Why, What, Where, God? Finding meaning in suffering

Authored by Kevin Bailey in Issue #4.1 of The Catechetical Review

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Warning: Faith may be dangerous

Our faith should come with a warning label, shouldn’t it? C.S. Lewis once quipped: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”[1] Lewis knew the dangers of Christianity. He knew it wasn’t easy, and we all know it too. We all have times when our faith is hard. Things are dark. Hope seems elusive. The future seems bleak. God seems distant. This is just life in its ebbs and flows. It has its euphoric highs and devastating lows. So maybe it’s not warnings we need but reassurances. Warnings won’t make the hard times avoidable. Warnings won’t save us when turmoil drags us down, but reassurances might.

If there’s one question that holds people back from believing in the loving God that we worship it looks like this: “If God is so good, then why is there so much suffering in this world?” Of course the question takes many forms, but at its core is the apparent irreconcilability of the notion of a good and loving God with a fallen and often disappointing world. This question isn’t unique to unbelievers. It is common to all of us. But for us who call ourselves believers, this question is especially poignant. The God who should love me seems distant from me. What are we to make of this?

The Catechism addresses the problem of suffering straight on:  “If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question” (CCC 309). Evil (often experienced as pain and suffering) is acknowledged. But what is also acknowledged is that there is an answer. Not a quick answer, but a mysterious answer. Catechism 309 concludes with the assurance: “There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.” We can have confidence that our faith contains answers to the mystery of suffering. Easy answers? No. Reassurances? You bet!

In The Beginning…

Before looking for answers, let’s briefly take in the problem. Suffering, as much as anything else, can lead us to question the goodness of God. So it behooves us to know where suffering comes from. Suffering is a result of the Fall (cf. CCC 405). God created the world and saw that it was “good”(Cf. Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). God created man and found him “very good” (Cf. Gen 1:31.). But in Genesis 3, everything changes. It changes because a new character is introduced. He is most cunning. He is the adversary and the human drama just got real. We know how the serpent tricks Adam and Eve into breaking God’s one order. They sin and they are punished. Mankind chose a crooked path, but God can correct crooked paths.

In speaking about the first sin of man, the Catechism tells us that this sin and all subsequent sins had two things at their core: “disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397). We will come back to that. From the moment of the first sin, though, God has a plan; and we see a glimpse of that plan in God’s punishment of the serpent. There, God promises to send someone in the future who will crush the serpent’s head and definitively defeat him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, / and between your offspring and hers; / They will strike at your head, / while you strike at their heel (Gen 3:15). This is the protoevangelium: the first good news. Suffering finds its roots, then, in the Fall, but so does our salvation.

Let’s look for answers to three common questions that we might ask in the face of suffering:

“Lord, why is this happening?”

“What in the world are you doing, Lord?”

“Lord, where are you?!?!”

And then let’s see what reassurances we can find.

Trusting in Providence

We can begin by rereading the Book of Job. This Old Testament story has helpful lessons for us in regards to suffering. As a recap, the Devil tells God that his just servant, Job, is only good and just because things are going his way. “Now put forth your hand and touch all that he has,” prods the Devil, “and surely he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). So God allows the Devil to inflict myriad sufferings upon Job so long as he spares Job’s life. And that is exactly what happens. Job is inflicted with outrageous suffering: physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s awful. Throughout the book, Job simply wants to know why this is happening. He wants to know why the Lord would allow this suffering to befall him. He doesn’t know that the Devil is behind it all along. Repeatedly, he implores the Lord for an answer, and he finally gets one.

God shows up and has words for Job. For several chapters of verse, God not so subtly reminds Job that he is God and Job is not. When God finishes speaking, Job makes this humble reply:

“I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be hindered…

I have spoken but did not understand;

things too marvelous for me, which I did not know...

By hearsay I had heard of you,

but now my eye has seen you.

Therefore I disown what I have said,

and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 3, 5-6).

Job has all the answers he needs: God is God; and God has a plan. And Job is good with that.

