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Why Do I Suffer? A Classic Sermon.

October 12, 2003

Bible Reading

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, "Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder." And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; tarry ye here, and watch with me." And he went a little further and fell on his face and prayed, saying, "O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt."

(Matthew 26:36-39)

Reading from Swedenborg

People who do not do good things or have true ideas can also have inner anguish, but it is materialistic, not spiritual. You can tell the difference because materialistic anguish is about material things, while spiritual anguish is about heavenly things.

Our inner struggles are fought over whether our good traits will have control over our bad ones, or the other way around. The bad traits that want to get control of us are in our outer, material self, while the good ones are in our inner spiritual self. If our bad traits win, our material self will be in control of us. If the good ones win, our spiritual self will be in control.

We fight by using the true things in the faith that we get from the Bible. We should use these to fight against our bad traits and false ideas. If we fight from anything but these we will not win, since the Lord is not involved in anything else.

Since we have to fight through the true things in faith, we are not allowed to experience these fights until we have a concept of what is true and good, and have gained some spiritual life from it. So we do not have these struggles until we reach maturity. (The Heavenly City #189-91)


Why do I have to suffer? David in his anguish wrote in Psalm 6:1-4:

O Lord rebuke me not in thine anger,
Nor chasten me in thy wrath.
Be gracious unto me O Lord,
For I am languishing.
O Lord, heal me,
For my bones are troubled;
My soul is also sore vexed.
But thou, O Lord--how long?
Return, O Lord; deliver my soul.

Why do people have to suffer if there is a good God?

This is a question that ministers hear often. Why do people have to suffer--often people who are innocent and not directly involved: the victims of war, of famine, of bad government, of racial persecution?

I cannot give a simple answer to these questions. Poets have given their answers--such as Adelaide Anne Proctor in Cleansing Fires:

Let thy gold be cast in the furnace,
Thy red gold, precious and bright;
Do not fear the hungry fire,
With the caverns of burning light;
And thy gold shall return more precious,
Free from every spot and stain;
For gold must be tried by fire,
As a heart must be tried by pain!

In the cruel fire of sorrow
Cast thy heart, do not faint or wail;
Let thy hand be firm and steady
Do not let thy spirit quail;
But wait till the trial is over,
And take thy heart again;
For as gold is tried by fire,
So a heart must be tried by pain!

I shall know by the gleam and the glitter
Of the golden chain you wear,
By your heart's calm strength in loving,
Of the fire they have had to bear.
Beat on true heart, forever!
Shine bright, strong golden chain!
And bless the cleansing fire,
And the furnace of living pain!

In order to understand some aspects of this problem, let us take a survey under three topics: the bodily, the psychological, and the spiritual.

The Bodily Aspect

Medical science now lauds the actuality of pain as a necessary indicator of a disorder in the human body. Without some pain we would not be able to realize that we are ill. The toothache points toward the abscess, the headache to the fever, the abdominal pain toward an inflamed appendix.

We could say that if we were able to avoid disease and its pains, we would not suffer pain. If we find the origin of disease, we can avoid it. Emanuel Swedenborg speaks of the origin of illness, or disease, in the lusts and passions of the sensory mind:

These are the causes: intemperance, overindulgences of various kinds, mere bodily pleasures, feelings of envy, hatred, revenge, lewdness, and the like, which destroy man's interiors. When these are destroyed, the body suffers, and they drag the person into disease and death. (Arcana Coelestia #5712)

These evils, Swedenborg says, close the smallest and most invisible vessels of which are composed the larger ones--as we would say, the cells and their blood vessels, which nourish them. If these cells are constricted by fear, passions, anxieties, and worries, they suffer a veritable famine, and can no longer function properly in the household of the body. They fail in their duties, some die, and deterioration of organs sets in. "Hence comes the first or inmost obstruction or vitiation of the blood. When this vitiation increases, it causes disease and finally death," states the anatomist of the eighteenth century (Arcana Coelestia #5726).

Today, medical science has even greater insight into the details of this process, but the general facts are the same. Even Paul came to this conclusion: "The wages of sin are death" (Romans 6:23). Pain, disease, and suffering come through a chain of processes, originating in the mental and spiritual life of man.

Mercifully, the Lord has enabled researchers to discover natural substances that ease pain and reduce suffering. These are used universally, except for those few hardy souls who refuse to take them from religious convictions such as that of Christian Science.

The Psychological Aspect

Of course bodily pains--the burning and aching, the stabbing pains--are really not perceived by us in the body, but in the mind. If we cut the nerve between the cause of pain and the brain that delivers the sensation to the mind, there is no longer pain. Therefore psychological pain is the real pain. A Harvard psychologist defines pain as "a primordial, undifferentiated sensory quality, pushed to a high intensity."

I think it is as bad as it sounds! Can anyone say what it is? Martyrs have been able to eliminate the pain of a burning body. The American Indian counted it as highest courage not to show any expression of suffering. In the medieval church, it was considered good psychology to scare people into being good by warning them of the sufferings of hell. Dante's Inferno became the handbook for all priests who wanted to scare their congregations, and the paintings of the Renaissance are full of the aspects of suffering in hell. Yet since the bodies of the wicked were never consumed, the fires of hell must have been psychological.

