What we heard this morning in the reading of the Gospel is an example of greatness: great suffering, great endurance, great faith, great compassion. This man had been suffering for 38 years – half the lifetime of most men – and yet he did not give up hope. He lay by this pool in Jerusalem waiting faithfully for the coming of the angel who would stir the waters, providing for those who were able to enter at that moment the healing from infirmity. But this man, though he had waited for 38 years and had seen the waters stirred many times and many men healed, himself continued to suffer for he was unable to get to the pool in time for his own healing. But he did not give up, he did not despair, but he continued to wait for his moment, trusting in God’s provision that the time would come when he too would be healed. He suffered greatly, over many long years: he suffered from his illness, he suffered disappointment, he suffered abandonment and loneliness (for there was no one who cared for him). And yet he endured: when time after time, he failed to reach the pool in time to be healed, still he continued to struggle to obtain the grace of God that would restore him to health. He did not despair, he did not give up, he did not become angry, he did not curse God. He accepted and endured his life trusting only in God. Just the other day we also remembered Job the longsuffering who endured many trials and who suffered greatly, and who, despite the temptations even of his closest friends and family, refused to fall into despair and refused to curse God. So it was with this paralyzed man – he suffered greatly but endured it, never losing hope and trusting in God.
What is the purpose of such suffering? Why does God allow such suffering to exist in the world. Could He not just eliminate all suffering from our lives? And more to the point – why does God allow me to suffer? Have I not chosen to serve Him, have I not given up everything for His sake, have I not embraced Him? Does He not love me, does He not care for me? Why does He allow me to suffer so? My suffering may not be as stark and visible as this paralytic described in the Gospel, but still I suffer within the depths of my soul and body. Still I suffer more greatly than anyone knows. How is it that God does not eliminate my suffering?
We ask these questions only because we do not understand what suffering is and we only see things from the perspective of our immediate comfort and ease. St Nikolai (Velomirovic), bishop of Zicha, explains for us the true origin and place of suffering. Let us hear what he says to us:
“Blessed is the man who, with patience and hope in God, endures all suffering in this life. … Blessed is the man who does not carp at suffering, but examines its causes with patience and hope in God. Where will the sufferer find the causes of his suffering? He will find them in himself, or in his parents or neighbors – it is here that the sufferer will find the causes of his suffering. King David suffered for his own sins; Rehoboam suffered for the sins of his father, King Solomon; the prophets suffered for the sins of their neighbors.
“Were a sufferer to seek the further and deeper cause of his suffering, where would he find them? He would find them in the original faithlessness of man towards God or in the dark and malicious spirit of evil in a poisoned darkness without day, or in God’s loving and healing providence – here will the sufferer find the further and deeper cause of his suffering. Adam and Eve suffered for their faithlessness to God; the righteous Job suffered from the dark and malicious spirit of evil; and the young man born blind, whose eyes were opened by the merciful Lord, suffered to the glory of God and his own eternal reward.
“It is natural for a sensible man always to seek the causes of his suffering first in himself, and for the foolish constantly to accuse others. The sensible man remembers all his sins from childhood onwards; he remembers them with the fear of God and with the expectation of suffering for his sins; and so, when suffering does fall on him, through either his friends or his enemies, from men or from evil spirits, either sooner or later, he at once knows the causes of his suffering, for he knows and remembers his sins. The foolish man, though, is forgetful, and forgets all his unrighteousness; so, when suffering falls on him, he writhes in torment and asks in amazement why he has a headache, why he should lose all his money or why his children should die. And, in his foolishness and fury, he will point his finger at every being on earth and in heaven, as at the one responsible for his suffering, before pointing the finger at himself – the one really responsible for it.
“Blessed is the man who uses his sufferings, knowing that all suffering in this brief life is loosed on men by God in His love for mankind, for the benefit and assistance of men. In His mercy, God looses suffering on men because of these sins – by His mercy and not His justice. For it it were by His justice, every sin would inevitably bring death, as the Apostle says: ‘Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.’ (James 1:15). In place of death, God gives healing through suffering. Suffering is God’s way of healing the soul of its sinful leprosy and its death.
“Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin. Everything that men generally call evil is not, but is a bitter medicine to heal from evil. The sicker the man, the more bitter the medicine that the doctor prescribes for him (or perhaps the more radical the surgery to excise the illness). At times, even, it seems to a sick man that the medicine is worse and more bitter than the sickness itself! And so it seems at times to the sinner; the suffering is harder and more bitter than the sin committed. But this is only an illusion – a very strong self-delusion. There is no suffering in the world that could be anywhere near as hard and destructive as sin is. All the suffering borne by men and nations is none other than the abundant healing that eternal Mercy offers to men and nations to save them from eternal death. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace-filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.
“…It is not suffering that will lead the soul to death but sin, that brings sickness to men and death to the soul. Sin is the seed of death, a horrific seed which, if it is not uprooted in time by suffering and burned up by the fire of the Holy Spirit, will grow and fill the whole soul, making it a vessel of death, not life.
“It is, therefore, clear that suffering must be borne with patience and hope in God, with thanksgiving to God and with joy. ‘O what great troubles and adversities Thou hast shown me’, King David says to God in the Psalms (70:18-21), ‘and yet didst Thou turn and refresh me; yea, and broughtest me from the deep of the earth again… Unto Thee will I sing upon the harp. O Thou holy One of Israel. My lips will be fain when I sing unto Thee, and so will my soul whom Thou hast delivered.’ The Apostle Peter even counsels the faithful: ‘Rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings.’ (1Peter 4:13); that means consciously and with understanding, meekly and with patience, for the cleansing from our sins, for new life, for the nurturing of the living Christ in us and around us. When the great Chrysostom was dying in exile, tormented and despised by men, his last words were: ‘Glory to God for everything.’ ” (Homily on the third Sunday after Easter)
Suffering, you see, is the not a just punishment for sin meant to somehow “make us pay” for our sins, but rather it is a powerful medicine from the Great Physician to heal us of the sickness of sin with which we are infested. It is the means by which sin is driven out and excised from our soul that it might no longer have any power over us. We may not understand the “mechanism” of this action – but how often does the patient understand the “mechanism” of the medicines prescribed for him by his physician. Just as a patient will trust his physician, so we also, trust our God, our Great Physician, and gladly comply with all that He prescribes for we know that He desires our healing so that rather than be filled with sin and death, we might be filled with His grace and His Life.