Job never got an answer to why his suffering was happening. He was never told that the Devil was the source of it all. Only we as the readers have been told that. Nonetheless, Job is content. Maybe there is a lesson here for us. When we ask God “why” in regards to our suffering, maybe the answer will come as it did for Job. “I'm God. You’re not. Trust me. I’ve got a plan.”  So what can we do when we are suffering? Instead of turning away from God and being mad at him, we can trust. This doesn’t mean we fake our feelings. Like Job, we can and should express our anguish to God. He wants honest and open lines of communication. Ultimately, however, we are called like Job to be content in knowing that God is still in charge and that he has a plan—even for our suffering. The Book of Job gives us a glimpse into what God’s plan for suffering is.

Remember how all sin is rooted in our disobedience to God and lack of trust in his goodness? And sin is what brought suffering into the world, right? Well, if our lack of trust ushered in human suffering, then the opposite should also be true. Trust can remedy suffering in some way. When we trust God in the midst of our suffering, we help to undo the effects of sin in this world. When we trust in God’s goodness, we take a step towards mending a fallen world and bringing about God’s kingdom. As Job teaches us, suffering has no easy answers. Suffering is mysterious, but God has a plan. It may be mysterious to us, but that’s ok. As St. Augustine quipped, “If you understood him, it would not be God.”[2] So, Lord, why is this happening? Trust him. He has a plan.

From Bad to Good

It is much too easy to look at the world around us or at the messiness of our own lives and want to know: “What are you doing, Lord?!” We raise our fists and shake them to emphasize the point. What is God doing when we suffer? Suffering seems so futile, so empty. Well, Revelation gives us some road signs. While the “why” answer has remained somewhat elusive, the “what” has much more clarity. In the “fullness of time” we have received clarity.

The Old Testament is a growing movement towards the climax of salvation history: the Incarnation. God becomes man. Yet the climax isn’t just the moment of Jesus’ conception or birth; it is his whole life, and in particular the culminating events of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension—the Paschal Mystery. Yes, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17). Jesus is the offspring, foreseen in Genesis 3:15, who will crush the head of the serpent. He will save us, but he will do so in an unforeseen and unanticipated way.

We saw that the first sin of man consisted in his lack of trust and his disobedience; and we posited the notion that our trust could play a part in undoing the distrust that is involved in all sin. So it is too with disobedience. Jesus will undo the disobedience of sin by “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). What is going on here? While distrust and disobedience would bring death, the Father in his wisdom has ordained that trust and obedience would bring life—new life. God has turned sin on its head.

In the brief but beautiful section from the Catechism entitled “Providence and the scandal of evil” (CCC 309-314), we find a reassuring quote from St. Augustine: “For almighty God…, because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself[3]” (CCC 311). Just as God promised in Genesis 3, he has a plan for us. As God reminded Job, he is always in charge. Nothing escapes his watchful eye and loving care; not even suffering. But, we might still ask, what is God’s plan for suffering?

It is no coincidence that the culminating events of Jesus’ life were filled with immense suffering. It’s important to realize that this wasn’t strictly necessary. Jesus did not have to suffer. God could have planned a different remedy to save us from sin, but he didn’t. He chose for suffering—which came into the world through the first sin—to be part of the solution. Suffering would no longer be futile nor empty. But how? Let’s go back to the Catechism for some more insight:

From the greatest moral evil ever committed - the rejection and murder of God's only Son, caused by the sins of all men - God, by his grace that ‘abounded all the more’ [Rom 5:20], brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. (CCC 312)

Simply put, the greatest evil in history—the crucifixion and death of our Lord—brought about the world’s greatest good: our salvation.

The Paschal Mystery has brought about a new paradigm, and God wants to repeat this paradigm over and over again in the lives of his people—us! The paradigm is this: God took the world’s greatest evil and used it to bring about the world’s greatest good. Likewise, God makes use of the evil we experience in suffering. He has made it the actual raw material for bringing good into this world. God shows us that not only has he brought about the greatest good from the greatest evil, but that he wants to bring good from any and all evils. He wants to bring small goods from small evils and great goods from great evils. God has a plan for it all. His Word tells us so. Romans 8:28 beautifully reassures us of this. “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”  All things work for good. Even my suffering. He has infused it with meaning and cast aside its futility. My part is to love God. He will take care of the rest.

