Orthodoxy Today
Finding Meaning in Suffering

Chaplain's Corner
Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California

Many people hold the common belief held that life should not include hardship and suffering and that events that occur, and the way people act should be the way we want them to be. Psychologists have picked up on this attitude system as a major source of emotional disorders. Karen Horney (1950) called it the “tyranny of the shoulds.” Albert Ellis (1962), talked about - demanding expectations - that people and events should always follow our preconceived ideas. Psychologists have attempted to find the meaning of illness, suffering, and death. Just the titles of some books by one well-known psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, illustrate such attempts: Man's Search for Meaning (1959); The Will to Meaning (1969); The Unheard Cry for Meaning (1978).

Different religious traditions have attempted to understand suffering. Hindu tradition considers suffering a consequence of inappropriate living. Buddhism considers suffering a form of craving, not dissimilar to the shoulds and demanding expectations discussed by Horney and Ellis. Buddha teaches: "No sufferings befall the man who is not attached to name and form, and who calls nothing his own." (Dhammapada 17: 221). The Koran, in Islamic tradition, points out: "If ye are suffering hardships ... but ye have Hope from God, while they have none. And God is full of knowledge and wisdom. [4:104]. In Judeo-Christian Sacred Scripture, the Book of Job presents the quintessential spiritual perception. From a human perspective, although Job's sufferings are unjust and inexplicable, nevertheless, he retains his commitment and trust in God.

Our Eastern Church Father, St. Maximus the Confessor, (Philokalia II), expands on this theme but also provides insight into other possible motivations individuals may have: "A man endures suffering either for the love of God, or for hope of reward, or for fear of punishment, or for fear of men, or because of his nature, or for pleasure, or for gain, or out of self-esteem, or from necessity."

Finally, to find meaning in suffering we could apply the teaching of St. Isaac of Syria: "A time of trial is beneficial to everyone: the diligent are tried so that their wealth may increase; the lax, so that they may be preserved from harm; those spiritually asleep, so that they may prepare themselves for watchfulness; those who are far from God, so that they approach Him; those who are God's close associates, so that they may come closer to Him in freedom of speech." (Brock, 1997).


Brock, S. (1997). The Wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.

Frankl, V. (1959). Man's Search for Meaning. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Frankl, V. (1969). The Will to Meaning. NY: New American Library.

Frankl, V. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning. NY Simon & Schuster.

Horney, K. (1950 Neurosis and Human Growth. NY: Norton.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. Ware, K. (trans.) (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2:; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: June 5, 2001

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