Suffering And Love In Teilhard’s Spirituality

What if suffering, and the energy generated through suffering, could be focused and used to make a positive difference in the world? Louis Savary invites us to consider insights offered by Teilhard de Chardin, who saw an inherent potential in suffering as a source of activation in an evolving world.

Pain and suffering are found everywhere and in all walks of life. Suffering is an especially difficult issue to deal with for Christians. How can we explain why an unconditionally loving God would allow people to suffer? How can love and suffering fit together?

The two most common theological explanations of why God seems to allow suffering are these:

  • First, suffering is simply punishment for sin; if you sin, you suffer.
  • Second, God allows us to suffer so that we will learn important lessons, such as patience, compassion and wisdom.

Teilhard’s is perhaps the first to offer a new perspective on suffering. He does it by integrating the facts of evolution into a theology of suffering. In an evolutionary world, Teilhard says, God doesn’t send suffering. Suffering is inevitable simply because we are living in an evolving world. Much of the suffering people undergo is unintentional and unavoidable, primarily because we live in such an unfinished world. We are a humanity that is still struggling to grow into its emotional and spiritual maturity.

Even before humans emerged on Earth, the rest of creation had been struggling and suffering for eons. From humanity’s earliest age, people have struggled against the elements of nature. Genetically, life has also gotten very complex. And the more complex something like the human genome is, the more chances there are for things to go wrong. For example, because our genetic make-up is so incredibly complex, it is inevitable that in some cases during conception some gene will make a small copying error or fail to completely copy itself, and a child will be born with some genetic defect like Downs Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy or a deficient heart muscle or a proneness to a certain physical or mental illness.

Every day, people suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. There are thousands of ways in which we are diminished simply because evolution has not moved forward and upward as fast as we might wish. We suffer, almost always, simply because we live in a still imperfect, crowded world.

Of course, we sometimes cause our own suffering or we cause suffering in others by our greed, cruelty, jealousy and pride, our wanting to be first, to have power over others. Many of us are still emotionally and spiritually immature and so we unconsciously support and do nothing to lessen our exposure to violence and cruelty in the world.


Suffering is Our Problem as Well as God’s

An evolving world is inevitably an unfinished world and an imperfect world. Even in this 21st century, we have not yet reached the spiritual maturity required for humanity to live together in loving unity—as one great healthy and happy family caring for one another. This is God’s desire and Jesus’ hope, that the human race would realize that humanity becoming one grand loving unity is the goal or purpose of this great evolutionary project that God has set up in creating an evolving universe. And we are meant to be workers with God in bringing about the fulfillment of this divine project.

Because Teilhard was both an evolutionary scientist and a theologian, he was trying to put all this together. In doing so, he had a number of realizations related to pain and suffering:

  • Pain and suffering are inevitable and unavoidable in our evolving world. God is not the cause of our suffering. Rather,
  • God has an evolutionary project going on that started at the first moment of creation. And that project is still very incomplete—and it is very complex and will require our fullest consciousness.
  • Doing this work, building the kingdom of God, requires energy.
  • Much of our human energy is expended in our activities designed to improve the world and help achieve the divine project.
  • Much of our human energy is also expended in suffering—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual suffering.
  • Much—maybe even most—of that pain and suffering is caused by the ordinary unwelcome diminishments we endure in life.


How Does Suffering Fit In?

Teilhard had a great insight about suffering and its role in helping to fulfill God’s plan or project for the world. Suffering, Teilhard realized, generates ENERGY. Suffering produces a whole lot of energy. We produce energy by the effort we expend in our activities to make a positive difference in the world. We expend energy as well in our suffering. It requires energy, sometimes tremendous energy, to endure pain and suffering.

Instead of wasting that energy, says Teilhard, we can use it—just like we use our work energy—to make a positive difference in the world. Think of the energy we generate in suffering as if it were fuel—like coal, oil or natural gas. We can take the potential energy locked up in any fuel and either use it in productive ways or waste it. We make it productive by channeling it. We direct it by our choice. Our suffering energy is potential energy. We need to direct it, to channel it.

Christ teaches us that suffering can also release energy in us for the construction of a universe of loving union. He says: “No greater love has anyone than one who lays down one’s life for one’s friends.” One dies not merely to save the lives of others, but that those others may go on living constructively, that they may have life and have it in abundance.

Why is our work energy effective? Because the intention behind our work is to make a better world, to help bring about God’s kingdom on Earth. It is our loving intention that makes the difference. Our loving intention and our choices direct the energy we produce toward our positive efforts to help build the Body of Christ. Why can’t the energy produced in suffering, by our intention and choice, also help build the Body of Christ? Teilhard says it can. Whether we’re productively laboring in a factory or we are at home in bed trying to deal with an illness, we are generating energy. And we can direct it. Aim it. We can give it to Christ to use it for God’s grand project.

Just as we sometimes waste time doing nothing, we can also waste energy. And suffering energy is the easiest energy to waste. When we treat suffering energy as useless, it gets wasted. But it doesn’t have to be so. 

outstretched hand


Energy Can Be Directed by Intention and Choice

Just as I may choose how to invest my money, my financial savings, by my intention and choice, I may choose how to invest my energy, generated from my labor as well as from my suffering, by my intention and choice. That is the big realization Teilhard had.

This is how he summed it up:

Human suffering, the sum total of suffering poured out at each moment over the whole earth, is like an immeasurable ocean. But what makes up this immensity? Is it blackness, emptiness, barren wastes? No, indeed: it is potential energy. Suffering holds hidden within it, in extreme intensity, the ascensional force of the world.

For Teilhard, this ocean of suffering energy could help transform our world in love. Teilhard goes on to explain how to use suffering energy:

The whole point is to set this force free by making it conscious of what it signifies and of what it is capable. For if all the sick people in the world were simultaneously to turn their sufferings into a single shared longing for the speedy completion of the kingdom of God through the organizing of the earth, what a vast leap toward God the world would thereby make!

Knowing that God has this grand evolutionary project going on, I can choose to direct the energy of my work and my suffering, through Christ, to carry on the work of God’s grand plan of organizing the Earth as a loving place. Teilhard says Christ is our model for using the energy of suffering to transform the world.

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