Black and white photo of feet in chains

Does Suffering Serve a Purpose?

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In this post I’ll be giving a snapshot of the life and thought of Anicius Boethius, a figure who lived around the 6th century AD and has been described as the last of the Romans and also the first of the scholastic philosophers.

Who Was He?

Generally regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the Middle Ages, Boethius was imprisoned for some time by Theoderic the Great, who was King of Italy for a time and controlled a stretch of the Roman Empire. Boethius was accused of plotting to overthrow Theoderic, who eventually executed him, but not before he wrote his most famous work entitled Consolation of Philosophy.

Stylistically similar to some of the Socratic dialogues of antiquity, the book features a dialogue between Boethius and the spirit of philosophy personified as a woman. The work was translated into old English by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century (although some scholars dispute Alfred’s part in the translation), and later by the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

What’s the Big Idea?

In the Consolation of Philosophy Boethius argues that there is a higher power and that all suffering serves a purpose. He wrote that true happiness cannot be gained through the pursuit of money and power, but is found through philosophical detachment and the acceptance of hardship.

My Reflections

I think we all wonder at one time or another whether our suffering serves a purpose. In some religions, such as Hinduism, we are seen as responsible for our suffering due to the karmic consequence of our prior actions either in this lifetime or previous lifetimes. Within Christianity, suffering for the sake of the gospel is seen as honouring to Christ and to the glory of God.

I believe God is in control of all our suffering, and contrary to the perspective of many atheists, I would agree with Boethius that the suffering God brings us through serves a higher purpose. There have been times in my life when I have been truly broken by suffering, but without fail God has always turned my life around and brought me into a place of greater clarity and healing. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate.

I believe God is working out a plan for all His creatures, that may not make sense in this lifetime. When faced with life’s trials, the rather stoic acceptance of hardship recommended by Boethius can be seen as admirable, although I would add that we need a tremendous amount of grace in order to be able to see suffering, which at times can seem gratuitous, in a positive light.


In next week’s Friday Philosophy post I’ll be profiling Saint Anselm, whose ontological argument for the existence of God has been highly influential in the history of philosophy. If you’d like to receive an email with every new post, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!

17 comments

  1. Steven,
    Loved reading about Anicius Boethius. I read about him in my European history class, but they go through everything so fast that they only mentioned his name once calling him a “philosopher.” I concur with your reasoning that suffering brings us closer to God. I have been through tremendous amounts, and whenever I am in the midst of it, I cling closer to God rather than draw away, and it is in those moments that I am strengthened in Him. He becomes closer than ever, even. I think of what C.S. Lewis said, “…suffering is not good in itself. What is good is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”
    Great post!
    With joy in Christ,
    Emily 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Dear Emily,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment! That’s cool that you took a European history class, I’m sure I could learn a lot from you. I love studying philosophers and learning a bit about history along the way 🙂

      Peace and blessings!

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m no history buff, so this is cool to read about. It reminds me of a novel called the Wothing Saga, which is a Sci-fi where there are people who take away all pain and suffering throughout the universe. When they encounter someone who convinces them that they are depriving people of some of the best parts of life by denying them pain it’s a real eye opener. It changed the way I view suffering anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Absolutely I believe there is a beautiful purpose in suffering. And in fact this knowledge can bring some joy in suffering, knowing that there is something greater in the other side. I best example was when my son died. It was the worst (and best) thing to ever happen to me (so far). How?! Why?!! How can this be?? Because as one reason alone (although there are many honestly) before I had my son, I was cold-hearted and unsympathetic, seeing the world in stark black and white. Then through the trial and pain of holding my son in my arms as he lived and died, I felt Love literally plant itself in my heart. At some point later, once the initial shock had worn off and I was able to think and reflect, I gained the gift of sympathy and empathy. A hard lesson learned. I have much more patience and peace than I had. And I could go on and on… but suffice it to say, his life (and death) was a Gift to me and I am forever grateful for that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Wow, Tara, thanks for sharing about your son. I can relate somewhat, as losing my mother taught me some similar lessons. My mother’s illness and spiritual journey have been a huge influence on my own path through life. Blessings and hugs xx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s true that there is always reason behind our suffering and if we follow the path of total surrender then HE surely comes to our rescue and minimizes the effect of the sufferings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your style is lucid. I just need to add that within Hinduism, most schools of thought agree that Karma which you mention implicitly, can be & is wiped out entirely by the action of Ishvara qua YHWH. But a more faithful reading of Hinduism is that all suffering evolves in every aeon, and with the end of an aeon, all suffering evolves anew. The problem with this is, the English language is dualistic Either/Or. Suffering is, as it were, not a function of our actions, but is within the esse of Ishwara. Therefore, all that appears evil including radical evils will recur endlessly. I hinted at this in an essay I wrote long ago: https://philpapers.org/rec/CHACAT-15 … it is erroneous to think Hindu time as either cyclical or Hindu understandings of suffering as being causal.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent article, Steven Colborne. Your ref to Karma resonates with me. In Hinduism, there is no escape from law of Karma. It gives us enough indications, based on our actions, how the effects are going to be. Good Karma results in good things and bad karma results in bad things. Once the person undergoes suffering, he or she will realise, repent and dare not do the mistake again. It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A note on Interfaith:
    I really appreciate the perspective you seem to have which allows a convergence point to be validated by your open mindedness and observational skills. It is rare that I can read Monotheistic Philosophy without a feeling of compression in my chest. But I can read yours and actually breathe, because it is clear that you really are interested in the conversation, and a meeting of minds, even if some of us are divergent from your major threads. You seem more interested in the common threads, which is lovely.

