Suffering and Viktor Frankl


I am not an expert on Theodicy, on suffering and its underlying meaning (or underlying lack of meaning). That being said, churches (especially the safe and affluent churches, but even the persecuted and vulnerable churches at times) have trouble with suffering.  It seems to me that part of the problem is that the church (we in the church) fail to deal with the complexity of this issue as presented in the Bible. There seems to be three general “strands” of thought in the Bible that are intertwined or braided into something not meant to be separated. It seems to me the church fails when it seeks to follow one strand and ignore the other two.

Strand One:  The Universality of Suffering. Genesis 3 and Ecclesiastes are the most obvious examples, but one can find it elsewhere. It is common to all, both good and bad, and as such, may have no ethical or redemptive “meaning.” Suffering Happens.

Strand Two:  Suffering is due to the Sinner. Suffering can be the result of specific sinful actions by specific sinful sinners. A person may suffer because of his own sin, or being sinned against by others. As such, God punishes the evildoer, and rewards or vindicates the righteous. Deuteronomy and Proverbs are the two strongest examples of this.

Strand Three:  Suffering is due to Faithfulness. Suffering can also be the anticipated result of faithfulness to God. Job, I Peter, and much of the Gospels support this strand.

Of course, if one embraces all three strands, there are challenging implications to the church:

  1.  When we see a person suffering, we should not be quick to judge. Perhaps we should not judge at all. But if suffering is universal/meaningless, or due to sin, or due to faithfulness, it is ill-advised to presume only one and ignore the possibility of the others.
  2. Suffering should not automatically be avoided. Jesus was described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and calls us to suffer with him. This does not mean one necessarily should be seeking to find suffering and then to wallow in it. But I think it does mean that the paths of the righteous are likely to take us both to green pastures and still waters, and through the valley of the shadow of death. It may well be that the former is the hope, but the latter is the norm.

With this in mind, here is a sizable quote from Viktor Frankl in his work, Man’s Search for Meaning (Part One). It describes finding meaning in a German Concentration Camp in World War II. It is not Christian Theology or written by a Christian. Sadly, many who were causing the unjust suffering would describe themselves as Christians. However, he speaks of “Life” in a metaphoric fashion that in some places can seem to mean “God,” or in other places, “the path/s that God has ordained.”

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.

Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!”(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of “getting through suffering” as others would talk of “getting through work.” There was plenty of suffering for us to get through.

Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his oedema, by confessing, “I have wept it out of my system.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s