Friday, July 28, 2023

DOUBTLESS: Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5.  The Given and the Existence of God.

How does the given help us with doubts?

Let's take a common enough question.  "If I cannot perceive God, how can I be sure that he exists?"  

In order to answer that question, we first need to highlight an important feature of the given.  What is it that makes people in all places and at all times share so many givens?  What is it that makes the Iliad or a Dickens novel seem so normal in 2023?

The answer proposed here is that while givens can have in certain respects a random character, the number of universal givens is restrained by consistency.  The reason we can still read the Iliad or a novel written in the 19th century is because, as a Plautus said, nothing that is human is alien to us.  The number of givens which persist since Homer's time is huge.  How does consistency play out? 

Consistency means that while the pieces and rules of chess are in some sense truly arbitrary, the fact that chess has been so widely played with such enthusiasm for so long testifies to a consistency of results.  Again, the fact that James and John have the same perceptual experiences in Peter's living room is another kind of consistency.  The agreement of the layman's visual perception and scientific opinion about the number of stars is yet another kind of consistency.  

So, consistency is the check on the given.  If we think about how we reject beliefs as given, we will tend to find troubles with consistency.  For instance, when someone tells us that the Egyptian (but not the Peruvian) pyramids were built by space aliens, we may involuntarily recall the reams of history we read about them and ask ourselves, "Could they all have been wrong?"  That is our appeal to consistency.  Such an appeal prevents us from falling for silliness.  

(The danger of of trusting in consistency when we move beyond the givens into the realm of fact is that Everybody Knows, like Science Says, can be used to extinguish all knowledge and discourse.  Consistency as we describe it limited practically to the belief of unprovable things.  Once verifiable knowledge is in play, consistency must exit the stage and give way to more exacting standards.)

Now, when we turn to the question of the existence of God, we are bound to admit that discussing God's existence is a lot harder than discussing the existence of, say, one's living room.  This is because God is by definition beyond being, whereas we are predisposed towards material things.  

In reality, the question of God's existence hides an important adverb.  When people say that you cannot prove God exists, it is because they imply "perceptibly."  Because we are all oriented towards the material world, we implicitly understand and accept that invisible adverb.  If, however, we candidly strip the question of its invisible adverb, the question becomes that of a given.  

We may suppose that God exists or that he does not.  We do not want to fall for the trap of proving a given, so we are limited to showing whether our given is consistent with what we know.  Since we are dealing with the creator of the universe, our given must be consistent with the universe.

Let's say that we suppose that God exists.  Is the universe consistent with the existence of God?  The incredible amount of order in the universe seems very consistent with a creator.  The purposefulness of life--of some--is consistent with the purposefulness of God.  Our sense of personality is consistent with a personal God.  The inconceivable magnitude of the universe, its equally inconceivable orderliness are consistent with an omniscient and omnipotent God.  We may in fact suppose that when St. Paul says that "the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead" (Ro. 1:20), he is appealing to consistency.  

On the contrary, let's say that we suppose that God does not exist.  Where does all the order come from?  From nothing.  Where does the purposefulness of life come from?  From nothing.  Where does personality come from?  From nothing.  Nothingness and our universe are about as inconsistent--or bizarre--as we can desire.  

When atheists are off camera, they admit to some pretty heart-breaking emotions, which they themselves trace directly to this inconsistency.  For the brave or sleepless, Albert Camus is a good example of how atheism plays out.  "The world itself, whose single meaning I do not understand, is but a vast irrational.  If one could only say just once:  'This is clear,' all would be saved."__1  Later, he adds that "man stands face to face with the irrational.  He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason.  The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."__2  There is no question that Camus is thinking as clearly as an atheist can think.  

He has clearly cottoned on to the inconsistency of his reason and desire for happiness and the inability of the God-less world to respond to him.  Indeed, his words are deeply wise, for they assure us that whatever we may think of the universe--its beauty, its majesty, its delightfulness--only God can speak to us, only God can respond to our "longing for happiness and for reason."  Without God the Word, we are crushed by "the unreasonable silence of the world.

Therefore, we can reasonably accept the existence of God as a given.  The consistency of this given with the universe is evident.  By contrast, the atheist, in the person of Camus, is all too keenly aware of the inconsistency of his own reason with the God-less universe.


