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Love and Suffering

Richard Rohr teaches that God uses love and suffering, and especially suffering, as universal paths to reach and change us.

Two universal paths of transformation have been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering. These are offered to all; they level the playing fields of all the world religions. Only love and suffering are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dualistic thinking, and open us to Mystery. In my experience, they like nothing else exert the mysterious chemistry that can transmute us from a fear-based life into a love-based life. None of us are exactly sure why. We do know that words, even good words or fine theology, cannot achieve that on their own. No surprise that the Christian icon of redemption is a man offering love from a crucified position!

Love and suffering are part of most human lives. Without any doubt, they are the primary spiritual teachers more than any Bible, church, minister, sacrament, or theologian. Wouldn’t it make sense for God to make divine truth so readily available? If the love of God is perfect and victorious, wouldn’t God offer every human being equal and universal access to the Divine as love and suffering do? This is what Paul seems to be saying to the Athenians in his brilliant sermon at the Areopagus: “All can seek the Deity, feeling their way toward God and succeeding in finding God. For God is not far from any of us, since it is in God that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28). What a brilliant and needed piece of theology to this day!

Love is what we long for and were created for—in fact, love is what we are as an outpouring from God—but suffering often seems to be our opening to that need, that desire, and that identity. Love and suffering are the main portals that open the mind space and the heart space (either can come first), breaking us into breadth and depth and communion. Almost without exception, great spiritual teachers will have strong and direct guidance about love and suffering. If we never go there, we will not know these essentials. We’ll try to work it all out in our heads, but our minds alone can’t get us there. We must love “with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength” (Mark 12:30).

Finally, there is a straight line between love and suffering. If we love greatly, it is fairly certain we will soon suffer, because we have somehow given up control to another. That is my simple definition of suffering: whenever we are not in control.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See