Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for Christians and non-Christians alike is the issue of suffering. If God is a good God, how is it that bad things happen at all, much less, to good people? While it is essential that a person understands that God does not create or commit evil, it still exists as a natural consequence (or possibility) of our free will. The question at hand is asked in the aftermath of catastrophic events; the news shows ask every available priest, rabbi, imam and minister for an answer. It is a natural response for a person to seek an explanation for their suffering, possibly so that they may justify it in their own minds. Though much suffering is caused by events not directly intended by an individual, such as losing a loved one in a car accident, the role of all suffering must be understood from a certain point of view in the lives of baptized persons.
Our expectations of God are often the source of the spiritual conflict felt with the experience of suffering. While God is not only good but Goodness itself, he does allow bad things to occur through sin as a natural result of our free will. This post is not covering the topic of free will, but suffice it to say that since God’s desire is for us to love him of our own accord, we also have the ability to chose against loving Him, which is sin. Possibly the greatest example of God allowing sin so that His will be accomplished is the crucifixion and death of Jesus. As our Lord predicted this, even Peter reacted by rebuking Jesus to which Christ responded, “You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do[i].” The sorrows of this life often do not line up with our expectation of God, but when tragedy strikes, we have two choices. The first is to look toward Christ, shaking our fists saying, “If you really are the Son of God, take yourself down from the Cross![ii]” The second is to take the role of the good thief and recognize that Jesus suffers with us and humbly resign ourselves to His unknown plan saying, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.[iii]” I admit that the unknown does not offer much solace to one who suffers, but it does provide a partial answer to the question of suffering.
Searching for a deeper answer, as Catholics, we can see that an animal’s experience of the world is substantially different than our own. The reason is that Grace transforms the human experience and elevates it above that of animals. Dogs consume food yet our food is the Body of Christ. Dolphins procreate through sex and the sexual act becomes Sacramental in nature through Matrimony. Birds bathe to cleanse their bodies and we are baptized for the remission of sins. Animals may suffer to no perceivable end, though St. Paul instructs us to unite our own sufferings to Christ’s for the sake of the Church[iv]. What about the issue of life itself? Animals live so that they may continue to live – humans live so that they might inherit Eternal Life. While the death of a loved one may be a sorrowful event, it must be so only out of our own sense of loss and not out of the belief that death is bad in-and-of-itself. St. Alphonsus de Liguori might suggest that God allows a man to die one day because he might have lost his faith the next. How else are we to achieve Heaven, but for death?
In spite of all of this, suppose that bad things didn’t happen to good people. Going to church would suddenly be like getting vaccinated. Worshipping God would no longer be about Him but about the person who does not want an illness or an untimely demise. Faith becomes motivated by fear rather than love. This type of thinking is evident in Scripture when it was questioned whether the man born blind was so because of his own sin or that of his parents. Jesus clearly dismissed the preconceived notion that physical infirmity was related to moral righteousness when he forgave a paralytic’s sins and healed him through separate actions.
Suffering visits us all throughout or lives and through it a person can learn compassion and wisdom. While certainly not enjoyable, it can be a gift from God that allows us to more fully understand the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Before that can happen, we must find ourselves at the foot of the cross asking for the grace to be transformed from the doubting Pharisee to the good thief who endures the cross and hopes for Heaven beyond.