1.  Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus:  And Other Essays (New York:  Knopf, 1955); reprint ed., New York:  Vintage Books, 1991), p. 27.

2.  p. 28.

Sunday, July 23, 2023


CHAPTER 4.  The Given.

Suppose Peter says to Paul, "That is a given."  That means that Peter refuses to argue or quibble about something--he completely accepts what Paul says. 

(1)  For instance, Paul might say that there is an uncountable number of stars in the sky, and Peter would admit, "That is a given."

(2)  Paul might during a game of chess say, "That's a pawn!  You can't advance him three spaces."  Peter would again admit, "That is a given."

(3)  Paul might say, "We are in the living room."  Peter would again admit, "That is a given." 

Let's look at each of these cases.  

In (1), neither Peter nor Paul can count the stars.  They cannot even be sure how to tell which astronomer can most reliably inform them of the number.  Yet the knowledge that the stars are incredibly numerous is so general that Peter doesn't argue.

In (2), there is nothing in the nature of the pawn that requires it to move only one or two spaces.  The agreement on this rule, which has no basis in the nature of things, is, however, so universal that Peter doesn't argue.

In (3), Peter does not even think about how to prove that he is in the living room.  He accepts the evidence of his eyes.  Note that the reliability of his eyes is also a given.

We can conclude that there are several different kinds of statements that we completely accept the moment we hear them.  Why are we so agreeable?

As for (1), we remember Lippman's remark on the limitations of knowledge.  
Conceding that something is a given can be as much an expression of modesty as it is of honesty.  Peter may not be able to prove that the stars are virtually uncountable, but (1) they constantly appear to be uncountable and (2) the consistency of every source he has ever considered on the topic has fairly beat him into conviction.    

The living room, though, is not only seen, but felt and even smelled.  Certain philosophers might tell Peter that his living room is not really there, that everything is an illusion, or at any rate that he cannot prove it is there, but Peter knows that if he ever invited such skeptics into his house, the first thing they would do is make themselves at home on his bean-bag chair.  They are bound to admit tacitly what he frankly acknowledges:  the living room exists.  

Finally, Peter's acceptance of the rules of chess may be due to his acceptance of convention.  He may also acknowledge that the experts agree broadly on what he understands to be the rules.  Finally, his enjoyment of chess makes convention and expertise unimportant; the pleasure he experiences depends crucially on his adherence to the rules.

As a last remark, we note that by conceding these givens and others, Peter saves himself and a lot of other people a huge amount of time by not insisting on reams and reams of unnecessary demonstrations of all potentially demonstrable facts.  He knows by experience that this unquestioning acceptance of seeming facts has paid off grandly.  


While his generous concession of givens has not cost him his life, the same cannot be said for everyone.  It is not clear how many lives were lost due to institutional resistance to Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis's hand-washing regimen for gynecologists.  A short look at maternal mortality in the 18th-20th centuries can be found here.  An interesting history of the subject may be found here.  I have an uneasy feeling that the medical establishment has still not finished with Dr. Semmelweis.  For instance, this article explains that contemporaries rejected his views as a post hoc propter hoc fallacy without explaining why they were wrong to do so.  I have twice found references dismissing Dr. Semmelweis.  The first time I did not save the reference.  The second time I did:  "This is not to suggest that data of this level of confidence are sufficient to introduce changes in clinical practice, which is influenced by medical tradition and cultural and other factors" (go here for citation).  Articles contra Dr. Demmelweis continue to appear.  E.g., see Dana Tulodziecki's “Shattering the Myth of Semmelweis.” Philosophy of Science 80, no. 5 (2013): 1065–75. doi:10.1086/673935.  For a  statistical review of Dr. Semmelweis's work is available here and here. For a discussion of continuing "physician resistance" on this topic go here.  For a discussion of the Semmelweis-reflex, go here.   I recall reading in a JAMA journal that a doctor expressed a hope that no one would remember what they did to Dr. Semmelweis; he sadly did not express the hope that they would greet unpopular opinions more charitably. 

Friday, July 21, 2023

DOUBTLESS ... Chapter 3



CHAPTER 3.  Syllogisms in the New Testament.

Before we go on to Chapter 2, let's take a moment to look at the appearance of a syllogism in the New Testament.  

