Suffering, it seems, is an inevitable part of human life. Failure, loss of a loved one, social ostracism, trauma, mental or physical illness, relational alienation, addiction, a sense of God’s absence—at some point in our lives, all of us are touched by such experiences. For Christians, an important and difficult moment in our faith journey comes when we try to make sense of suffering—another’s or our own—in light of our belief that God is immanently and lovingly present in the world. Theologians have written reams on the vexed issue of how a good and all-powerful Creator could make a world in which innocent creatures suffer and die. They have also reflected frequently and deeply upon Jesus’s suffering on the cross, asking what it implies for Jesus’s followers. But what about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and suffering? It is this oft-neglected yet pressing theological question that I wish to probe in this essay.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the “groans” that issue from creation as it travails in wait for the fullness of its redemption (8:22). A few lines later, he speaks similarly of the Holy Spirit’s “groans,” which are “too deep for words.” With such groans, God’s Spirit intercedes for us when our knowledge fails, our strength wanes, and our prayers flag (8:26). Some Christians—including the fourteenth-century mystic St. Catherine of Siena and the twentieth-century theologian Jürgen Moltmann—have taken Paul’s words to mean that the Spirit suffers, even sheds tears, with creatures in our anguish.1
Does the Holy Spirit suffer? Weep? What, after all, is the connection between God’s Spirit and our experiences of pain, grief, disorder?
Drawing on the Bible and diverse aspects of the Christian theological tradition, in the pages that follow, I present three ways in which the Holy Spirit relates to human suffering. I argue, in turn, that the Spirit initiates suffering (Spirit as Agitator), attends suffering (Spirit as Comforter), and contests suffering (Spirit as Liberator). I conclude by underscoring the importance of careful discernment to determine the Spirit’s role in each particular event and moment of suffering.
A final introductory word about definitions. Richard J. Hauser, S.J. is one of the only contemporary theologians to address the question of the Spirit’s relation to suffering. In his insightful book, Finding God in Troubled Times: The Holy Spirit and Suffering,2 he defines suffering as “any perceived disorder, be the disorder major or minor … to the degree that it is perceived as a disorder, it qualifies as a suffering.”3 I appreciate this definition because it is appropriately narrow—it delineates suffering as the perception of disorder, along with the distress that accompanies it. At the same time, Hauser’s definition is suitably broad—it encompasses the untold variety of ways that humans experience and interpret suffering. This, then, is the definition of suffering I employ in what follows.
- Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 168-69; Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 11.
- Richard J. Hauser, Finding God in Troubled Times: The Holy Spirit and Suffering (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994).
- Hauser, 3.