering and cease to trust Him since they do not feel His righteous and providential presence in their lives.
Believers, seeking comfort and solace in times of need, turn to God. The basis of their hope is their faith in Christ. Based on the remembrance of God’s benevolence in creating, sustaining, redeeming, and sanctifying the world, they refuse to consider their present suffering condition as the ultimate and final experience of their life in the world. Instead, they choose to hope, because they trust in God’s actions in Jesus Christ. Their hope is not a vague emotional attitude of optimism that ignores historical experiences of suffering and affliction. Christians – having experienced God’s benevolent presence in their lives and remembering His marvelous deeds of creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world – trust God. They are confident that He will continue to lead them through the travails of history to His Kingdom.
How, then, do Christians cope with conditions of loss, drawing strength from their memory of God’s mighty acts in the world’s life? The suffering of Jesus – his crucifixion – interprets peoples’ lives in history, and his resurrection discloses God’s ultimate justification of those who suffer unjustifiably in this life. The disciples of Jesus believed that He was the ‘Messiah/Christ’, the very presence of God in history whose mission is to unite the world with God. His suffering and His humiliating death on the cross were a numbing experience for them. It filled their hearts with fear and disappointment. How could he be the expected Messiah if his life ended on the cross? The early Christians chose not to forget or abandon trust in God because of disappointed expectations. The direct response of God to the passion of Christ is his resurrection that brings to the world a greater future. His disciples refused to forget the suffering, the crucifixion, and the death of Christ, and his resurrection filled their hearts with a hope of a future that depends on God’s love and compassion. The resurrection of Christ instills hope amid despair. Christians amid loss remembered that life consists in mighty acts of generosity and transformation on the part of God exemplified in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Memory generates hope
Christians are people who affirm that God, who has done past acts of transformation and generosity, will continue in the present and in the future to act in a compassionate and transformative way. It is a fundamental and indispensable element of the Christian faith that the profound loss in the death of Jesus did not disrupt God’s power and resolve in the world. Christ’s resurrection defines how God is present and operates in history. Thus, the Church is a community of memory who experience seasons of loss as seasons of passionate memory, remembering God’s steadfast love (for His faithful love endures forever). Amidst suffering, affliction, and hopelessness, they declare the confidence that God will act on their behalf, as expressed in the book of Lamentations: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, Therefore, I will hope in him” (Lam 3:21-24).
Christians believe that the future is shaped not only by human efforts and the laws of nature but also by God’s gracious transformative presence and acts, as it has been done in the past. God continues to do what God has always already done. Christians are convinced that Jesus, the crucified one, who had healed the sick, had forgiven the guilty, and had raised the dead, would do more. The resurrection of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit communicate in the most robust possible way the determination of God to grant to the world a future beyond the travails of history. The Easter event embodies God’s power and the gift of the new creation that He grants to the world. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, articulates a life of faith amid suffering:
“We boast 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 that has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).
Christians, remembering what God has done for the world’s salvation, refuse to give in. God has not finished His work in the world. Their remembrance signifies that things are not yet finished for the disciples of Christ, and God must complete the future that is now beginning.
The capacity to turn memory to hope during loss and suffering is not a psychological trick. Instead, it is a statement about the fidelity of God, a crucial factor in our past and our future. Christian hope is grounded in the reality of God, who will and does work newness.
Christian hope is hope not only for those who believe in Christ but for the whole world. The Gospel affirms that in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s reign for the creation has begun in a new way. This hope reaches the world through lovingkindness, compassion, and faith practices. In the New Testament, the Church’s central claim is that Christ’s spirit is at work to bring God’s rule among us. The coming of God’s reign, according to Jesus, will come suddenly:
“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or cockcrow, or dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:35- 37).
Amid personal and communal affliction, suffering, and tribulations, the Church hopes that God has intervened to grant us life in abundance. This intervention of God on behalf of His beloved creation and the suffering humanity is considered a gift that admits that things are beyond people’s control, but, in the end, everything will turn to good. Therefore, in faithfulness to God’s love and compassion, people should look beyond their present conditions because, in the end, the future belongs to God (Eph 3:20-21).
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Massachusetts. His academic interests include ecumenism, the public presence and witness of Orthodoxy in a pluralistic world, and globalization and religion. Clapsis is the author of Orthodoxy in the New World and editor of The Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic World: An Ecumenical Conversation (2004). He has served as the vice moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and has participated in the theological dialogues of the Orthodox Church with the Evangelical Lutheran Church (USA) and the Roman Catholic Church. Clapsis holds a BA from Hellenic College, MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and STM, MPh, and PhD from Union Theological Seminary (New York).