George A. Kennedy says that the syllogism "in rhetoric is called the enthymeme."__1  He defines the enthymeme as "a statement and a supporting reason."  As an example, he cites Mt. 5:3:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  In this example, "blessed are the poor in spirit" is the statement and "theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is the supporting reason.  The word "for" is taken as the sign that the whole sentence is an enthymeme.

Nextly, Kennedy observes that "behind any enthymeme stands a logical syllogism."  In the case of Mt. 5:3, he reconstructs the syllogism as follows:

PREMISE-1.  Blessed are those who receive the kingdom of heaven.
PREMISE-2.  The poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of heaven.
CONCLUSION.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Kennedy notes that PREMISE-1 would be a generally accepted premise.  PREMISE-2 would not be universally accepted.  The rich, the Romans and the Pharisees would balk at PREMISE-2; "the little ones" (whom Chrysostom identifies as "the poor, the objects of contempt, the unknown"_2) would gladly accept it.  By logic, the conclusion follows._3

As Kennedy points out, most people do not present their arguments in syllogisms; they normally "assume, suppress or imply one of the parts, as Jesus does."_4  The syllogisms are still there--just beneath the surface.  Isn't it amazing that when Christ delivers the new commandments, he delivers them in a fashion so pretty that they can be sung heartily?  Yet, the fact that they are enthymemes is plain to the alert student of logic and rhetoric.   

Why would Christ use enthymemes?  Kennedy is right when he says that we normally do use enthymemes, but that doesn't tell us why.  

The first reason at which Kennedy was hinting is that it would be annoyingly artificial to put everything in syllogisms.  It would be like asking people to speak in rhymes or iambic pentameters.  

The second reason may be due to the fact that enthymemes are a standard device of persuasion, and therefore intuitively persuasive.  In the same vein, I have heard that nurses are advised not to give recalcitrant patients references to medical research but to make up anecdotes about the benefits of some unpleasant medicine; anecdotes are naturally more persuasive than medical research.

The third reason may be that Christ wants us to actually connect the dots ourselves.  From educational research we learn that omitting a step in demonstrations is helpful for the students; "gap-filling" is a crucial exercise for grasping the heart of a problem.  

If the only reason to learn a little logic is to be able to appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, it is a good reason.



1.  George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (UNC Press Books:  1984), p. 16.  

2.  See Homily 59 on Matthew, tr. Rev. Sir G. Prevost, Baronet; rev. Rev. M. B. Riddle,  A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids:  1991), vol. 10, p. 367.  The interested reader may go to to find Chrysostom and many other fathers of the church.

3.  We are avoiding a discussion of how a syllogism produces its valid conclusion in the main text.  Here, a simple illustration will work.  Suppose we admit, "All the suitcases are in the van."  Then we remember, "The toilet-kit is in one of the suitcases."  We conclude, "The toilet-kit is in the van."  

Major premise.  All the suitcases are in the van.
Minor premise.  The toilet-kit is in one of the suitcases.
Conclusion.  The toilet-kit is in the van.

Let's look at the most famous syllogism in the world.

Major premise.  All men are mortal.
Minor premise.  Socrates is a man.
Conclusion.  Socrates is mortal.

We are able to draw our conclusion because Socrates is a member of "all men," just as in the first syllogism we carefully slipped the toilet-kit into a suitcase, so that when we made a blanket statement about the suitcases ("All suitcases etc."), we unwittingly applied it to the toilet-kit.  

4.  Kennedy, ibid.


Thursday, July 20, 2023

DOUBTLESS ... Chapter 2


CHAPTER 2.  Comments on logic; the syllogism; begging the question.

Now that we know that doubts are inevitably numerous--that is the lay of our land--we may take our first steps out of doubt.  

Before we do so, we need to clear up an unavoidable question--what is the role of logic in discussions about the faith?

The short answer is that logic makes sure that our statements are coherent.  Logic cannot tell us what to think about something; it can only tell us how to think about it.

For example, if I tell you that a red car is parked in front of my house and that a red car is not parked in front of my house, I have violated the the law of contradiction.  The law of contradiction says that a thing cannot both be and not be something in the same respect.  In this case, the violation is easy to spot; in reality, it is not normally so simple.

