In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, I stayed for a time next door to an elderly one-eyed man, who was horribly ill. Mosquitoes in that part of the world carry cerebral malaria, which can be fatal, and often I would see him suffering another attack: sitting on the ground in the shade, trembling and perspiring, trying to smile, trying to speak French, trying to say things that would please me. His name was Job. He prayed to Mary all day long and read The Imitation of Christ. One day, when he had the book in his hand, I asked what his favourite passage was, and he read me two or three sentences: “Oh that the eternal day had dawned already over the ruins of time!” Looking at me for agreement he went on: “The blessed take their delight in the beyond, but we poor banished children of Eve groan under the bitterness and boredom of this present life.” He sat on the ground, caressed the book with his large root-like hands, and turned on me a single fevered eye that seemed to focus all the pain of existence itself.
His resemblance to his namesake in the Book of Job was uncanny. The fictional Job in the Scriptures had as painful an existence as the real Job in Bangui. The Book of Job is an intense meditation on the problem of innocent suffering. Job compared human life in general to forced military service, to the work of a day labourer, and to simple slavery – three proverbially wretched states of life. But his ‘comforters’ provided no comfort, only the aggravation of pat answers, which Job rejected at once. They told him to repent, believing (as people did at that time) that all suffering was because of sin. Instead Job appeals to the love God has for him; his human friends have failed him, but he takes it for granted that his divine friend will come looking for him. It is crucial that in the Book of Job there is no evidence of belief in a next life. This bars all the obvious pat answers. Nevertheless Job refused to give up his trust in God's love, and very soon he is talking to God and not to his ‘comforters’.
This is surely the key: there are no pat answers to the problem of suffering; it cannot be put to rest by any theories or explanations. Suffering is not just a problem for the mind; it touches our whole being: body, soul, and spirit. What it calls for is not an answer but a response. In the Christian faith, Jesus is God’s response to human suffering. God did not send us an abstract answer. He sent his own Son, who came and “lived among us” (Jn 1:14), who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Phil 2:7).