When asked, most people identify their most serious problems as issues related to their physical health, or finances. Family and career issues also rank up there.
But 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. The worst they can do is to make life unpleasant, or kill us; then we get to go home and meet God if are faithful.
Therefore, to God our most serious problem is our sin. This was well-illustrated when, at one point in the Gospels, a paralyzed man was presented to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said “Your sins are forgiven.” Yes, that’s right, Jesus looked at a paralyzed man and saw his sins as the most serious thing to be dealt with first.
We don’t think like this. And even when taught that we ought to think like this, we still don’t think like this.
But since it is true that pride is our most serious problem, and all the sins that flow from it, then we do well to ponder how suffering can be one of the things that God permits in our life so as to keep us from becoming too prideful. For to God, it is better that we suffer some here, learn humility and be saved, than to remain prideful and go to Hell.
Personally, I will say, I have gifts and blessings. But if it weren’t for some degree of 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 very humble, and calling on God.
St. Augustine reflects on this in his great work, The City of God. The work, which he considered his greatest, was occasioned by the decline of the Roman Empire and the sacking of the city of Rome by barbarians under Alaric in 410 AD. 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. “Sacks” are not pleasant events. Some were killed, many women were raped, grave damage was inflicted on the city, and the property of many was damaged and taken.
In chapter 28 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. He says:
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.“
But 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.
And he 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.
And 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 a far worse enemy called pride.
As such, we must also conclude that when God allows suffering for this purpose he also gives grace so as to help us avoid extreme anger or despair. And thus St. Augustine concludes his reflection:
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 serious toll that sin takes upon us, and the extreme danger that it causes in our hearts. Hence we reject any medicine at all, let alone strong medicine. But God will not spare us merely to please us if in sparing us he would lose us.
Suffering a course is complex and mysterious. That God permits it cannot be explained by any one thing. But as Saint Augustine makes clear, we ought not to overlook the salutary effect that suffering can bring 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.