In order to talk about logic, we need some basic vocabulary: premise, conclusion and syllogism.__1  

A premise is a statement about something.  E.g., All men are mortal and Peter is a man are both premises.

A conclusion is a statement which is true if certain, specified premises are true.  If All men are mortal and Peter is a man are both true, then the conclusion follows, Peter is mortal.  

A syllogism is the combination of premises and a conclusion which follows from them.  We may now say that All men are mortal, Peter is a man and Peter is mortal forms a syllogism.  

Let's put this syllogism together.

PREMISE-1.  All men are mortal.
PREMISE-2.  Peter is a man.
Peter is mortal.

When we construct a syllogism, we need to make sure that both premises are true and that the conclusion is properly drawn.  In the example above, if the all men are not mortal, the truth of PREMISE-2 is useless and does not let me draw the conclusion.  If PREMISE-2 is false and PREMISE-1 is true, the conclusion again cannot be drawn.  Both premises have to be true for the conclusion to be accepted.

We may now examine an important error in reasoning that will come up shortly:  begging the question.  Begging the question means that we assume what we are supposed to prove is true.  Let's see how it happens.

You ask Paul how he knows that the pope is infallible.  He replies that he is sure of this since the pope said so at Vatican I, and since the pope is infallible, he must be right.  

You ask Peter how he knows that the Bible is the word of God.  He replies that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16).

In either case, Peter and Paul beg the question.  Paul is supposed to provide evidence for papal infallibility, but he cites the pope himself in such a fashion as to assume papal infallibility.  Peter cites the Bible to argue that the Bible is divinely inspired, which assumes that the Bible is divinely inspired. 

Let's put Paul's argument into syllogistic form.

PREMISE.  At Vatican I, the pope declared that he is infallible.
CONCLUSION.  The pope is infallible.

This structure makes Jimmy's circularity visible.  We do not have two premises from which the conclusion follows.  The conclusion is really just a brief restatement of the conclusion.

The wise tell us that most people do not beg the question as transparently as Peter and Paul.  For instance, Paul might have more plausibly argued, "At Vatican I, the dogma that the pope cannot err in matters of faith and morals was promulgated."  At least then he could hope that the unwary would not realize up front that he had simply reworded his conclusion and used it as a premise.  

The wise admit that many of the best minds beg the question unconsciously in this way.  It is recommended to the dishonest that in order to pull off such a deception, to use a long, rambling argument to distract the audience from noticing the circle.__2

Question-begging comes in many disguises.__3  "Truth may have its norms," says H. W. R. Joseph, "but error is infinite in its aberrations."__4  

The moral of the story is to be on the look-out for an argument in which the conclusion is found hiding among the premises.  

Our definitions of premise, conclusion and syllogism 
depend on Aristotle's Prior Analytics.
2.  We will explore how we can save Peter's argument in a future chapter.  It is not clear how to save Paul's argument.  The decrees of Vatican I make it pretty clear that the pope is declaring himself to be infallible.  
3.  See Aristotle's Topics, VIII for a brief survey.  William T. Parry and Edward A. Hacker, Aristotelian Logic (State University of New York, 1991), pp. 444-448 for details.
4.  H. W. R. Joseph, An Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed. (repr. 1966; Oxford, 1916), p. 569.


Monday, July 10, 2023

DOUBTLESS ... Chapter 1


[This reflection is the beginning of my attempt to tackle the question of religious doubts from another angle.  Further reflections will roll out as I muddle through them.]

CHAPTER 1.  What is beyond doubt?

One question which people do not ask when they are subject to doubts is perhaps the most important question of all:  What is beyond doubt?

The answer, of course, is nothing. 

There is nothing in life that is beyond doubt, except of course for death and taxes.  If we want to know how many doubts there are, we have only to count the number of things we believe and we will arrive at the number of doubts. 

For example, we may doubt the divine inspiration of the Bible, the stories and instructions contained in it, the number of the sacraments, their efficacy, whatever there number is, the legitimacy of church order (bishops, priests, deacons etc.) etc. etc.  How can people not have doubts about the faith?

However, it turns out that when we turn away from religion and look at the rest of our knowledge, there is nothing else that is beyond all doubt, either.  For example, how do I know that there are eight or nine planets?  How do I know that I am on the third planet out from the sun?  How do I know that there is a sun?  How do I know that my senses are not deceiving me?  How do I know that my wife of 30+ years is not really a space-alien engaged in long-range and long-term reconnaissance? 

