What is God’s Answer to the Problem of Suffering and Pain?
There are good, intelligent and true answers that we can gather from philosophers, scholars, saints and Doctors of the Church. A lot of those answers can feed the mind and when it is not us or someone we love who is suffering, we will find our intellectual appetites satisfied with those classic responses to the problem of pain.
In the abstract, when we are not suffering, it is a lot easier to see why a good and all-powerful God would allow evil, pain and even death. For example, God allowed that fire down the street because He gave us the gift of free will. Free will means that people can abuse their freedom by being irresponsible and failing to regularly check their smoke alarms. Even though the building burned down, which is bad, it created an opportunity for a lot of people to rise to the occasion and act heroically. That is good, right? By allowing it, God created space for good to win over evil. Something like this might forever change the future for those involved. It could have a ripple effect down to people’s grandchildren. It serves as an example to lots of other people who will now more regularly check their smoke detectors.
This wake-up call would therefore prevent other fires from happening. More than that, is it not the case that great tragedy has the potential to turn people back to God? We suddenly and sincerely start praying for other people. We might even realize that we have neglected our spiritual life and this event makes us ask some really serious questions about the things that matter most.
It is a lot easier to see your way through the woods when you are safe, comfortable, only thinking about the journey and merely looking at a map. It is a whole different story when it is dark, lonely and you are actually lost. Do not get me wrong, maps and intellectual answers are really important, but when it is personal and when it is painful is it really enough?
When it comes to suffering, these right answers are in fact right but they are not really enough. That is why we still cry out to God with our “Why?” We beg. We plead. We bargain. We get mad. We say things like, “Why did you allow it God? Why did You not stop that from happening? What is the point of all of this?” We ask these kinds of questions as if we really just want an answer. However, try imagining what would happen if God actually showed up. Imagine if He strictly responded to your question of why and gave a very clear, direct response? Then what?
Would we, as Dr. Peter Kreeft, Boston College philosophy professor, points out, really be satisfied with any rational explanation to our questions about suffering? Even if it is God’s reason—which is the best possible reason from the best possible source—would that not stop Him from leaving us with even more questions? Would we not, much like a child to a parent, ask, “But why that?” Would not every answer lead to another string of questions? If He indulged us and gave more answers, would we not just go on asking questions? Could this be a sign that we want something more than rational answers, no matter how often we demand them? Maybe what we are longing for is not just a something but a ‘someone’. Maybe the God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, knows this as well. Maybe that is why He does not often respond to our questions, especially when we are suffering.
A classic example comes right from the Bible in the book of Job. Job, a good man who honors the Lord, suddenly finds everything—his success, wealth, family and health—taken from him. The story opens with God directly acknowledging Job’s faithfulness and proceeding to allow his life to fall apart. By the end of the story, Job, although broken and beat, refuses to “curse God and die.” He refuses to let God off the hook for the misery he endures. He demands a response and, as the story continues, God shows up. If we jump to the end of the book, we find that Job is content. It is only after this satisfaction that God returns to him all that was lost and more.
The interesting part of the story is that Job does not find satisfaction based on God’s answer to his questions. In fact, God did not answer Job at all. When Job finally stood before God, his questions faded away and God turned the tables and instead asked questions to Job. These questions went beyond the scope of what Job could ever understand or answer. They reminded him, and us, that maybe we do not get an answer from God because our questions are too small and, right now, His answers are too large. God knows, like a good parent, that some answers must wait and, for now, all He can say to our demands for answers about suffering is, “Yes, I allowed this to happen. And for now, that has to be enough. For now, just know that I’m here. I’m with you. I love you. Let that be enough.”
In our own experience, we know that love and suffering are somehow already united. Though suffering is not explainable in a satisfying way when we are actually suffering, it is shareable. We can allow those that love us to suffer with us and when others suffer we can suffer with them. This is why, even more than fixing it or removing it, we are at our best when we love each other in suffering. It makes sense then that the cross is the central symbol and persistent paradox at the heart of Christianity: God, who cannot suffer or die, shares in our humanity to do these very things. God becomes man so He can be “with us,” not merely to take away the suffering—at least not yet—but to first let us know that He has always been there, that He Is here now, that He Is Emmanuel, that He is with us.