As this method of keeping people on the narrow path of sinlessness is still practiced today in certain churches, it will not be amiss to quote from Emanuel Swedenborg:

Those on the left hand are called cursed, and their punishment is said to be eternal fire. As it is written, "Then will he say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'" (Matthew 25:41). And again, "These will go away into everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46). The reason for this is that they turned themselves from good and truth to evil and falsity. In the internal sense of the Word, a curse signifies aversion.

The eternal fire into which they were to depart is neither natural fire nor the torment of conscience, but the lust of evil. For a man's lusts are the spiritual fires that consume him in the life of the body, and torment him in the other life. From those fires the infernals torture each other in dreadful ways.

It is evident that eternal fire is not natural fire. The reason why it is not the torment of conscience is that all who are in evil have no conscience; and those who had none in the life of the body cannot have any in the other life. All the fiery vital principle is from the loves in man. The fiery heavenly principle is from the love of good and truth, and the fiery hellish principle is from the love of evil and the false. Or what is the same, the fiery heavenly principle is from love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor, and the fiery hellish principle is from the loves of self and the world. Anyone may know by paying attention to the matter that all the fire or heat within man is from this source. It is for this reason also that love is called spiritual heat, and that nothing else is signified by "fire" and "heat" in the Word. (Arcana Coelestia #5071)

If any priest or minister speaks of the sufferings in hell, he should realize this vital fact.

The form and the order imposed by the Lord on the hells is such that all are held bound and tied by their own cupidities and fantasies, in which their life consists. This life, being a life of death, is turned into dreadful torments so severe that they cannot be described. For the greatest delight of their life consists in being able to punish, torture, and torment one another. They do this by arts unknown in the world, whereby they know how to induce exquisite suffering just as if they were in the body, and at the same time dreadful and horrid fantasies, with terrors and horrors, and many such torments.

The diabolical crew take so great a pleasure in this that if they could increase and extend the pains and torments to infinity, they would not even then be satisfied, but would burn yet again to infinity. But the Lord takes away their endeavors, and alleviates the torments. (Arcana Coelestia #695)

Any sufferings we undergo are therefore not the work of heaven, nor the punishment the Lord sends us for past sins. They are the workings of hell--of evil lusts and of false persuasions, of terrors, of fantasies, of terrible fears. Anyone who has been mentally ill can tell of sufferings he undergoes by the anxieties that afflict him, like the inexpressible mental anguish of involutional psychosis.

One answer we can give to this ever recurring question, "Why do I suffer?" is: I suffer not so much because of my body as because of my mind; because of its disorderly conditions, its weakness, its ignorance, its false persuasion. There is a core of truth in the contention of Christian Science that disease is mental; that pain is mental; that it can be eliminated by mental means.

The Spiritual Aspect

Last and most important, we must consider this human burden from a spiritual point of view.

For the wicked, pain is recurringly eternal and self-inflicted. As long as we are subject to the influences of the evil crew, we too will be afflicted, and we can cry as David did:

How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
And have sorrow in my heart all day? (Psalm 13:1, 2)

Yes, another answer to this question is: I suffer because I cannot avoid it.

This seems trite. But it implies the inescapability of suffering. It is in the granting of spiritual freedom by the Lord in every man born that the cause, the ultimate reason, of suffering lies; it is in human liberty. Without this freedom of choice, life would have no meaning for us; we would be animals or automatons. With this freedom, we are bound to make mistakes, and therefore suffer the consequences--which express themselves in pain, suffering, and distress.

Out of these, again, rise the cleansing fires of a purified soul and life.

Why do I suffer? Because suffering is the beginning of wisdom, and by divine permission, shows the right way to a new life! Even the Lord himself had to walk the way of suffering:

From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)

His spiritual sufferings in Gethsemane were so intense that sweat rolled down from his forehead like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

Spiritual sufferings lead to spiritual regeneration. "Spiritual temptations are pains of mind induced by evil spirits" (The New Jerusalem #187). These are the spirits of doubts, of uncertainty, of losing the sense of the presence and protection of the Lord. These pains we cannot avoid if we want to be victors over ourselves; if we want to gain the crown of life: submission to the desire of God, that we may become again his children, in his household, to eternity.

Is this the answer? I suffer because I must, in order to be purified of self-love? I suffer because without it I cannot know how badly I am involved with the world, and how enamored I am of myself!

Suffering is a way of regenerating the human gold--whatever gold there is. The Lord accepted it fully as a means to his glorification. Can we endure a far smaller portion of suffering than he did, so that we may be reborn from above, and enter the kingdom of heaven?


Dear Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we thank you not only for giving us the will and the strength to endure our suffering and our struggles, but also for sharing them with us. We thank you for coming to earth and facing all the physical, psychological, and spiritual pain and suffering that we face--and infinitely more. When we consider all that you did for us through your life here on earth, coming down from your place of glory to the ugliness and pain of this earth, and also facing the combined fury and viciousness of all the hells, our own sufferings seem so much smaller. Yet in our own strength, we would fail, and go down to spiritual destruction. Without your presence guiding us, strengthening us, loving us, we would be lost forever. And so we thank you for being with us constantly, feeling all of our feelings with us, sharing in all of our thoughts, knowing all that we do, and loving us with an infinite, eternal love. Amen.

Rev. Othmar Tobisch