Although some of these doubts are pretty silly, the question of what is beyond doubt is sobering.  “It is often very illuminating,” says Walter Lippmann, in Public Opinion (1922),

to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion?  Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed?  And how much was he permitted to see?

As a result of this circumstance, we may conclude that

on all but a very few matters for short stretches in our lives, the utmost independence that we can exercise is to multiply the authorities to whom we give a friendly hearing (ibid.). 

So far are we from dismissing a legion of religious doubts, then, we cannot even lay claim to having any more than the smallest amount of certainty for most of what we think we know.  The population of the town we live in—the facts of history and their inner connections—the workings of governments and economies—all the things we would most like to know are known at so many degrees removed from the facts themselves that it is not too much to say that most of what we think we know is rank speculation. 

Therefore, when we worry about our religious doubts, we must remember that doubts are very cheap.  The difference between what we would like to know and what we can prove that we know is great, because doubt is an immediate byproduct of mere attention.  We have only to think hard for one moment about one thing lying beyond the light of our candle to be lost in doubts. 

This conclusion may seem dismal.  A moment's thought, however, will cheer us up:  if doubts are so numerous, then there is nothing about them to agitate us.  If people get unhappy about their religious doubts, it is because they are unaware of or unconcerned about all the other doubts with which they live.  

Also, as we will find out in the following chapters, we are not doomed to live in doubt.  

Saturday, March 23, 2019


Even though we have properly disposed of the notorious problem of evil as a non-starter, that does not mean there is nothing else to be said about it. 
The people who have agonized over this question1 sadly overlooked St. Mark the Monk.  The purpose of this article is to summarize briefly St. Mark’s teachings on this subject.
By way of introduction, St. Mark the Monk seems to have been a spiritual giant who escaped detection; at least modern scholarship does not have much to say about him.2  Tim Vivian suggests a mid-fifth century date, but finds no evidence to tie St. Mark to any area.3  What we do know is that he was very popular reading.  A monastic slogan recorded in the 14th century was, “Sell everything and buy Mark.”4  When the Philokalia was compiled, St. Mark was naturally included.  He wrote two works—both of which are in the Philokalia—which delve deeply into evils and sufferings:  On the Spiritual Law and Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works.  Our plan is to use these works to summarize his doctrine that there is no mystery of suffering.5 
Now, our thesis is that St. Mark does not recognize the afflictions of this life as constituting a mystery of suffering because, in short, they are good for us sub specie aeternitatis (in the very long run).  Since On the Spiritual Law (SL) and On Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works (JW) are organized in chapters—i.e., in loosely linked strings of comments—St. Mark nowhere provides an organized doctrine of affliction.  However, due to the organization of his mind, it is easy enough to sketch out his case that afflictions are not evil.
A note on organization:  I decided to give the relevant chapters in order of appearance within each work, since I do not possess any insight as to how they should be ordered to anyone’s benefit.  St. Mark is best left to speak for himself. 

One theme which St. Mark dwells on is the future value of earthly sufferings. 
A seed will not grow without earth and water; and a man will not develop without voluntary suffering and divine help (JW 70). 
If we fulfil Christ’s commandments according to our conscience, we are spiritually refreshed to the extent that we suffer in our heart.  But each thing comes to us at the right time (JW 93). 
The greater a man's faith that Christ will reward him, the greater his readiness to endure every injustice (SL 44).
When harmed, insulted or persecuted by someone, do not think of the present but wait for the future, and you will find he has brought you much good, not only in this life but also in the life to come (SL 114).
Accept present afflictions for the sake of future blessings; then you will never weaken in your struggle (SL 156).
He who wishes to avoid future troubles should endure his present troubles gladly.  For in this way, balancing the one against the other, through small sufferings he will avoid those which are great (SL 187). 

Another theme he develops is that our afflictions procure us blessings in the present. 
Unexpected trials are sent by God to teach us to practice the ascetic life; and they lead us to repentance even when we are reluctant (JW 8).5 
If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes. For all else that is good is found through these (JW 94).
The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings not of our choice; and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance and deliver us from everlasting punishment (JW 139).
He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction (SL 43). 
By praying for those who wrong us we overthrow the devil; opposing them we are wounded by him (SL 45). 
Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin (SL 67).
Just as the bitterness of absinth helps a poor appetite, so misfortunes help a bad character. For the first benefits the physical condition, and the second leads to repentance (SL 115). 