He is with us when it feels like our hands are held down and nothing is within our control. He is with us when we are taken advantage of. He is with us when we feel betrayed, when our body no longer can keep going, when innocence is robbed and hearts are broken, when senseless violence destroys hopes and dreams. He is with us when there are no answers and when there is only silence. Jesus actually died on the cross so we would know that even in death He is with us.
So let Him be with us in those happy moments—celebrate life!—but also in our suffering, in the small ways we suffer or, like Job, in the big ways. The Gospel is Good News because it promises that if we let it start now—this God-with-us existence—then we, like Job, will find contentment knowing He is present even in our pain. We find in His presence not just a God who shares our death, but a God who has risen from the dead and promises that we will not only get back what we lost, but more than we could hope to imagine!
(Twitter @joephlip101) is the new Director of The School of Evangelization for St. Paul Evangelization Institute. He is a former Campus Minister, theology teacher, and retreat coordinator for Powers Catholic High School in Flint, Michigan. Philip earned his M.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He and his wife, Tara, travel and share their love for Jesus and the Church by leading and speaking at retreats. They are happy parents to three children. Philip served as host of SHALOM WORLD television’s original series, “SEEKERS.” Philip serves as Contributing Editor of “Shalom Tidings” magazine. In 2018, he will be one of the featured speakers for the inaugural Shalom Media Summit to be held in Illinois.
Every driver knows that one of the worst places you can find yourself in—is the "blind spot" of another driver. That is the little space in the line of sight between the coverage of the rear view or side mirror and the actual car next to us. I think we have all had the experience of checking our mirrors and then changing lanes, only to hear the mad blast of a horn as a car that was previously unseen to us speeds past. While our heart races over the near collision, we practically break our necks double checking the next twelve lane changes. And then sometimes the collision does happen. We could have sworn there was no car next to us but the accident happens and the problems and trauma ensue. One of my friends noted that this is true in our personal lives as well. How many times have we "run into or over" others simply because we did not "see them." It is the boss who regularly becomes angry and screams at his employees because "that's just how he is." It is the meddling mother-in-law who cannot get through a conversation without saying something cutting or judgmental, when "trying to be helpful." It is the spouse who is more concerned about him or herself than the marriage or family. Often no one wants to confront these issues and so the problem continues. Self-awareness is minimal and the pain it inflicts on others pours forth. Most of the time, our ‘blind spots’ come not from an area of malice, but simply from a lack of self-awareness. We do not know ourselves or our story well enough to understand what it might be like to interact with ourselves on a daily basis. I am often personally convicted when I complain about others because people have to live with me as well! They have to work, interact and relate to me—broken, fragile person just the same. But there is also another aspect to ‘blind spots’—we often do not see ourselves as we truly are in our deep lovingness to God. As Saint Paul writes in the context of speaking about authentic love, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We all long to see face-to-face. Our deepest desires involve loving and being loved, knowing and being known. This is an ache for eternity. When we see God face to face, we will finally see, know and love in fullness. Until then, we undergo this process of revelation, of knowing only parts and pieces as we move towards the whole. It is beautiful and sorrowful, wounding and life-giving. It is the path of true love—to behold ourselves and others as unique, precious and unrepeatable creations of God Himself. We could ask the Holy Spirit to reveal our ‘blind spots’—that He reveals the areas where we “run over” and miss people because we just do not see them. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to speak to our true identity, our true lovingness, and live in that reality rather than relating to ourselves and others from our masks, our wounded and skewed vision. We often do not know what we do not know. Let us ask to see clearly, all the way around.
