St. Augustine on Suffering as a Medicine

The feast of St. Augustine this Tuesday provides us yet another opportunity to learn from him. We can ponder his teaching on suffering and its role in preserving us from something far worse.

When asked, most people identify their most serious problems as those related to their physical health or their finances; family and career are also often mentioned.

Frankly, our biggest problem is pride and all the sins that flow from it. Nothing is more serious than our sins, which can destroy us forever. Worldly problems are temporary. They can make life unpleasant or at worst kill us, but then we get to go home and meet God if we are faithful.

Therefore, to God, our most serious problem is our sin. This is well-illustrated in the Gospels, when a paralyzed man was presented to Jesus: Jesus looked at him and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Yes, Jesus looked at a paralyzed man and saw his sin as his most serious problem and the one to be dealt with first.

We don’t think like this even when taught that we should.

Because pride and the sins that flow from it are so serious, we do well to ponder how God permits suffering in our life so as to keep us from becoming too prideful. To God, it is better that we suffer some here, learn humility, and be saved, than to remain prideful and go to Hell.

I have received gifts and blessings, but if it weren’t for some suffering and humiliation in my life, I’d be so proud I’d go right to Hell. There’s just something about suffering that can keep us humble and continually calling on God.

St. Augustine reflects on this in what is considered his greatest work, The City of God. It was occasioned by the decline of the Roman Empire and the sacking of the city of Rome by the Barbarians under Alaric in 410 A.D. Augustine wrote the work to ponder how a once-mighty empire had fallen into such decay.

There were of course many sufferings inflicted on the citizens of Rome by the Barbarians. “Sackings” are not pleasant. Some people were killed, many women were raped, grave damage was inflicted on the city, and much personal property was damaged and/or taken.

In chapter 28 of Book 1 of the City of God, Augustine ponders why God would have allowed such suffering, especially to the Christians of that city, and in particular to the Christian women of virtue who were raped.

At times, his reflections seem almost unsympathetic, but in effect St. Augustine points to humiliation and suffering as a strong but necessary medicine for pride, which is far worse than any of the ills suffered to remedy it.

St. Augustine begins by disclaiming any ability to offer a complete explanation for suffering:

If you ask me why they [the Barbarians] were allowed the liberty of committing these sins, the answer is that the providence of the Creator and Ruler of the world transcends human reckoning, and that “incomprehensible are his judgments … unsearchable his ways.

Augustine then adds (somewhat boldly) to those in Rome who suffered,

Nevertheless, carefully scrutinize your own souls and see whether you were not unduly puffed up about your virtue.

He then ponders,

They [those who suffered] may possibly have in them some latent weakness which could have swollen to overwhelming pride had they escaped this humiliation…. So violence snatched something away from them lest prosperity should endanger them.

He goes on to conclude,

But they learned humility …. And were delivered from a pride that had already overtaken them … a pride that threatened them.

What of us who have suffered? We ought not to exclude the possibility, even the likelihood, that such suffering is permitted by God in order to humble us and keep us from the far worse of pride.

We must also conclude that when God allows suffering for this purpose He also gives grace to help us avoid extreme anger or despair. St. Augustine concludes his reflection in this way:

God would never have permitted these evils if they could destroy in his saints that purity of soul which he had bestowed on them and delights to see in them.

Reflections such as these do not generally please modern ears. We do not usually like the notion that God permits suffering for some greater good. Too easily we call Him unfair and harsh for doing such a thing. We prefer to think of Him as a doting grandfather rather than the disciplining Father described in Hebrews 12:4ff.

Our dismissal of suffering as a medicine is largely because we fail to see just how serious a sin pride is. We are dismissive of the tremendous toll that sin takes on us and the extreme danger that it causes in our hearts. Hence, we reject any medicine at all, let alone any strong one. However, God will not spare us merely to please us if in so doing He would lose us.

Suffering is complex and mysterious. That God permits it cannot be explained easily, but as St. Augustine makes clear, we ought not to overlook its salutary effect through the humility it engenders.

That, in and of itself, is a very good thing; for pride is our worst enemy.

This song, translated from the Latin, says,

Sadness and anxiety
have overtaken my inmost being.
My heart is made sorrowful in mourning,
my eyes are become dim.
Woe is me, for I have sinned.

But you, Lord,
who does not forsake
those who hope in you,
comfort and help me
for your holy name’s sake,
and have mercy on me.

4 Replies to “St. Augustine on Suffering as a Medicine”

  1. Suffering can also be used to cleanse our souls of the other six deadly sins. Sometimes the Lord asks special souls to suffer for the conversion and salvation of others. They are called victim souls.

  2. The flip side of the reasons for suffering is to have an opportunity to to reflect God’s nature in the midst of evil and suffering. To follow Christ in embracing the duty of a humble servant and reflecting the very nature/character of God.

  3. Thank you Rev.Msgr , for a needed reminder,that the sufferings of the whole Mystical Body , united to that of The Lord brings about a closeness to Him that otherwise may not be there .

    The crisis we are facing in The Church might have been allowed for the purpose of helping nations such as China and India that are said to be facing problems related to millions of men in excess of the number of women – their loneliness and issues with the possibility of leading to many other issues .

    Our Lord talks about His suffering from being left alone by His children , in the Tabernacles of the world , that many of the issues in priesthood would have been prevented or resolved , if enough focus given to same .

    Would there be even the culpability to the extent that , if enough focus had been given to same, many of the current problems may have been avoided – China , India having become more Christian, Europe , faith and families flourishing ..

    Hope we do not get distracted from such fundamentals , because of the enemy tactics and instead would see the world as family, would be blessed to see the dimensions of the problems faced- which is what very likely our Holy Father is doing , seeing the sea of issues from one end of the world to the other , trying to navigate through tight channels , desiring to do the most good to the most and the needy in the best manner possible .

    St.Augustine’s land too – in need ..

    Hope that those who are asked to step aside to spend time in prayer would find their time fruitful enough , that those who are to be brought back to be useful for the Church would be allowed to do so – even as our Lord did not cast aside Peter after his fall , that those who have to make the tough decisions would be in the prayers of the faithful .

    And may prayers of St.Jose[h help us to have good dreams , that one day soon, these lands would be filled with Adoration chapels all around , that what we are facing now are just labor pains , to make that possible one day soon enough , that many like Bro .Francis would be there to find solace and comfort in The Lord , the Immaculate Heart that ever desires to bring us to The Son thus rejoicing as well .

    Thank you and God bless .

  4. Dear Msgr Pope

    Many thanks for another thoughtful article. I have always been able to kind of “get” the value and role of redemptive/medicinal suffering in regards to persecution for the faith or sickness. However, when it comes to the infliction of crimes of a sexual nature, the suffering seems so vile, so intimate, so against the purity of a person, so prone to devestate their psychological and emotional well-being, a torture worse than death possibly, that I have often wrestled with the question of how could this be allowed to happen?

    Perhaps I will not be able to fathom this in this life, as our perspective is so limited. The only thing that comes to mind is “nothing can separate us from the love of God.

    God bless you and thanks for being a light in my life.

Comments are closed.