Still another benefit of suffering is its contribution to the acquisition of the virtues.
Just as suffering and dishonor usually give birth to virtues, so pleasure and self-esteem usually give birth to vices (JW 157).
He who accepts present afflictions in the expectation of future blessings has found knowledge of the truth; and he will easily be freed from anger and remorse (JW 168).
Wisdom is not only to perceive the natural consequence of things, but also to accept as our due the malice of those who wrong us. People who go no further than the first kind of wisdom become proud, whereas those who attain the second become humble (JW 206).
If you do not want evil thoughts to be active within you, accept humiliation of soul and affliction of the flesh; and this not just on particular occasions, but always, everywhere and in all things (JW 207).
He who willingly accepts chastening by affliction is not dominated by evil thoughts against his will; whereas he who does not accept affliction is taken prisoner by evil thoughts, even though he resists them (JW 208).

Another blessing conferred by suffering is the remembrance of God.
Distress reminds the wise of God, but crushes those who forget Him (SL 56). 
Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance (SL 57). 
If you wish to remember God unceasingly, do not reject as undeserved what happens to you, but patiently accept it as your due. For patient acceptance of whatever happens kindles the remembrance of God, whereas refusal to accept weakens the spiritual purpose of the heart and so makes it forgetful (JW 125). 

St. Mark’s opinion that suffering is a source of blessings does not mean that he divorces sin and suffering. 
We cannot with all our heart forgive someone who does us wrong unless we possess real knowledge. For this knowledge shows us that we deserve all we experience (JW 49).
Real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes (JW 56).
Everyone receives what he deserves in accordance with his inner state. But only God understands the many different ways in which this happens (JW 67).
If, as Scripture teaches, everything involuntary has its cause in what is voluntary, man has no greater enemy than himself (JW 104).
Trials come upon us because of our former sins, bringing what is appropriate to each offence (JW 154).
If you refuse to accept suffering and dishonor, do not claim to be in a state of repentance because of your other virtues. For self-esteem and insensitivity can serve sin even under the cover of virtue (JW 156).
He who fights against others out of fear of hardship or reproach will either suffer more harshly through what befalls him in this life, or will be punished mercilessly in the life to come (JW 171).
He who does not understand God’s judgments walks on a ridge like a knife-edge and is easily unbalanced by every puff of wind. When praised, he exults; when criticized, he feels bitter. When he feasts, he makes a pig of himself; and when he suffers hardship, he moans and groans. When he understands, he shows off; and when he does not understand, he pretends that he does. When rich, he is boastful; and when in poverty, he plays the hypocrite. Gorged, he grows brazen; and when he fasts, he becomes arrogant. He quarrels with those who reprove him; and those who forgive him he regards as fools (JW 193).
Unless a man acquires, through the grace of Christ, knowledge of the truth and fear of God, he is gravely wounded not only by the passions but also by the things that happen to him (JW 194).
When the evil conduct of one person begins to affect others, you should not show long-suffering; and instead of your own advantage you should seek that of the others, so that they may be saved. For virtue involving many people is more valuable than virtue involving only one (JW 214).
No one can experience suffering and remorse in a way that accords with God’s will, unless he first loves what causes them (JW 218). 

St. Mark’s view then is that when we suffer, we acquire many blessings:  suffering prepares future blessings for us, procure blessings in this life, help us to acquire the virtues and to remember God.  In view of these facts, we may conclude that there is no mystery of suffering.  Suffering is good for us. 
An example may help us.  Whether we get a cavity because we did not brush them, or because of our genes, going to the dentist is still good for us.  Yes, the dentist visit is in this scenario suffering, though the metaphor should not be pushed so far as to make the dentist a devil.
Another example:  consider a cat that must receive medical treatment.  Because we cannot explain why we have to do something painful to it, the cat can only look upon us as doing evil.  Now God has spoken through the Bible and the Fathers about the importance of suffering, so that we can apply their doctrines to our lives as St. Mark urges us.  Unfortunately, because we cannot believe that what the Bible and the Fathers say really applies to us—surely it is my neighbor who must walk the extra mile!—we imagine we have grounds for grievance.  St. Mark warns us that we have no such grounds.