There she is, just moments after getting the news that she is miraculously pregnant and, that too pregnant with the Son of God who is going to save the world. This girl of about sixteen decides to head out on her own to travel on a dangerous, nearly ninety-mile journey. Does this make any sense? No, it does not. She should be taking it easy and have a stress-free environment and someone—perhaps her husband, Joseph???—should be around her at all times. She should go directly to the doctor and get the best medical attention. Better yet, a doctor should be coming regularly to her house. Throw in a few security guards and some special home cooking. Why is she putting everything, including our salvation, at such risk? Why does she head out into such dangerous conditions when she is carrying heart. There is something about our hearts that never fail and it is this: whatever we carry in our hearts that is what carries us in life. We have different levels in our hearts, from the more superficial to the most intimate, a place deep inside us where God can live. We carry things in our hearts because they carry us in our life. My first car was a 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo. It was maroon and big and I loved it. It cost me $300 and moved like small aircraft carrier while spitting burned oil out the tailpipe at people who tailgated me. It carried me around and took me back and forth to school so I was able to finish my master’s degree. I have a little musical instrument called a charango. It is a cousin of the ukelele. Wherever I go I like to carry it in my arms and play it. It is not because it gets me attention. It is because it has carried me in my solitude so many times late at night and still does when I am alone in Ecuador. Now all of that is great, and we have a lot of things that carry us in life. Money carries us through life, so we like money. Friends and family carry us through life and we carry them inside us. Work, sports … well, you get the point. Only God can carry us through death. See, that is why Mary can go alone as a young girl on a dangerous, life-threatening journey, carrying God inside her. God is carrying her. He can carry her through everything, even death. Last time when I was in Ecuador, one of the local men, a founder of the neighboring village in the mountains, got cancer in his foot. The doctors told him that the only option for him to survive would be to amputate the foot. He said no. He moved down from the mountain and his wife and youngest daughter began to take care of him. I was able to visit him. I brought my charango and tried to learn some music from him. He would brighten up; Get his guitar off the wall and go on playing it. Not only was he the founder of the community, but he was a great guitar player, as well. When he was a young man, he played at the annual fiestas all night, playing more than 200 songs from pure memory, without repeating a single one. Almost no one in the community plays instruments anymore, so we had the idea of bringing some kids to his house to learn guitar and these songs. Only a few months later, his condition worsened and he could not play anymore. The cancer quickly spread and by the time he could put his trust in God, it was too late to amputate the foot. He passed away on Easter Sunday morning. At the funeral, there was no music. No one talked about his life. His wife felt lost and abandoned, the adult children did not know what to say. A weight hung over the family. He left his family, the music, his community—all for his right foot. His foot had carried him his entire life. But, it could not carry him through death. The church puts the feast of the Assumption as a holy day of obligation, because it puts in front of us the event of Mary literally being carried by God through death itself into heaven. We have a day dedicated to the reality that if we have God in our hearts, if we let Him delve deep in our hearts, then surely He will carry us through everything. Even death. Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah (Luke 1:39).
How do you put years of discernment on a single piece of paper or within a single write-up? As I was praying about it, the reality of its simplicity struck me: God called and I said, “No,” until Mary softened my heart. Well, actually it was more like, God called and I said, “No.” God called again and I said, firmly, “NO!” God asked yet again and I said, “No! Marriage, Lord, marriage.” God drew me to Himself, got His mom involved and asked me once more and I said, “Well … maybe.” God, in His infinite patience, asked a final time and I answered with a resounding, “Yes!” The first time I heard God call me was in the fifth grade. Our English class was learning how to write business letters. For our assignment we were supposed to write a formal letter to any company in which we could see ourselves working “when we grew up.” I thought for a while on it and realized that the only thing that sounded interesting and exciting to me was being a religious sister. So I wrote to a missionary sister who graciously responded to me. As part of the assignment, we were to share any responses we received with the entire class. I remember feeling embarrassed as I read her response out loud. That was enough to snuff out the desire to be a sister (I was a very sensitive kid). Throughout grade school the idea of being a sister was always in the back of my mind. I still heard God’s gentle voice calling me. But at that age, I did not want to confront it and so I dealt with it by saying flat out, “No.” Then, as a freshman in high school, my mom, sister and I took a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Now