The Concept of Suffering

The origin of human suffering is surrounded by mythical tales, but its reality is as a fact as the rising of the sun. Creationists propose that following Adam’s fall into the temptations of the serpent, the first parents and their offspring were condemned to a life of hardship, struggle and toil on earth. However, most forms of suffering that men encounter do not have a direct connection to a divine pronouncement. in the present circumstances, suffering is widely perceived as a lack of material possessions. Thus hunger, disease, and poverty in the third world are seen as the most painful experiences that human beings undergo. Understood from this perspective of material things, suffering is perceived as lacking the basics of life that make life comfortable. On the other hand, having the means to satisfy one’s needs and wants such as food, shelter, medical care, and other luxuries is seen as the ultimate escape from suffering. To relate this to the texts under study, Job’s suffering is understood in terms of the loss he incurred after losing his wealth. In other words, suffering is the same as being poor.

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Nevertheless, suffering is commonly imbued with religious meaning, originating in God’s pronouncement of punishment upon man in the Garden of Eden. Regardless, while the origin of suffering is attributed to divine punishment, the circumstances under which it is effected (as we will see in the two texts of reference) sometimes pities man as a victim of forces beyond his control. At the same time, it happens in contexts created by man himself, thus making him liable for his woes. Poor leadership and economic practices, for instance, account for much of the suffering in poverty-stricken countries. Like the horny suitors who lusted after Odysseus’s wife and plotted to kill his son Telemachus (Homer 212), man is as guilty as much as he might be a victim of circumstances. In addition, suffering takes different forms, some of which are not necessarily the affliction of pain or death: Queen Penelope suffered widowhood for twenty years and the pestering and ridicule of suitors who had camped in her palace for ten years. Job, on his part, suffered the loss of his wealth and children, and the torture of his soul in search of an answer as to the reason for his misfortune. In close reference to the biblical Book of Job and the legendry epic of the Odyssey, the paper seeks to explore the concept of suffering as experienced and understood by humankind.

In the Book of Job, the adversary, commonly referred to as Satan, hides among God’s sons (probably angels) and attends a heavenly council. When God asks him about his recent escapades, Satan replies that he had been wandering up and down the breadth and length of the earth. God then seeks to know how His most loyal servant, Job, is doing. However, Satan points out that the said loyalty is based on Job’s prosperity which God had endowed upon him. Perhaps feeling challenged (I reckon the one incidence in which Satan’s cunning got the better of God’s character), He allowed his adversary to take away Job’s wealth and children. For He said, “…you incited me against him, to destroy him without cause” (Homer 125). When Satan struck, all of Job’s possessions were raided and stolen or destroyed by enemies, and his ten children were killed by a stormy whirlwind. When this material loss failed to make him sin or curse God, Satan appealed: “But stretch out your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse you to your face!” (p. 126). And so Satan was permitted to visit Job with sores and boils all over his body, of whose itches he scrapped day and night with shards of pottery.

In the Odyssey, King Odysseus of Ithaca goes to war against the kingdom of Troy, alongside other Grecian warriors. However, he gets lost on the return journey, resulting in a dangerous and occasionally adventurous wandering in the wild for ten years. But then, his woes are perpetrated by a divine enemy, the sea god Poseidon, chiefly for blinding his son Polyphemus (Homer 410). He also comes into contact with a witch-goddess named Circe and the nymph Calypso, who separately take him captive thus prolonging his journey home. In his final voyage, the sea god Poseidon wrecks his ships and kills his companions, and he has swept ashore where he meets the Phaeacians, the shipbuilders who eventually take him home. Once in Ithaca, he kills the suitors and reclaims his palace.

Well, Job did not deserve the loss and pain he suffered. In the opening verse of the book, we are told that “the man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil” (Scheindlin 132). His sufferance, it is evident, was instigated and permitted by Satan and God respectively. Within this context, suffering is interpreted as circumstances brought to bear upon man by forces he cannot control. He never acted in ways that would have plunged him into perilous conditions. He suffered simply because Satan was permitted to destroy his possessions and family. Similarly, Odysseus did not profane the gods as to warrant ten years of a torturous journey. Like Job, he was a victim betrayed by the god Zeus, since it was he who let the evil Poseidon prey upon the Greek hero. The kind of suffering the two characters was subjected to was the doing of evil forces rather than fellow human beings. It then comes to our conclusion that hardships experienced in life are a result of the existence of evil spirits, who are the sworn enemies of mankind. In this regard, people are not guilty in their unfortunate circumstances, but victims of negligence by the deities. Note that it was not until the goddess Athena intervened that Odysseus successfully returned home to Ithaca. Left alone, he was vulnerable to the whims of Poseidon, just as Job was exposed to the avarice of Satan.

