Why Do The Righteous Suffer – How St. Augustine Might Reply

This is an old question. Time and again, rational minds – great thinkers, theologians, philosophers, and right down to the most common person on the street – have paused at some point in their lives and asked themselves this question. How could a person not think such, especially when you think of situations like the Holocaust, or when a young child is brutally raped and abused by a trusted person, or when you find out that your loved one had a painfully crippling disease?

Therefore, it is with this question in mind that I begin my paper. I want to see what Augustine would say to the person who asked him this question. I also want to see how I can “ground” his answer at a level where it is applicable to the common lay person and the non-believer. I am asking myself how I could, or would, use Augustine to minister to someone who is suffering “righteously”. I wonder about this because I have found myself in numerous situations where I needed to answer this question, and I worry about the danger of becoming like the comforters of Job or a dry philosopher. Therefore, this paper will attempt to investigate what Augustine would say in his capacity as a pastor with regard to this question – that is, I would like to see how Augustine would pastorally counsel a Job in his ministry. I will investigate this by using the ideas Augustine puts forth in his book, On Free Choice of the Will.

When I looked at Augustine’s thoughts in this book, I saw that he did not really address the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” but he addressed the question, “Why do the innocent suffer?” And as I thought about this, I began to realize that the second question is the question that people are really asking when they ask the first one. How would Augustine answer my original question? Well, I think he would begin by pointing out the fact that, apart from Jesus, there are no righteous people, “there is none righteous, no, not one…” (Romans 3:10). After all, “our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:4), so to ask why the righteous suffer is moot. It is at this point that the argument would refine itself and the question about innocence is then raised in regard to apparently unjust suffering.

Augustine himself addresses this question when he engages the objection of “ignorant men” – “Why need the child have been born, since he died before he did anything of merit in life? How will he be judged in the judgement to come, since, having neither acted rightly nor sinned, he has no place, either among the just or among the sinners?[1] So then, the proper question that ought to be asked, instead of “Why do the righteous suffer?” is “Why do the innocent suffer?”

In response to this question, Augustine brings up the idea of a neutral judgement. He asks, “What is clearly superfluous, however, is any inquiry into the reward of someone who has merited nothing. There is no need to fear that there could be a neutral condition between right action and sin without there being a neutral sentence by the Judge between reward and punishment.[2] I think this is a very good point. However, I wonder I have to also realize that this is speculation on the part of Augustine. As far as I can understand my faith, I have yet to come across a portion of the Bible where a “middle ground” space is provided for the innocent. I realize that the Catholic Church does teach the doctrine of purgatory, but this is as far as I have heard of a middle ground. Beyond this, all I know of the afterlife is that it consists of two places, heaven and hell. But of course, it was because of this understanding that the “ignorant men” raise up their objection anyway. While reason would value Augustine’s point of view (which I hold to be extremely viable), a weakness I see is the fact that Augustine did not support this biblically. Still, I agree with this point and I think in counseling someone on this issue, I would definitely bring up this point by Augustine. I would have liked to see where in the Bible did Augustine get this idea.

The second point in Augustine’s argument is the question, “Why should there be any reward for innocence?” Augustine brings up the point that people would question why the innocent should suffer since they have not committed any wrong. To this, Augustine counters, “What reason is there to believe that anyone should be rewarded for innocence before he could do harm?[3] Where do we get the idea that innocence is something to be rewarded? As noted earlier, From what I think, Augustine thinks of divine retribution in this way: the righteous should be rewarded because of their active initiation, the innocent should not be rewarded because of their ‘neutral’ state, and the wicked should be punished because of their active choice towards evil. However, I am not too sure where he stands about the innocent deserving punishment, though. I believe that he does not give credence to the “reward of those who have merited nothing”. This is also a worthy idea. I find myself to be in agreement with this, but I would have to delve more into the issue of whether this means that the innocents are worthy to receive suffering. Sure, they may not get any rewards, but are the sufferings justified? And when I look at it from the point of the redemptive value of suffering, yes, then I think suffering is more justified.

The second point is then related to the third point, that is, we finite humans do not know enough to make a complete judgement and conclusion to this matter. Because of our finiteness, we are not able to see as God does. ““For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8). So then, Augustine proceeds to remind us about the fact that we are just finite human beings. He brings in the point about divine providence, where “all things work out for good,” (Romans 8:28) and that God will be faithful to finish the good work He began (Philippians 1:6). After all, “since God works some good by correcting adults tortured by the sickness and death of children who are dear to them, why should this suffering not occur? … Moreover, who knows what faith is practiced or what pity is tested when these children’s suffering break down the hardness of parents?[4] Augustine points out the consolation that people can find knowing that God is still in control the government of human affairs[5]. Because of God’s goodness, we can be certain that the present evil we see from our side of the story will eventually turn out to be the wonderful tapestry that God was weaving all along. Like a song goes:

God is too wise to be mistaken,

God is too good to be unkind,

When you don’t understand,

When you can’t trace His plan,

When you can’t see His hand,

Trust His heart.

Augustine challenges us, saying, “Who knows what reward God reserves in the secret place of His judgement for the children who, though they have not acted rightly, are not, on the other hand, weighed down by sin?[6] Indeed, this is a very important question that we need to ask ourselves. God is God, and we are not. As cliché or as empty as this sounds, it true! We do not know what really happens after we die. All we have to go with is the assurance that there is an afterlife, a judgement, a heaven and a hell. What happens to those who are beyond our scope of knowledge, is indeed beyond out scope of knowledge. One thing I learned about suffering was that it was not so much the ‘why’ of the situation, but the ‘what now?’ It’s not truly our place to really determine for us, with much finality, regarding questions that are God’s prerogatives. Our prerogative is our response to suffering. What will we do? “What faith [will be] practiced and what pity [will be] tested”?

This is an old question. Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike are divided over the issue. But then again, that is because we are human. It’s not our place to know… not just yet. So, if someone were to come up to me and ask me this question again, I would begin by refining the question to ask, “Why do the innocent suffer?” Then, I will go on to point ask why should there be a reward for innocence in the first place? And finally, I will lead the questioner to the point where he realizes his finiteness and his only response is to be like Job’s, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I have heard You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes sees You.” (Job 42:3,5).

The main thing for us to do now (whether we are counseling or being counseled) is to be led towards God. Whatever it is we do, we need to bring people to God, and He will deal accordingly with them. This is a mystery to me, but a mystery of grace. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then, I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Pursue love…” (I Corinthians 13:12-13, 14:1). If I might make my point a little clearer: Pursue Love, for “God is love” (I John 4:16).


[1] On Free Choice of the Will. p. 139

[2] Ibid. p. 140

[3] Ibid. p. 140

[4] Ibid. p. 140-141

[5] One of his two bedrock, undeniable beliefs. The first one is that God exists.

[6] Ibid. p. 141

I actually wrote this piece as an assignment for my philosophy class in ‘Augustine’ back in college. St. Augustine was a Medieval Catholic Bishop in the area known today as Africa. He was well-known for his attempt to amalgamate Christian theology and Greek (especially Platonic) philosophy. His most famous works are ‘The Confessions’, his autobiography and an epic treatise entitled ‘The City of God’. Copyright © 2000, Wong Giok Leigh. All Rights Reserved

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