Jesus was pulling out the big guns and getting His Mom to help Him in His “little scheme.” He knew I had a soft spot for her and He played that card well. While in Medjugorje I felt, through Mary, the tug of the Lord growing stronger, asking me to devote my life to Him. My response was, “Sounds great, Lord, but I can devote my life to You without wearing a habit.” But Momma Mary softened my heart and helped me to be open to the idea of a marriage to Her Son. I went on through my high school years with this idea very much in the forefront of my mind. Being the stubborn person that I am, I told God that I was not going to commit until I tasted the dating life even though I knew in my heart of hearts that it would not bring me the fulfillment or satisfaction I desired and that it would not make me truly happy. Humoring me, God sent a very holy young man into my life. Through a youth group program I met my first real boyfriend, Anthony. He was everything I wanted in a husband (God covered His bases, making sure I would have no doubts): he was a gentleman, generous, self-sacrificing, not passive, considerate, mature, respectful to me, always upholding my dignity, funny, desired to be a saint, and challenged me to be holier. As a cherry on top, he was cute as well. While we dated I felt a separation between my heart and my body. It did not feel right. Something was off. It was like my mind and my heart hit a fork in the road and went in opposite ways: my heart was going toward religious life and my mind toward marriage. In my stubbornness I was attempting to lasso my heart and pull it over to the side my mind was on. I took it to prayer and (rather stupidly, since I knew the answer) asked God what was going on. He made it very clear to me (He is so patient with us) that in order to feel whole and in order to be at peace I was to give my entire life to Him, to be a bride of Christ. With that imagery, to be Jesus’ bride, I said, without a doubt and with such joy, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Now I will not say that I did not have any doubts later or any struggles along the road. Heavens…no! How could there not be when society sees you as a strange person because you are not following the norm and getting married? I still struggled with the desire to date. I found it hard to be wooed by Someone who is not tangible in the form you want Him to be or present to you physically in body. I struggled with telling people and admitting out loud that I wanted to dedicate my life to Jesus by being a Sister. But God remained faithful to me and He kept renewing His proposal to me in various ways. He knew my heart and wooed me in ways no earthly man could. I had so much love and support from family and friends which encouraged me, kept me focused and strengthened me in times of temptation, By the grace of God I had the perseverance and commitment to remain faithful to my call throughout grade school and high school. Now, twelve years after that initial call in the fifth grade, I have joined this religious community where Jesus is continuing to woo me and pursue my heart in ways I never thought possible. In turn, I am growing so much more in love with Him!
In 1986 the Sea of Galilee receded during a drought, exposing an ancient fishing boat, 27 feet long by 7.5 feet wide. It was taken to a nearby kibbutz where it was carbon dated. As it was proved to be approximately 2,000 years old and designed to carry between 12 and 15 fishermen, the locals called it the “Jesus boat.” When a group of tourists were being shown the boat, a young man asked if he could touch it. The archaeologist on duty explained that it was not permitted. However, when he admitted that he had touched the boat himself in the course of his work, the young man immediately touched him, and his fellow pilgrims followed suit. It all happened so naturally and spontaneously and in turn demonstrated a deep belief that something precious can be communicated by touch. It is a conviction that the heart of the Gospel story, begins with a very special touch—the touch of God. When the “finger of God’s right hand” touched the Virgin Mary, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit so that the love of God Himself was made flesh within her womb. As He grew “in wisdom and understanding” under the influence of the love that had conceived Him in the first place, He was able to communicate to others something of what He had received by His own sacred touch. It enabled Him to heal, make whole and even rise from the dead. Although He was moved by compassion to help people in their physical need, the power of His love that could be seen by all, symbolized a far deeper spiritual power—one that could bring not just physical but spiritual healing along with inner transformation. This spiritual power was handed on to the first Apostles so that they also could hand on to others what they had received from the Lord Himself. The love that had been received by Jesus in the fullest possible way on the first Easter day was passed on to the Apostles and used by them and their successors—as a sacred and holy touch to be handed down to successive generations. This is why touch is so important in the rites of Christian initiation. It means that the love of Christ that was communicated to us at baptism has been literally handed on for almost 2,000 years. In short, the priest whose hands were laid on us at Baptism had received the sacred touch himself from the Bishop who ordained him, and he had received it from the Bishop who had ordained him and so on in an unbroken line that goes back to Jesus Himself. Through this sacred touch we are given the very