Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)
We have no hesitation in accepting that some suffering may simply be down to bad luck. It’s no one’s fault and certainly not the sufferer’s. However, for much of human history the sufferer or someone close to them had to be to blame. God looked after the righteous and no ill would befall his chosen ones, providing they remained faithful. If it did, it was a sign that they or their forebears had sinned. There was no such thing as innocent suffering.
A positive step away from this simplistic notion can be seen in the Book of Job, where having been stripped of all his possessions, and seeing his wife and family killed, Job remains faithful. When his comforters try to convince him that his suffering is a punishment from God he pours scorn on them.
It’s a remarkable book and Job’s attitude to his supposed friends is one to be applauded. However, its theology is despicable, for in the opening chapter we learn that God has allowed Satan to inflict such pain on Job simply to prove his steadfastness. Such a God is unworthy of faith and morally indefensible.
For our sanity and well-being we must cling to the notion of innocent suffering. A lazy commentator would resort to speculating over which lifestyle choices and decisions might have brought about a person’s downfall. All decisions have their consequences but the outcomes, whether positive or negative are not inevitable or easy to predict.
Asking “Why me?” is easily answered in medical terms, but as an existential question it makes no sense. Any thoughts about God must begin from our conviction that innocent suffering is a possibility; the concept of it occurring as a result of sin is ludicrous. The “punishment” simply doesn’t fit the crime.
In the Gospels Jesus is asked of a man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” ” Neither” he replies, and suggests that the man’s blindness presents an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. Perhaps we should approach our own suffering in the same way. If possible we must try to gain some benefit from it, and in the management of it, learn empathy and a greater understanding of ourselves and others.