The following article was given by Sister Janet Cresswell at the Aberfoyle Park Sisters’ Class. She had just read a book by Dr Victor Frankl in which he analyses the reaction of Holocaust victims to the suffering, privations and horrors they were subjected to. Sister Janet looks at these responses and considers the parallels in the lives of saints, fortified as they are with the knowledge of the purpose of sufferings in God’s economy.

My Dear Sisters, I have been reading a book called Man’s Search For Meaning by Dr Victor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who endured years of suffering in Nazi death camps. During those terrible times he learnt how a person reacts when he suddenly realises that he has nothing to lose except “his so ridiculously naked life”. He talks about the mixed flow of emotions and developing apathy.

First to the rescue comes a cold, detached curiosity concerning one’s fate. Swiftly, too, come strategies to preserve what is left of one’s life, though the chances of survival are slight. Hunger, humiliation, fear and deep anger at injustice are rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, and by a grim sense of humour, even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature – a tree or a sunset.

These moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help the prisoner to make larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering. It is here that we find the central theme of the book, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” If there is purpose in life then there must be purpose in suffering and dying. He quotes from Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

Reading this book in the light of the Truth, I felt we could put many helpful Bible passages with his conclusions. For example, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” What is our why? What is our reason to bear with what life brings? Paul’s words come to mind, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). We love God and our life is in His hands. We have been called by Him; even bought with a price, the precious blood of His Son. So whatever happens in our life is for our ultimate good.

In the concentration camp every circumstance conspired to make the prisoner lose his hold. All familiar goals in life were snatched away. What alone remained was the last of human freedoms – the ability to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”. The prisoners were just average men and women, but some, by choosing to be worthy of their sufferings proved man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate.

I thought of the example of our Lord and Master and the words of Peter, “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet 2:19–23).

Frankl recorded that in the camps the prisoner went through three stages

  1. The initial shock
  2. Learning to cope with life in the camp
  3. The effect upon him after eventual release.
  4. We can relate this to any severe trial we go through.

First stage. Firstly, the shock hits us as we face the horror of the situation. Then we hope the situation is not true and we will be reprieved from it. In the camps thoughts of suicide were entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time, due to the hopelessness of the situation. Secondly, the prisoner felt a great longing for family and friends in his loneliness, and so do we. And thirdly, he experienced disgust at the circumstances around him.

Frankl makes the interesting comment that “an abnormal reaction to abnormal circumstances is normal behaviour”.

Second stage. A prisoner gradually gets used to the horror of the situation and goes into a state of apathy, which is a kind of emotional death, reality dims, and all his efforts are to save his life. Feelings become blunted as he suffers and the suffering is so great. They do not move him so much as before. By means of this insensitivity the prisoner surrounds himself with a protective shell. Beatings were often received, but worse than the pain is the mental agony caused by the injustice of it all, the unreasonableness.

It made me think of our recent readings in James chapter 3 about how often our words can wound others. Sometimes we can be so judgmental when we don’t know all the facts. Few ever forget harsh words said to them. Our memory never loses the pain they cause. Let us remember, “the tongue is… an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” So let us try to be like the virtuous woman of whom it is said, “she openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (Prov 31:26).

Frankl went on to say: “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people… may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner lives was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than those of a more robust nature” (page 56).

Let us think about what Frankl has just said. Despite the privations of life, spiritual life can still deepen. We think of the weak bodily presence of the apostle Paul who speaks of the Truth as “treasure in earthen vessels”. He says: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor 4:7–10).

Paul saw the hand of God working out a purpose in his life so that, through his sufferings, he would come to know Christ better. At the end of his life he could say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness… and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim 4:7). As we get older and go through the trials of life, our longing for the Kingdom intensifies.

Victor Frankl gives a personal example that I found very moving. He writes:

“Let me tell you about those early mornings when we had to march to our work site. There were shouted commands;

‘detachment, forward march! Left–2–3–4! Left–2–3–4! Left–2–3–4! First man about, left and left and left and left! Caps off!’ These words sound in my ears even now. At the order ‘Caps off!’ we passed the gate of the camp, and searchlights were trained upon us. Whosoever did not march smartly got a Kick. And worse off was the man who, because of the cold, had pulled his cap back over his ears before permission was given.

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbour’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly, ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps, and don’t know what is happening to us.’

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew, each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honourable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’

In front of me a man stumbled and those following fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one; I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return and I answered.

‘Stop!’ We had arrived at our work site. Everybody rushed into the dark hut in the hope of getting a fairly decent tool. Each prisoner got a spade or a pickaxe.

‘Can’t you hurry up, you pigs?’ Soon we had resumed the previous day’s positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxe, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb.

My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind; I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’”

So he came to two points of great wisdom:

  1. Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which we can aspire
  2. Our salvation is through love and in love.

Our Father, Who is love, and all that embodies love, did the most wonderful thing for us: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The Son said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11).

Victor Frankl said, “I understood how man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” We think of Christ on the cross, of his agony and yet he could say, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do… into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:34, 46).

I was also reminded of the Song of Solomon where it says, “The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me” (Songs 5:7). Then at the end of that lovely section the bride to be is asked the eternal question, “What is thy beloved more than another beloved?” Then she gives that wonderful picture of her Lord ending with the words, “Yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend.”

