Caryll Houselander wrote “To the Christian, suffering is not a problem to be explored by the human mind, but a mystery to be experienced by the human heart.” I think to some degree in this life, suffering will always remain a mystery to us. It can easily lead some to despair. It can lead some to determine that if there is a God, He obviously doesn’t care about us or He wouldn’t allow many of the things that occur in our lives. It can be a real temptation to put God on trial for the wrongs of the world, and to somewhat rail at God as did the prophet Habakkuk – “why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13)
I remember in class one time a woman told me that she thought I could have devoted the entire class just to this topic. And indeed, there have been countless books written and thoughts expressed by greater minds than mine in an effort to explain why God allows suffering in the lives of those He loves. For the Christian, we have to look no further than Christ on the cross to begin to explore this mystery. God’s beloved Son whom He sent to save us met his fate at the hands of merciless men, who worked as instruments of Satan who was determined to stop him. And God did not spare him, but allowed the crucifixion to occur (Romans 8:32). And his mother Mary suffered beyond comprehension as she watched the unspeakable happen to her son.
While understanding that sin (not necessarily personal sin) is somewhere at the root of all suffering, that understanding can be less than comforting when you’re the one who’s been dealt a severe blow. It can so easily shake our foundation to its core, and challenge the strongest faith. In this post I will offer some of the thoughts that have helped me wrap my arms around this topic just a bit and to form a foundation to help me when suffering comes. But I will point out that when we or someone we care about is deeply suffering that is not generally the time to try to build that foundation. The best thoughts in the world can be of little comfort; we are rather left with how to best enter into that suffering with them.
I remember one Easter Vigil when Mass began with the chanting of the wonderful Exsultet. While I know I had heard this countless times in my life, one line that evening stood out to me. “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” That line remained with me, and led me to try to better understand what it meant. And I found this in the Catechism:
But why did God not prevent the first man from sinning? St. Leo the Great responds, “Christ’s inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon’s envy had taken away.” And St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good. Thus St. Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’; and the Exsultet sings, ‘O happy fault,. . . which gained for us so great a Redeemer!'” (CCC412)
“God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.” I cannot remember the source of this thought, but I once read that Satan does not have the power to create, he can only destroy. But his eternal frustration is that when he does attempt to destroy what God has created, from that brokenness God can bring forth something even more beautiful.
So for me, this has become a matter of trust. I think there is no understanding of evil and suffering apart from an implicit trust in God and His goodness and His perfect love for us. My faith cannot be based on how I think things should work out, but rather based on trust in the character of God and His love. I recently reread the book “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. The childlike trust that she, and especially her sister Betsie placed in God in the midst of the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp can certainly help to place my small sufferings in perspective. I highly recommend it if you’ve never read it.
One analogy that helps me a bit is thinking of a small child who has to visit the doctor, and some procedure has to be done that is painful to the child, but necessary. The child has implicit trust in her parents. But today, her parents are who brought her here and are helping to restrain her while pain is inflicted. And the child can in no way understand why this has occurred. For a time, that trust may even be broken. But her parents know that it was necessary for the child to be healed.
We too are like children when it comes to understanding with an eternal perspective. In this great epic story of our universe being written by God, we are privileged to see perhaps a sentence or two. Understanding that in the context of the greater whole is impossible from where we sit in time and space. St. Peter tries to help us with this – twice in his first letter to us he refers to the suffering we must endure “for a little while.” (1 Peter 1:6, 5:10) Placing our lives in the context of eternity can be a challenge, but I think if we are successful in moving our minds in that direction it can help enable us to better trust God as we endure trials “for a little while.”
And in this great epic story, we can have the tendency to write ourselves as the main character, with everyone else as our supporting cast. It is amazing to me how much my perspective can “flip” if I can for even a moment get out of this mindset. I am reminded of the story of a man whose wife of many decades died, and he was most distraught. His perspective though shifted just a bit when someone asked him what would have happened if he had died first, and she had been the one who had to adjust to life without him. As his mindset shifted from being the “main” character to a supporting character in her story, it created in him an awareness that his suffering had spared her a similar fate, and in that he found much comfort. His suffering took on great meaning and he recognized it as having great value. And it became something worthwhile to endure for a greater good.
I have also asked myself the question – what would a world without suffering look like? How would God accomplish that in a world full of people who still struggle under the weight and bondage of sin? Some might ask well, God can do anything right? But I reminded us in this post that while Sacred Scripture says that nothing is impossible with God, that doesn’t mean we believe He can do the logically impossible. He can’t create a logical contradiction. In any environment where sin is present there will be suffering. Yes, he could remove our free will and thus remove sin. But that would also remove our capacity to love, for love at its most basic level must be a decision of the will. The only way this perfect world could occur is if all people freely chose to set aside sin and authentically love one another.
And how much suffering would have to be removed from the world in order for some to let God “off the hook”? In a world where we would never know the anguish of a child having cancer, would we instead anguish over a child with a broken arm in a similar way? I think perhaps we would. Never having the perspective of something much worse may simply reset our expectations of what deep suffering would be. And perhaps, just perhaps God has spared us many worse sufferings that could have come upon our world.
Another “tidbit” that has remained with me is from the movie “A Walk to Remember.” When the young woman is questioned about why God would allow suffering her answer was “Without suffering there would be no compassion.” And this is true. If there was never any “need” in the world because all needs were met by God, we would never have to make a choice to sacrifice for someone else who may be in need. And it seems to me that this could leave us as very shallow people indeed.
In the garden of Gethsemane we see Christ in his human will asking the Father to remove the cup he must drink (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42). In his human nature and will his desire is to spare those he loves of having to also take up their cross and follow him into his passion (Matthew 10:38, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). But he yields his human will to the divine will and chooses to trust that the good that God will bring forth from his and our suffering will be of a value that is incomparable. I will be forever grateful for the “offer it up” that was woven into my soul as a child. And I continue to strive to trust that the value of my suffering when joined to Christ’s and added to my prayers is indeed received with great love by God and will bring forth a greater good. And may we all understand that this time of suffering will only last “for a little while.”
One of my favorite prayers in times of suffering:
Dear Lord, during this trial,
I offer up to you my confusion
Give me clarity
I offer up to you my despair
Give me hope
I offer up to you my weakness
Give me strength
I offer up to you my pettiness
Give me generosity of spirit.
I offer up to you all my
Negative thoughts from Satan
So that when he asks “Where is Your God now?”
I may respond “Right here with me, giving me His grace
As a Heavenly beam of light penetrating your darkness!” Amen.