Let us close with St. Mark’s advice on how to suffer.
Afflictions that come to us are the result of our own sins. But if we accept them patiently through prayer, we shall again find blessings (JW 9).
A sinner cannot escape retribution except through repentance appropriate to his offence (JW 58).
When a sinful soul does not accept the afflictions that come to it, the angels say: ‘We would have healed Babylon, but she was not healed’ (Jr 51:9) (JW 82).
Escape from temptation through patience and prayer. If you oppose temptation without these, it only attacks you more strongly (JW 106).
Do not say that a dispassionate man cannot suffer affliction; for even if he does not suffer on his own account, he is under a liability to do so for his neighbor (JW 123).6 
He who wishes to be spared all misfortunes should associate God with everything through prayer; with his intellect he should set his hope in Him, putting aside, so far as possible, all concern about things of the senses (JW 172).
When tested by some trial you should try to find out not why or through whom it came, but only how to endure it gratefully, without distress or rancor (JW 198).

I encourage everyone to read St. Mark for himself—he wrote deeply and lucidly about things besides afflictions in a way that is very accessible.  Three of his works are available in the Philokalia.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has printed all of his known works in one volume in their Popular Patristics Series (see n. 2).  

1.  I am relying on Niels Christian Hvidt for the background which follows (see “The Historical Development of the Problem of Evil” in Physics and Cosmology:  Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil, ed. Murphy, N., R. J. Russell & W. R. Stoeger (Vatican City State: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley & Vatican Observatory Publications, 2007), which may be accessed at Hvidt-CTNS-Final.pdf).  In brief, the mystery of suffering or (more generally) the problem evil is a recent preoccupation even in the West, surfacing here only in the 17th century.  It was then that Leibniz attempted to rebut the rationalists of his day, who faulted the Creator for allowing evils to exist.  As Hvidt points out, Western Christian teaching on this question had been unchanged since the beginning:  all evils ultimately stem from the fall of Adam (p. 19).  In the West, the doctrines of original sin, massa damnata and double predestination were significant means of explaining both the causes and the effects of this fall; we may well imagine that these doctrines would sooner or later have created doubts in the minds of the thoughtful.  In the East, the emphasis was on corruption, an effect of the fall which anyone can verify for himself with a history book, a newspaper or an examination of his own health.  Hvidt observes that before the Enlightenment, the discussion of evils—whether moral, natural or personal—was conducted within a Christian perspective; beginning with the Enlightenment, the same discussion attempted “to provide reasons for [the Christian] perspective” (p. 24).  Christians from the earliest days conceded presumptively that God was just; the only question was how His justice was to be traced; Leibnitz accepted the originally unquestioned starting point (God’s justice) as the bone of contention. 
2.  All the information on St. Mark in this paragraph comes from St. Mark the
Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, ed. & tr. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009).  The Prologue from Ochrid gives little enough information on his feast day (March 5).  It supports Vivian’s surmise of a 5th century date, but places the saint in Egypt, not in Asia Minor.  Modern scholarship tends to be tight-lipped about assigning dates and places or about accepting the explicitly stated motives of the Fathers at face value, whereas the underdogs of history—most famously in our age, the Gnostics—are treated generously and excused when necessary.
3.  Idem, p. 24 f.
4.  Idem, p. 32.
5.  I have used G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (trans. and eds.) for “On Those who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred Twenty Six Texts” (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, vol. I [Faber & Faber, London & Boston: 1979], pp. 125-146), available as a PDF at  To cite “On the Spiritual Law Two:  Hundred Texts,” I have relied on the same translation, found at  Vivian and Casiday’s translations are vitiated by political correctness.
6.  Note the proviso “by divine dispensation.”  This phrase is our assurance that suffering in and of itself is not a blessing and will not procure for us any blessing unless by divine dispensation.  As Somerset Maugham wrote in The Moon and Sixpence, “suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.
7.  This is confirmation of St. Mark’s doctrine that sufferings are a source of blessings, for we are nowhere asked to sin on behalf of our neighbors.

DOUBTLESS: Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5.  The Given and the Existence of God. How does the given help us with doubts? Let's take a common enough question.  "If I...