The Mystery of Love and the Redemption of Suffering

A Child and His Mother

The redemption of suffering and the mystery of love are inseparable. The response to suffering is not to stop caring—that, in fact, is hell—but to experience a caring that sustains us in our humanity as it was meant to be. This is the redemption that the heart seeks.

The following example should help us understand the argument. A little boy falls down while playing and scratches his knees and arms. For a brief moment, he stays down on the pavement as if considering his condition. Then he looks around and sees his mother at a distance. He gets up and, crying loudly—as if in the most agonizing despair—he runs into his mother’s arms. She kisses and consoles him with soothing remarks. The child’s cry seems first to intensify, as if coming from deep inside his soul, but then it winds down rapidly. It is not surprising that, within a couple of minutes, he is even smiling. The wounds remain untreated—the pain has not disappeared—but something has happened such that the child is no longer suffering. Why?

Human suffering has two dimensions: subjective and objective. In our example above, the objective suffering of the child clearly relates to the pain of his scratches. This is the physical source of suffering. There is, though, another aspect to this suffering. Let us call it the psychological one. In our example, it would be the pain of not being able to continue playing—or the embarrassment, maybe, of being seen falling down.

Yet this is still not all. There is something else experienced for the first time, perhaps during those moments of surprise before the child cries. Yes, it could be that the child, frightened by his fall, has not fully realized what has happened. But I don’t think this is all. In whatever way we can imagine it in a small child, his surprise also contains a perception of injustice, of unfairness. This should not happen. Why do these things happen?

Perhaps this wondering, this protest, intensified when he noticed his mother because she reminds him of everything that is good and beautiful in life as he knows it. That, precisely, is why he begins to cry then. Some might think it is only to call attention to himself. I suggest that this is not all. His cry is also a cry of protest, and, for the moment, his mother’s attention (when he sees her and when she begins to comfort him) intensifies this protest. However, this is what his mother’s love has conquered. For, in the end, suffering is transformed by love.

The little child in our example is right: he should not have fallen down. Little children playing should not fall down and get hurt. Awareness of this little, perhaps insignificant, evil is but a hint of what can really happen in this world: the suffering of children dying of famine or in a natural disaster. Moral suffering, the experience of this evil, cannot be dealt with by physical and psychological therapies. Moral suffering is ultimately perceived as an absurdity: the why of evil can neither be answered within the physical nor even psychological orders because evil has its roots in something beyond.

That is why human suffering cannot be totally relieved by medicine and psychotherapy. It can appear to be so if the immediate occasion for suffering can be removed or if its deepest dimension is suppressed. But this is not real healing. Real healing takes place when the spiritual dimension of suffering is dealt with. This is why healthcare appropriate for human beings must seek the relief of suffering which may occur even if it is not possible to relieve physical or psychological pain directly. How is this done?

We can begin to understand this by returning to our example of the little child. Nothing was done by his mother to heal his physical pain. Whatever psychological suffering the child is enduring has not been treated directly. His mother need not say anything intelligible to him; in fact, if she tried to explain to him that he should have been more careful or how it is that the ground is slippery for some reason or another, the child probably would cry even more.

What the mother does touches the depths of his suffering. She touches and soothes the wound in his soul. She does this by affirming the relation of love between the two of them. Love enables her to share her son’s burdens and thus to lighten them, indeed, to lift them altogether. This interior healing touch made possible by her love relieves even her son’s psychological and physical suffering.

The Freedom to Love

Love, though, is impossible without freedom; but freedom allows the possibility of acting against love. The freedom to love is what allows the human being to escape the limitations of what science calls nature and to experience justice and injustice.

There is an experience of freedom that is especially revealing. I feel free when my needs are fulfilled in all their dimensions and manifestations. Freedom, therefore, is the capacity for perfection, the capacity for being made perfect.

But we know very well that nothing ever satisfies us in such a way that we’ll never desire more of it or something else. Our hearts desire infinite happiness, infinite satisfaction. Freedom is the capacity for infinity. I am free each time I walk along the path that moves me to infinity, to the stars. If I choose to act in a particular way that separates me from my infinite destiny, I lose something of my freedom and move closer to that abyss of not being free, that is, of “not being able to love anymore.” I can be rescued only when the attraction of infinity wins over whatever is attracting me away from it. This is the redemption of my freedom.

The redemption of suffering, inseparable from the drama of freedom, must also take the form of the attractive, loving presence of that “Someone very great” who leads me to the infinity of which I’ve lost sight. This Someone is willing to co-suffer with me and sustain me as capable of infinity—that is, as free. Whatever the Mystery of my origin and destiny is like, it must somehow possess and be defined by this capacity to sustain my freedom to love through co-suffering. If I call this Mystery “God,” then somehow the identity of God must be expressed as the Infinite Love revealed through co-suffering with humankind.

A Transforming Event

Suffering can be redeemed only by grace, by a love that is recognized as unconditional, boundless, infinite. Paradoxically, the drama of innocent suffering that can move us to deny God and hate the very possibility of God’s existence can also lead us to discover God. To co-suffer, though, means to risk our identity, and the God who redeems us from suffering must also be willing and able to take that risk, of appearing to us as “nondivine” or different from the absolute power that we associate with divinity. As the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said, if there is to be an “incarnation of Transcendence,” it can only take the form of absolute humility.

Human beings can humbly co-suffer with those whom they love, but, in the end, this co-suffering can only be limited. Our identity, so to speak, is not strong enough to fully sustain the identity of the one who suffers. In the end, human love by itself is always confronted with death. You cannot love someone so much that you can prevent that person from dying. But what if the co-sufferer is the author of our identity? Then this co-suffering would be stronger than death.

Redemption by “divine” co-suffering, therefore, is not a matter of justice rectifying the injustice of suffering, as Ivan Karamazov imagined. Such categories make no sense if love is the ultimate word about the drama of human existence. But if human existence is not about love, then it is not about freedom either. In that case, Cage’s observation that there is just the right amount of suffering in the world would be the right answer to the horror experienced by Ivan Karamazov, Germaine Greer, Elie Wiesel, and the many, many others who in the past century alone have come across the mystery of iniquity that is hell.

The redemption of suffering, as our experience indicates, cannot be found as an “ultimate answer” to a problem: it can only be an event that transforms the drama of suffering into a drama of love and shows love to be more powerful than its denial. The possibility of this event sustains a realistic hope and an unfailing determination to protect and defend human freedom and the dignity of human life.

Redemption does not eliminate suffering. Indeed, just as suffering creates a “world” of suffering, so does the redemption of suffering create a community of those who love and offer a home to those who suffer. Its presence in the world of suffering represents an invitation to free human beings to embrace a new vocation, a new mission: to join the community of “redemptive suffering,” to help complete what may be lacking in its inner resources to offer a home to those who suffer, sparing them from the loneliness that is hell.

Editorial Note: This essay is an excerpt from Cry of the Heart: On the Meaning of Suffering (Seattle: Slant Books, 2023). All rights reserved.