Pope St. John Paul II describes this transformation of suffering saying: “Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.”[4]

Suffering now becomes the fertile soil for good. God wants to bring good from our suffering, just like he did with his only Son. He wants to do the same for us his adopted sons and daughters. So when we ask, “What in the world are you doing, Lord?”, the answer comes back to us: “Bringing about good.” God doesn't just want to bring good from evil. He is in the business of doing just that. God will continuously bring good out of our suffering until the end of time, just as he promised. I’m not sure about you, but that’s reassuring to me.

Closer Than You Think

Turning to our last question—“Lord, where are you?”—I’d like to share a personal story. Back in 1996, I was working as a roofer, fell from a two-story residential roof, and suffered a spinal cord injury. That fall left me paralyzed from just below my chest downwards. It was obviously a difficult time in my life, but it was clear to me as I went through it that God was with me helping me to recover and adapt to my new life with a spinal cord injury. What wasn’t obvious to me was where God was when I fell. I had always presumed that he had simply been “looking away” when I fell. He simply allowed it—not maliciously but passively. It’s part of God’s permissive will, I thought. And after I fell, he swooped in and began to bring good from it. I could see that part, but what about the “looking away” part? That never sat very well with me.

One day, years after my injury, I was working at a Steubenville summer conference at Franciscan University and I began talking to one of the attendees at the Charismatic Conference. This new friend and I talked about lots of things, including how I was injured. We talked for about 45 minutes and that was that—until I saw him again later that day. I was helping to set up in the Finnegan Fieldhouse for that evening’s general session, as praise and worship music greeted the attendees who entered. Then my new friend from earlier that day came in and made a gesture for me to come talk to him. He wanted to tell me something. I went over to him and he said that he had been praying about our conversation and that he had received a word from the Lord, which he thought was intended for me to hear. Now, you have to understand that as the guy in the wheelchair, lots of people come up to me with “words from the Lord” for me. So I was a little apprehensive. He said that he had shared the message with another friend who verified for him that it seemed like a true word from the Lord that was meant for me. That made me feel better; but I was still a little hesitant, that is, until I heard the “word” for myself. Have you ever heard something that just resonated to your very core because you knew it was true? Well that’s what happened to me when I heard these words.

My new friend said, “The day you fell, the Devil wanted you to die….” That caught me off guard. I hadn’t ever figured the Devil into the equation of what happened when I fell. But as in the Book of Job, the Devil here was exposed. “The Devil wanted you to die,” he continued, “but God caught you.” Upon hearing these words, I felt overcome with a great peace, deeply reassured and I understood. God hadn’t “looked away” when I had fallen all those years before. No, it was just the opposite. God was right there, actively and intimately present in my time of greatest need. He hadn’t looked away and let me fall. Rather, he had reached down to catch me and save my life. I didn’t have to survive that fall, but I did. I didn’t have to be saved from worse injury, but I was. At the moment I thought God had been so distant from me, God had actually been the most present. Those words from my new friend, well, I do believe that they were from the Lord. The words may have been for me, but the message is for all of us. Where is God when we are suffering? He is there. He is present. He is actively and intimately there with us.

A New Perspective

Suffering has the effect of making us focus on our own perceptions while often clouding reality. God begs us to see things differently. He challenges us to a new perspective, to see things from his perspective. This is a perspective that encourages us to relax and trust that God is in charge. It is a perspective that reassures us that God works ceaselessly to bring good out of our suffering. It is a perspective that reveals just how close God is to us even when he feels very far away. He is intimately and actively present when we most need him. This new perspective won’t take our suffering away, but it can certainly reassure us that there is a plan for it.

Kevin H. Bailey has taught high school religion and is currently creating new religion textbooks and teacher resource materials for Catholic high schools in response to the USCCB’s document “Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age.”

Notes


[1] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, 58-59.

[2] Sermo 117:3.

[3] St. Augustine, Enchiridion II, 3: PL 40, 236.

[4] John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, art. 27.

 


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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