Suffering

How can we make sense out of suffering? Why do bad things happen to “good” people? Does God impose suffering on people? These questions are timeless. The following attempts to provide some unique insight on suffering, working your way through it and provide consolation.

Beware of Ambush Theology

To see meaning in suffering, we have to clear up some misconceptions about God’s role in human pain. We often fall into a kind of “ambush theology” which sees God as someone who is out to get us! Overly focused on our sin and doubting our worth, we wrongly picture God as hiding along the path of life ready to spring out and punish us for offenses we might not even be aware of. We are tempted to see sickness and disaster as God’s punishment for our human failure.

Jesus of Nazareth corrected his disciples on this very point one day when they ran into a blind man and asked Jesus “Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be born blind?” Jesus set them straight immediately, “It was no sin, either of this man or of his parents. Rather, it was to let God’s works show forth in him.” What God is all about is not inflicting blindness or cancer or earthquakes upon people but just the opposite: the removal of such scourges. God’s glory is revealed in healing these evils.

Recognize That We Live in an Imperfect World

How can a good God let thousands of people be killed in natural disasters? How can God’s goodness be reconciled with disease or the birth of deformed babies? Why does God let air or highway disasters happen through human ignorance, carelessness, or miscalculations?

The Book of Genesis hints that the work of creation is not yet complete. Beginning with “chaos,” a formless waste, God starts a shaping process which the human race is asked to continue. God blesses Adam and Eve and says “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”

If there is still something to be “subdued” or brought into greater order, then the work of creation has not been completed. The world is still in process. God is suggesting that humanity is to oversee the ongoing development of creation, to be co-creators with God.

See God’s Will as Desiring Our Healing

We have to distinguish carefully between the permissive and the active will of God in human suffering. To say that God permits or allows us to suffer seems possible, but not that God actively or directly wills us to suffer. Many tragedies result from an unfinished, evolving  world rather than from the will or action of God. God abhors suffering and wants us to be healed. God’s will is ultimately to overcome sin and chaos and move the world towards perfection, through the co-creative efforts of humanity. Sometimes this healing happens through miraculous cures, such as we see in the Scriptures. Yet God’s healing most often comes about through the work of scientists, doctors, nurses, psychologists, and others in the healing community.

Don’t Blame God for Our Choices

Why doesn’t God step in and, for example, prevent terrorists from blowing up a planeload of innocent people? God so respects our human freedom that God will not interfere with that sacred gift, even if it brings harm upon us. When human beings make destructive moral choices, we can’t blame God for these choices or their consequences.

Believe That Good Can Come From Suffering

Our afflictions may be something like the discipline of a loving parent that is really for the child’s own good. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, says: “The Lord reproves the one he loves and chastises the son he favors” (3:12).

This is best seen as figurative speech, of course. God does not directly torment or impose evil on us. God does not actively mete out divorce, criminal assaults, AIDS, or heartaches. Yet with God’s help, good can come out of our trials. Pain can purify and humanize the heart. Even deep personal losses-if we remain open to God’s loving presence in our lives-can be redemptive and lead us to deeper compassion and richer humanity.

Honest prayer is an important response to suffering. Trusting prayer is an important response to suffering. Trusting prayer is not candy-coated or anguish-free. We present ourselves to God as we are-rind and all. We tell God about our fear and confusion, our anger, depression,  and bitterness at having our plans threatened or our dreams torn apart. We tell God how hard it is to let go and trust that good can somehow rise out of ashes of defeat.

We ask for the patience to accept the bitter-sweet medicine described by St. Jean Eudes three centuries ago: “You can advance farther in grace in one hour during this time of affliction than in many days during a time of consolation”.

Conclusion

In our dark moments we may not have an answer to the riddle of suffering. But we can surrender ourselves into the hands of One who does have the answers and who will faithfully walk us through the dark valley. Our best impulse in our moments of trial is to open ourselves to the good God who walks with us in the struggle and to all those in the human community who mirror God’s goodness in seeking to bring us healing and comfort. As humans we will never make total sense out of the mystery of suffering. But we cope with it most sensibly by participating as actively as we can in the healing process, and by entrusting ourselves to the supreme Source of love and wisdom.