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Physical Pain and Moral Suffering

Posted by Jeff Cavins on 3/12/16 7:00 AM

womanwithheadache_racorn.jpgImage: Racorn.

In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, St. John Paul II says that “suffering is almost inseparable from man’s earthly existence.” He defines two kinds of suffering: physical suffering and moral suffering.

The distinction is based on the double dimension of the human being, the bodily and spiritual elements of humanity.

Physical Pain

It's the kind of suffering we are all familiar with: when the body is in pain. It could be a cold, it could be cancer, it could be a broken limb, or it could be injuries from a car accident.

Some kinds of physical suffering are specific to age and gender. Physical suffering is more out in the open, more difficult to mask or hide than other kinds of suffering.

Physical suffering can be a career-ending injury or a dull ache that depletes us of joy and vitality. My interest in the topic of suffering started in earnest when my C6–7 disk in my neck ruptured, landing me in physical agony.

In my case, as many others could attest to, my physical suffering was coupled with moral suffering.

Moral Suffering vs. Pain

Moral suffering is when the soul hurts. It might be the result of a betrayal. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job. Whatever triggers it, moral suffering means that our soul is hurting.

Moral suffering is oftentimes hidden and not as noticeable as physical suffering, and many times it’s harder to treat. The great classic by St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, describes in detail the heart that is suffering in a spiritual or moral sense.

MotherTeresa_ManfredoFerrari_halfwidth.jpgBoth Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and St. Padre Pio talk at length about their seasons of desolation and emptiness. St. Faustina describes in her diary how “the soul is engulfed in a horrible night.” All three of these saints experienced this kind of suffering, but the world was not aware of the depth of their suffering until after their deaths.

Why? Because they knew what to do with it. We will learn more about this later in this book.

The Old Testament is filled with examples of both kinds of suffering, but particularly moral suffering. The danger of death. The threat of a flood. The death of a child. Infertility. Being exiled and longing for Canaan. Mockery and scorn. Loneliness and abandonment. Difficulty understanding why the wicked prosper.

The unfaithfulness of a friend or neighbor. While we generally try to avoid any kind of suffering, given the choice, many people would choose physical suffering over moral suffering. Many would choose a broken leg over a broken heart. Both kinds of suffering can leave us exhausted and bring us to the realization that we ultimately have our limits and cannot solve every problem in life.

Suffering tells us, loud and clear, “You are not in control of your life; you are a victim.” In one way this is true, for St. John Paul II tells us that suffering has a “passive character.” Suffering is something that happens to us, not something we do. While we do have control over manyareas of our life, we often make careless or profoundly imprudent decisions that result in physical or moral suffering.

But all too often, suffering happens to us as the result of circumstances that we couldn’t control or foresee happening. Because suffering is “passive” in character, we often experience a sense of injustice or a “why me?” attitude. After all, if we had a choice, we would never have chosen this discomfort. It’s like we want to yell as we exit the doctor’s office, “All right…who is to blame here?”

What we find in the end is that sometimes suffering is brought on by our decisions or lack of skill in a given area, but other times, suffering has no explanation as to its origin. We know one thing, though, and that is suffering happens, and it happens to us. What we will learn in the following pages is how to respond.


Learn more about St. John Paul II here!


Moral SufferingSt. John Paul II describes the world of suffering as being divided up into many parts that exist “in dispersion.” He goes on to say, “Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that ‘world,’ but at the same time that ‘world’ is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity.” 

This means that your suffering is unique and unrepeatable. This will be important to remember later in the book when you will discover the keys of what to do with these unique and unrepeatable suffering events in your life.

While your suffering is unique, St. John Paul II reminds us that our suffering “possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering.” 

In my early forties I had my neck fused as a result of a long and painful injury, which I mentioned briefly above. After my neck healed, it wasn’t unusual for me to meet others who had had the same experience.

It was uncanny—we understood each other without even saying a word.

It was as if we were members of some secret club that only those who had suffered similar pain would understand.

Our group saying was, “Been there, done that.”

Image: Lechon Kirb.

Check out When You Suffer, by Jeff Cavins, published by Servant Books.

When You Suffer by Jeff Cavins