Trial, by contrast, can intensify our appreciation of beauty. My Dad would sometimes say, “Two men looked through prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars.”

Victor Frankl wrote, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp, as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor – or maybe because of it – we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had all missed for so long.

In the camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view in the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods, the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”

Indeed God has made a beautiful world and, despite all man has done to ruin it, we can still enjoy the beauties of sunset, sunrise, the beauty of scenic vistas and flowers. All are a foretaste of what will be when the Kingdom comes and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” The curse will be lifted and the earth “shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.” So by daily teaching ourselves an appreciation of His handiwork, whether in small or great things, we learn to “love his appearing”.

On page 71 Victor Frankl writes, “It is well known that an enforced community life, in which attention is paid to everything one does at all times, may result in an irresistible urge to get away, at least for a short while. The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and for solitude.” At one stage in camp life he was able to do this behind the hut where he worked. “I just sat and looked out at the green flowery slopes and the distant blue hills of Bavarian landscape.”

In our busy and stressful lives we need our quiet times more than ever, a time to think and pray. Even Christ needed quiet times for meditation and prayer (Mark 1:35). We think of David singing, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” A walk in God’s creation while meditating and delighting in His Word refreshes our souls.

Victor Frankl deals with the subject of choice – “Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” He says that those who lived in the camp saw enough examples to see this is not so. They saw men give away their last piece of bread to comfort others. And that “is sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” There were always choices to be made every day and every hour which offered the opportunity to make a decision, “whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom”.

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

A recent exhortation recalled how the Israelites failed to drive the Canaanites out of the land and how they gradually got involved in the Canaanites’ way of life. This was their choice even though God had said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life… and live.” We face the same choice daily but, somehow, we do not see the issues clearly. Paul wrote, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Rom 6:16) As recorded in Hebrews 11, the faithful consciously made a choice “that they might obtain a better resurrection… of whom the world was not worthy”, and so “obtained a good report through faith”. This spiritual freedom, which cannot be taken away, makes life meaningful and purposeful.

In thinking about what Frankl said, I thought about our daily life, particularly on a simple subject like tiredness. How easily with lack of sleep we can get irritable and utter words we later regret. Yet comparing my life with that of the prisoners and their great tiredness, I realised that we still have a choice in how we act. We, of course, make many choices every day, what we watch, what we read, whether we will speak up for what we believe, how we deal with one another etc. In all these things we either reflect our Father’s character, or we do not!

Frankl continued, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” What a statement in the light of Paul’s dictum, “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” Even our Lord, “though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” If he had to learn by suffering, then how much more ourselves!

Victor Frankl comments, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult of circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal… and this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

The apostle Paul said, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the ecclesia” (Col 1:24). So Paul’s sufferings were an illustration to the new ecclesia of the sufferings of Christ. And the way we, too, handle our sufferings is a witness to others, perhaps giving an opportunity to speak to others of the hope we have.

Frankl observed that it was those who lost their inner hold or spiritual vision who succumbed in the camp. Often the hardest thing was not knowing how long they would be there – and this can happen to us in a trial – not knowing how long we must cope with illness, a husband out of work or whatever. But we do have the comfort that God will not try us “above that we are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that we may be able to bear it”. Whatever may happen to us, we still have that glorious hope of the Kingdom before us to keep us going.

Frankl says that people often forget that it is the exceptional difficulties “which give the man opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself”. Most in the camp believed life was really over: “Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of prisoners.”

This idea takes our minds to Paul’s words, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb 12:11). So fruit develops slowly, by thinking upon, and learning from, our trials. We have the comfort that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth”. Robert Roberts said, “Trouble is robbed of its power to destroy if we realise it has a purpose to serve.” So knowing that our lives are in the hand of God helps us to get through our difficulties. Let us put our trust in Him and try to accept our trials in faith.

Another point that Frankl makes is that, “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future.” This is the way God has made us. He has subjected creation to vanity in hope, which we see in His Scriptures. The phrase that meant so much to Brother Thomas is, “For we are saved by the hope” (Rom 8:24). That hope includes the wonderful blessings contained in Isaiah 35: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Finally we come to Stage 3, that is, the prisoner’s reaction to liberation.

Some became oppressors instead of the oppressed. These justified their behaviour by their own terrible experiences.

We can feel like this too, when we have been terribly hurt by brethren and sisters. It is natural to harbour a root of bitterness in our hearts. But God has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” We should pray for those who have wounded us and leave judgment to Him Who judges righteously. One day He will cause them to know that “I have loved thee”.

Many who returned from the camps to their homes were bitter because of the attitudes of their former neighbours who did not understand what they had gone through and were only concerned with their own suffering. Many experienced disillusionment because suffering remained a large part of their lives just when they thought it was all over. In fact, it could still be intense. There was no home to go to, no loved ones who had survived, and their neighbours hated them. Our trials can make us bitter and disillusioned too. We may wonder why we must go through all this? Why do brethren and sisters treat me so badly? Surely we know better than to treat each other like this! If this is what the Truth leads to, do I really want it?

“For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:19–21).

And so we come back to our reason for suffering. Its purpose is to bring us closer to God and teach us to rely on Him Who alone can save; we can trust in Him Who really does understand what we are going through. In the end we will be able to say with Job, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee” (Job 42:5). “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).