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Suffering and Human Relations

September 3, 2012

My last post on suffering drew a great deal of attention which leads me to believe it might be beneficial to spend some more time on the subject. While part of man’s uniqueness is his ability to make intelligent inquiries about suffering, this knowledge does not provide him any relief.  In fact, a great deal of human history has been engrossed with the avoidance of human suffering.  All too often this quest to avoid the unavoidable only leads to further suffering.

According to a Christian understanding of suffering, this state of being is intimately related to our alienation from God.  As Archimandrite Zacharias explains the teaching of Elder Sophrony, this alienation from God is at the root of suffering, “In paradise, man was in communion with God, and God was life and security for him.  Disobedience, and the fall into sin, disrupted this life-giving union with God, and thus death entered the life of man with all its devastating consequences.  Man lost the security and support that he had from God, the Giver of life.  Out of fear and the struggle for survival, he then conceived his own way of life, based thenceforward on his natural created powers.  Previously, he had kept the commandments of God and enjoyed every good thing and lived in incorruption.  After the transgression, however, wishing to be protected from the threat of extinction, he took refuge in the following three substitutes or pseudo-supports:  i)self-will and the persuasiveness of his logical reasoning; ii)the pleasures of the senses and the desires associated naturally with reproduction; iii)the possession of material goods.  Each of these alienated him from the life of God.  The fall into the whirlpool of these three forms of alienation disposes the conscience of man negatively with regard to God, to his neighbor, and to the world.  In his relationship to God, he gives preference to himself.  In his relationship to his neighbor, he is led by the passionate desire to dominate, and in his relationship to the material world, he is given over to the frenzy of inquisitiveness.”

In sum, there are two layers to the experience of human suffering in all its forms. On the one most basic level, man feels and is fragile, when outside of the loving experience of intimate union with the most compassionate God. But when man experiences that union, nothing causes him fear. This explains the courage and even bliss of the Christian martyrs in the face of horrific suffering. It’s the kind of union with God that the blessed Elder Porphyrios mentioned when he said, “If I have Christ, even if I go to hell, it will be paradise.” So suffering in our relationships ultimately has to do in part with our union with God. But on a second level, our clearly maladaptive means of coping with alienation to God has brought about ways of engaging with the world that only increase suffering. These are willfulness bound to narrow self-centered reasoning, unbridled sensuality, and relentless acquisitiveness. These essentially selfish ways of thinking, feeling, and desiring are what causes suffering in relationships.  This focus on the gratification of the self excludes the possibility of relating in a meaningful way to others, including God, other human beings, and the material world.  When one’s focus is the self, there is no room or time to be concerned with anyone else.

The way out of this self-fulfilling constrictive circle of egoism is to seek God by obedience to His commandments (rather than the willful fabrication of our own commandments), by a measured life of Christian asceticism (rather than sensuality), and a generosity in a readiness for almsgiving (rather than acquisitiveness). This three-fold replacement of the pseudo-supports of the Fall will then open the way for the greatest endeavor in human life and the perfect response to suffering: imitation of Christ’s kenotic love, a love that is focused on the other rather than the self.  In words of our previous blog posts, the aim is to move from philautia to love.  In chapter four of my book, I turn to Saint Maximus for illumination, “By our intelligence we should be stimulated to overcome our ignorance and to seek the one and only God by means of spiritual knowledge; through desire—through a passion of self-love which has been purified-we should be drawn to longing for the one God; and with an incensive power divorced from all tyrannical propensity we should struggle to attain God alone.”

Of course, this only happens when we are awakened to our state of emptiness, isolation, alienation, and sin through the grace of the Holy Spirit.  This grace leads us to repentance and a yearning for what we were created to be.  This yearning awakens within us further repentance and a desire to cast aside philautia.  Only then can we begin to value relationships with God, others, and the material world.

From → Suffering

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