love of God that can be transposed into an ever more perfect way of loving that reach out from us to others. The loving touch of married couples then becomes the means by which the divine is communicated through the human to each other and then onto their children. The power of this love is dependent on the selflessness with which it is both given and received as their lives unfold. There is no other sacrament that so embodies the mystery of the incarnation as the sacrament of marriage, to which most of us are called and in which the majority of us are first formed. I only came to understand this properly myself when my mother died. Every morning before the funeral, my father woke me up with a cup of tea, sat on my bed and began to tell me a story that I had never heard before. It was a love story— the story of my father’s love for my mother and her love for him. He told me that they had received help and understanding through the first major crisis in their marriage from a childhood friend, Dom Aidan Williams (Abbot of Belmont Abbey from 1940 to 1948). By the time I was born, my father said he had entered into what he could only describe as an emotional limbo land where the feelings, the emotions, the passions that had once been so important in their relationship seemed to have all but disappeared. My mother seemed to find herself in a similar plight. Dom Aidan Williams was a deeply spiritual man who was able to show my parents that their love had not come to an end but to a new beginning. Love, he taught them, can never be judged in this life by feeling, but by giving—by giving even when you do not feel. In fact, giving without asking for anything in return is the most perfect expression of love. This is the highest form of loving possible on earth. This is the meaning of the Cross—it is a symbol not just for Christians but for all men and women who want to enter into the fullness of life. Only through a spiritual dying to self through selfless giving can a person open himself or herself fully to love, without which life has no ultimate meaning. He showed them how, with the best will in the world, the most idealistic of men and women will always come to an impasse in their spiritual journey, when the poverty of their own imperfect love suddenly becomes a barrier to receiving, in ever-greater measure, the love they want to receive without measure. As they came through that first major crisis in their married love, my father discovered, in the months and years that followed, how a new dimension gradually began to open out in their life together. Precisely because they had suffered and sacrificed together they became surer and securer in each other’s love. There were moments when they were bonded together more perfectly than ever before, when they were united in mind, heart and body in an experience that bordered on the ecstatic—an experience that is completely unknown to the person whose idea of love never rises above the purely physical. This new understanding of their married love did not mean that all their troubles and problems were over—far from it! What it did mean was that because of this new development, all the troubles, all the problems which they did have to face, could be faced because they could be faced together, with an inner strength from God, whose love they had ministered to each other. They met Dom Aidan later when he was posted to Sant’Anselmo, Rome, as the Procurator General of his Order. He told them that the way they had been living out their married life has been an inspiration to him and many others—so impressed by the way they had lived and loved each other, and brought up such a fine family. He explained to them a theological theory close to his own heart, more common in the Eastern Church than in the West—the theory of “physical redemption” that had been developed particularly by the Greek fathers, the short of which is that redemption, or salvation, is brought about by touch, the touch of God. Christ is the touch of God, whose physical presence sanctified a world of matter and form, of flesh and blood, by entering into it. Then through touch, He communicated the love that filled Him to others, who would go out and—by their physical presence, their touch—would communicate to others what they had received. This then, Dom Aidan explained, was the meaning of the laying on of hands that has characterized the Sacraments from the beginning. Love is communicated by touch. This is the tradition that literally hands on the faith that is not a body of facts but a body full of love, raised up on the first Easter to enter into all who would receive the touch of life. The Apostles, already touched by the Holy Presence, were penetrated through and through on the first Pentecost and went out to communicate what they had received to others. The hands, then, that touch and transmit the life of God to you at baptism were themselves the recipients of a touch that can be traced without break all the way back to Jesus. Dom Aidan explained to them how the physical and intimate loving that was at the heart of their married life was a profound continuation of this process, and not just a continuation but a celebration, in which the love they both received in the sacred touch of baptism was progressively brought to perfection. Not only did their physical marital loving bring Christ’s life to take birth again in each other, but it overflowed to the children who had been the fruit of their loving—a love that was now literally embodied in their sons, who in their turn would communicate to others what they had received from the touch of their parents.
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