In a Nigerian movie, Games Women Play, a bride-to-be challenges her friend that her fiancé is so faithful that he would never be tempted by any other woman. A price tag of a hundred thousand naira is offered if she manages to charm her way into his heart. She reluctantly agrees for such games are against her character. However, the man under test is ensnared by her innocence and beauty, and in effect falls in love with her. In Job’s case, it would be the “Games God Plays”. He was so confident in Job’s loyalty that he challenged Satan into a game of testing the innocent man. Unfortunately, the game was played in a realm above mortal power, such that Job could do nothing to defend himself. The point I’ve been maneuvering to make in so many words is this: heavenly gods, whoever they are (pardon my atheistic attitude), use men as pawns when challenged by the underworld forces to prove their supremacy. The result is the woes to which the creatures are exposed in the contest between evil and good. From a perspective more earthly and closer home, politics becomes the realm within which forces in government and the opposition fight for the upper hand. If the ongoing motion on the Health Bill in the US Congress was the determining factor in 2012, then the democrat and republican gods would engage in a contest for power, in which case the common man is the pawn for the politicians. In extreme cases where election results are contested, it escalates into violence in which like Job and Odysseus, hapless citizens are sacrificed for causes they have little control over.

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Nevertheless, the servants accompanying Odysseus drowned as a result of their sacrilege against the gods, when they hunted on forbidden grounds. The suitors, on their part, plotted evil plans against Telemachus, and as a consequence was killed by his father. It is on rare occasions, therefore, that men suffered as retribution for their evil actions.

When Job sought an explanation for his misfortune, Elihu, one of the friends who had come to console him, challenged him in provocative rhetoric. In chapter thirty-six, he asserts God’s supremacy by saying: “Behold, God is exalted by His power; who teaches like him? Who has assigned Him His way, or who has said, ‘You have done wrong?” (Scheindlin 136). The idea advanced in this text is that the gods cannot be questioned regarding what befalls their subjects, even when it was a result of their (gods) actions or negligence. In the Odyssey, the supreme god Zeus is not tasked to account for the warriors and servants who died. Neither is God brought to account for the innocent children of Job who died.

From the texts, it seems that the sure way to relieve suffering is by being steadfast in one’s loyalty to the deities. Job gained his former status by maintaining his love and respect for God. Odyssey made it safely back home because he found favor with the gods, especially the goddess Athena. To Job’s wife, however, he would have ended his misery by cursing God so that he will die and escape the pain of his sores. In death, it is implied, one becomes unconscious of the circumstances of life, and beyond the reach of evil forces.

Perhaps of most concern is the value and role of suffering in life. Religious and traditional cultures portray suffering as a punishment for evil doing. The gods, it is said, expressed their anger over human beings for the latter’s transgressions. Suffering is therefore regarded as a means of correcting inappropriate behavior, and the evil spirits are the gods’ agents of executing their plans. God used Satan to test Job, just as Zeus allowed Poseidon and the other gods of the underworld to prey upon Odysseus and his men. In religious teachings, it is a common belief that the present unfortunate circumstances of man are temptations crafted by the evil one, from which all mankind will be relieved upon Christ’s second coming. Nonetheless, after observing that only the humblest of humanity believed in this folly, Karl Marx concluded that religion is the opium of the poor. Logic and rational reasoning will show that it is by conscious actions that men get into problems and the same means by which they can liberate themselves. As Immanuel Kant once observed, men only need to ‘dare to think’ and emancipate themselves by the power of reason.

In conclusion, suffering is not a definite concept with a fixed meaning. People suffer differently in various contexts. The poor man suffers because of hunger; like Job, the sick man suffers because of physical pain. And when calamities descend, even the rich suffer: as did King Odysseus in his 20 years of wandering in the wild.

Works Cited

Homer, Lombard. Odyssey. New York: Hacket Publishing, 2007.

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Scheindlin, Raymond. The book of Job. New York: W.W.Norton, 1998.

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