God and Suffering

Why does a loving God permit suffering? More than any other question, this one troubles the faithful, and many even have lost their faith because of the paradox.

The Puritans and contemporary prosperity gospel adherents answer that God blesses those he favors, giving them health and wealth. Some would say these elect are predestined, others that they earn the status by leading a good life. Conversely, others suffer because God is not pleased and sends affliction on them. By this reckoning, Syrians today, especially Syrian Christians, must be really bad people since they are suffering so much. There are many who follow this view. It is no surprise that a book titled “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” sold a lot of copies. It puzzles many who believe they are living a righteous life, yet are suffering.

Another answer is that God sends suffering as “tough love,” to help us become stronger in faith. “I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. ” (Zech.13:9). “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3:19). It is the same idea as the parent who disciplines a child because he or she loves the child.

The Old Testament has a mixed message. On the one hand, God is represented as punishing those who sin by sending suffering (for example, Exodus 32, where God punishes those who made the golden calf by sending a plague on them). On the other hand, the Book of Job sees suffering as a witness to faithfulness, unrelated to righteousness or sinfulness.

Some see suffering as random. Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous,” (Matt. 5:45). He specifically refutes the idea that suffering and sickness is inflicted by God to punish individuals (see John 9). If God has established a love relationship with us, we must be given free will to choose our response. Forced love is an oxymoron. Thus, while the suffering of those whom he loves grieves him, he cannot simply interfere and fix it without destroying our independence of will to love or not.

Our culture’s take on Christianity is that good people go to church and live a life mostly pleasing to God. Bad people are those who do crimes and denounce God. In between are many who don’t go to church but conduct their lives in what is deemed a respectable way, paying taxes, being patriotic, holding a responsible job, and raising their children to do likewise. God is seen as liking the good people. The bad people displease him and he will make sure that sooner or later, they will “get what they deserve.”

The idea that God separates us into righteous and unrighteous categories is reflected in Jesus’ teachings, but quite differently than the Puritans and prosperity gospel folks have in mind. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, it is opposite. The man who is deep in poverty is the one granted heaven, and the rich man goes to hell. Christian economics as taught by Jesus sees riches as at best an impediment to faith and at worst an idolatry to mammon. Likewise, in the Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats being divided on the Last Day, those who are justified are those who gave freely to others. The purpose of prosperity is to share it generously, perhaps totally, with others. Otherwise, it is a curse and impediment to salvation.

Thus, answers about suffering which see its presence as a sign of God’s disapproval are completely wrong. Yet Americans in large numbers, whether churchgoers or not, believe the Puritan concepts are what Christianity is. If real Christianity is ever going to make headway in America, these Puritan ideas must be dramatically refuted. Real Christians, as Martin Luther put it, are beggars before God, helplessly lost in a sinful world and in need of total grace. They are absolutely not given any special prosperity nor pain-free existence.

Instead, suffering, pain and grief are universal. We enter the world in pain and generally exit it in pain. There are no exceptions because you have been a nice person. And bad things happening to good people is an untested concept because there are no good people (see Martin Luther again, as above, if it didn’t sink in the first time).

Two additional factors should be noted.
1. Love, by definition, is sacrificial and therefore brings suffering,. To love another is to give of yourself, which is what sacrifice involves. The one exception to the above assertion “there are no good people,” is the ideal example. Christ’s love is such that he, the only perfect human, volunteers to sacrifice himself, empty himself and assume the burden of those he loves.
2. When we love, we also sacrifice, and therefore suffer. Is love worth the suffering involved? That is a question each must answer for him- or her- self. But if you would be a Christian, the only context is love. This is made absolutely clear by Jesus, who gives two overriding commandments, to love God and love neighbor. Period. No fine print or caveats. Just do it. And suffering is one of the consequences. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” says St. Paul (Rom. 8:18) and this is encouraging. But when you really love someone, you don’t do it as a calculation, you do it because your heart is committed. That is how God loves, and how we can reflect that kind of love. It has many consequences, most of them beautiful. But one of them is increased suffering.

Of course, there is suffering unrelated to love as well, and it is universal although not equitably distributed. It happens not only to humans but also to other creatures. Remember that Jesus notes it is related to the current state of creation, not to some juridical application of guilt. It is your choice what to do with it. You can rage against it, try to anesthetize it, blame God for it, feel guilty for it. Or you can use it to learn maturity, to be creative in combatting it, to learn more empathy for others, to search for solutions.

And what about God in all that? Because he loves you, your suffering bothers him. If you love him, his suffering bothers you. Can you pray to him to remove the burden from you? I am convinced, both from Gospel accounts and from personal experience that he will do that when he sees it will be helpful to you. But keep in mind that everyone Jesus healed eventually suffered again and died.

Ultimately, God has chosen his own way to fix the mess caused by mankind. It is a totally effective way to bring this earth of his back to a state where suffering will not exist. It means sacrificial love, requiring suffering on his part, as the Cross demonstrates. It leads us out of the dilemma created by our own rebellion and self-centered confusion.

It is tempting when in personal pain or suffering to want God to send a miracle of some kind to fix our problems, indeed all problems of evil and suffering. Yet most people don’t want to lose the freedom of choice he has given, to be the “captain of my own ship.” Obviously, the two options are mutually exclusive. For the latter to be a real choice, God has to let us function without undue interference. Next week’s blog will address the Sacrament of Unction with that dilemma in mind. In the meantime, remember his love can be trusted, in good times and bad, in this life and the next.