    Also, I like your take on suffering, which seems to birth a notion of surrender being necessary to receive the “gift” on the other side, or even within hardship. I see a common thread with the 4 Noble Truths in Buddhism there, connecting your unspoken notion of “surrender” (shared with many of my favorite Christians), with the 4 Noble Truth’s notion of non-attachment (for those who do not know, see here for a crude summary of 4 Noble Truths: https://www.school-for-champions.com/religion/buddhism_four_noble_truths.htm#.W_2V8y2ZPwc).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shey! It’s great to be linked up, good to meet you and thank you for your kind comment.

      I wish I was as open-minded as you suggest! The truth is I am often too defensive about my beliefs. But in my defence (of my own criticism, ha!) it’s only because I feel passionate about philosophy and theology and feel I have something meaningful to contribute to the blogosphere and the wider world.

      Interesting that you raise the topic of surrender, as this is something I would like to write about. I have a friend who talks about surrender (he’s very into Eastern philosophy) and I always disagree with him, because I believe God is in control of everything that happens. So if I were to surrender to God (or to anything else), it would be God causing my surrender, which means – because it’s not a free act – I’m not sure whether it would really be surrender at all.

      Do you understand the point I make and what are your thoughts on that?

      Thanks for the link! 🙂

      I’m looking forward to reading more of your creative writing.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

      Like

      1. Great to cyber-connect with you, also!

        Thank you for being so transparent about your beliefs. I share your passion for philosophy. Theology is a tricky subject for me, but certainly interesting, and at times, compelling.

        Since you asked, I would like to share that my interpretation of what you described about understanding the place suffering has in our development, I really do see surrender in the attitude that would allow one to accept painful circumstances and trust there is higher purpose. And I would like to make a distinction between surrender and submission. Submission is what happens when there is a power structure where one is superior and another inferior (i.e. power over). Surrender is knowing you have power, and that you can exercise it, but choosing not to. It is letting go of control and attachment to outcomes, and placing yourself in the hands of the Divine, in total trust and knowingness that “His” will, as you put it, is the will you choose for yourself.

        I posit that scripture does highlight the importance of free will rather explicitly. We always have a choice, or we’d be robots. Love is choosing to be with someone, not being forced to be with them (i.e. submission). Commitment is choosing to be with someone, come what may (again, non-attachment to the outcome, or surrendering to whatever comes as the will of God).

        Is this making sense? Even if God makes the change in you that leads to your choices, it is still you making the choice, or your love would be empty.

        I will stop there and wait for your response.

        Also, the fact that you asked for my thoughts, and are open to having this conversation, speaks to the open mindedness I perceive.

        I look forward to reading more of your work as well!

        Blessings,
        Shey

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Shey,

          Thank you for your thoughts. There was quite a lot in your comment, but I’ll respond briefly with a few general points which will hopefully help you to understand my worldview.

          I believe God is omnipresent, meaning His being has no boundaries. If this is true, then existence and God are essentially the same thing. Omnipresence means there is no place where God’s being ends, and freedom from God begins. Instead, every atom in existence is a part of God. The universe is contained within God. In this context, freedom from God (or free will) is impossible.

          I don’t believe we are like robots, but I do believe we are very much like puppets. God is the active cause of all activity in existence, including our thoughts, words, and actions. He is beating our hearts, circulating our blood, growing our hair, growing the trees and plants, moving the planets, etc.

          I believe we have to view suffering in this context. All suffering is willed by God, so the really important question is why? Well, I believe all suffering serves a purpose in God’s plan. When we suffer, that suffering is under control, and limited. While we may suffer terribly for a time, it seems to me that God is ultimately merciful, and liberates beings from suffering either through healing, a change of circumstances, or death.

          Perhaps without suffering God wouldn’t be able to express Himself fully. I also consider that there may be ways in which God Himself suffers (see this post).

          If this theory of reality interests you, I would recommend this post as a more comprehensive overview.

          I hope you don’t mind me linking to posts in this comment, it’s just that I don’t like comments to be overly long. Also, a lot of thought has gone into these articles so it makes sense to share them.

          Thanks again for the dialogue!

          Blessings,

          Steven

          Liked by 1 person

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