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!
Joe Philip (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.
Ever wondered why bad things happen in life? The reason may surprise you Often, when we are faced with severe trials and sufferings, we are tempted to blame God: “Why is God doing this to me,” or “Why does a loving God not come immediately to my aid?” In the process, we conveniently forget the Bible tells us that there is also a mysterious evil Force at work in our world whose only purpose is “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Jesus called this evil power the Devil and described him as “a murderer from the beginning… a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Jesus specifically taught us that we must never blame His/our “Abba” for our sufferings! In His insightful parable, when questioned by the servants about the appearance of weeds among the good wheat given them to sow, the Master replied categorically, “Some enemy has done this, not I.” Choose Your Victory God is not a moody, tyrannical, or uncaring deity who causes cancers and marital breakdowns and tsunamis to plague His beloved children! The cause lies in the mysterious spiritual battle raging between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil that involves every human being! The precious gift of free will, given to us by the Creator, allows each of us “to choose life or to choose death” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), to stay happily on the side of Good or to cross over to the Enemy’s side. And this choosing is done not only by individuals, but by systems as well. In addition to individual sin, there is systemic sin—well-organized oppressive systems and institutions which perpetuate social injustice and religious persecution. The Bible tells us that Jesus has won the victory over all the Forces of Evil, and that in the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21, 22) whatever turned creation away from its original purpose will be destroyed for the sake of the new creation, which will fulfill the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. In his 1986 Encyclical Letter on the Holy Spirit, Saint John Paul II explained this cosmic spiritual warfare when he explained how the sin of Adam and Eve allowed “the perverse genius of suspicion” into the world. This apt phrase expresses correctly that the Enemy is a genius (as a fallen angel, his intelligence is superior to ours), but a perverse genius (he uses his intelligence for evil purposes rather than for good), and his (successful) strategy has been to sow suspicion in the minds of God’s creatures (us!) against God the Creator Himself! The real Enemy goes scot-free: “For in spite of all the witness of creation, the spirit of darkness is capable of showing God as an enemy of His own creature, and in the first place as an enemy of man. In this way, Satan manages to sow in man’s soul the seed of opposition to the One, who from the beginning would be considered as man’s enemy—and not as Father. This analysis of sin indicates that throughout the history of humanity there will be a constant pressure on man to reject God, even to the point of hating Him. Man will be inclined to see in God primarily a limitation of himself, and not the source of his own freedom and fullness of good” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.38). Reason for Suspicion Don’t our own personal experiences bear this out? Throughout history, a constant pressure has indeed been exerted on humanity to suspect God! And because of this, Saint John Paul II explains, “there is in the depths of God an unimaginable and inexpressible pain. This inscrutable and indescribable fatherly ‘pain’ will bring about, above all, the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that love can reveal itself in human history as stronger than sin” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.39). When I was the Parish Priest at Holy Family Church, Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to insure my church against God! The insurance contract which I had to renew, contained this line: “We insure this building against floods, fires, earthquakes and such acts of God!” I protested to the agent that my God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ, could never be blamed for natural calamities, but was instead a God of surpassing love. (I eventually signed the contract, but only after crossing out the offending words). The incident taught me how a “perverse suspicion of God” has become so ingrained in human customs and traditions that a good God gets represented as a moody, tyrannical deity! Instead of recognizing that the cause of the misery and suffering that plagues our world is man’s refusal to be an obedient steward of God’s creation (see Genesis 1:28) the secular (and often even the religious) world prefers to make God the scapegoat for everything amiss! However, we cannot blame God for our human ills resulting from global warming, terrorism, wars, poverty, unforgiveness, contagious diseases, etc. On the contrary, from the mystery of His own Son’s terrible crucifixion and resurrection, we must conclude that God always desires our good, and that “wherever evil abounds, His grace super-abounds” (Romans 5:20). There is a spiritual battle being waged imperceptibly between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. Even in 2023, humanity needs to be reminded that, despite all its technological progress and scientific achievements, this spiritual battle continues, and involves every human being! “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). So please, let’s put the blame where it belongs and never blame Jesus’ and God, our Father!
Beginning the first day of my incarceration, I have been building a relationship with God. I often feel regret that it took such a tragedy for me to submit to my need for Him, but even more often I feel grateful that I have found a burning passion for life in the Lord. My desire to seek Him sprang from prayer. I prayed intently for those suffering the crushing consequences of my dangerous actions driven by addictions. It was during this prayer time that God revealed His unconditional love for me and called me into kinship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. My journey, building a relationship with God during these years in prison, reminds of the techniques needed to build the foundation for a camp-fire, a skill I had developed in the past when I was free to spend my time enjoying the outdoors. I cleared the ground to make room for my new love. Like the stones I placed around the fire pit, I surrounded myself with others seeking self-improvement via divine guidance. Church became the bedrock on which my foundation was laid. I listened carefully to The Word, and did my best to apply it in my daily activities. But my fire pit was empty. I set out to add elements to build my fire pit. Small portions of time were dedicated to communal prayer, Bible study gatherings and group recovery sessions. These small additions, like kindling were needed to start the fire burning, but I knew that I needed something more substantial to add, or my fire would be sure to burn out quickly. I fervently sought for something I could dedicate my life that would consolidate my bond with God. The answer came in the form of service work. It was service to others, whether in the simple form of a listening ear, or working in leadership positions dedicated to teaching my peers, that brought me true joy. I piled the giant logs of service positions onto my nest of kindling. Now I needed something flammable for ignition. Much to my surprise, unique accelerators were express delivered by the Lord Himself. Counselling sessions with our Chaplain, professional mentoring with my work supervisor, and the loving support of my family back home, gave me the encouragement I desperately needed to ask forgiveness for my past and believe in my future. I poured all their loving guidance onto the firewood with eager expectation. The time had finally come to set my constructed masterpiece ablaze. I found the perfect spark in the Living Word. For an entire year I cupped this crucial element. I fed it oxygen while digesting God’s teaching, direction and wisdom and carefully placed the spark near the base of my structure. God assisted by gently blowing against the spark, and a fire of love for Jesus roared into life in my heart. Today, this fire burns warm and bright. The love I share with the Lord has satisfied all that I have ever longed for. Prior to incarceration, I was lost and distracted by worldly pleasures, trapped in its pitfalls, feeling desperately drained and directionless. As someone lost in the wilderness of life, there is no survival without fire. My life is meaningful in the Lord, and it is so much easier to see hope in opportunity by the light of this fire.
Q – My pre-teens are clamoring for a phone so they can get social media, like all of their friends. I feel so torn, because I don’t want them to be left out, but I know how dangerous it can be. What is your opinion? A: Social media can be used for good. I know a twelve-year-old who makes short Bible reflections on TikTok, and he gets hundreds of views. Another young person I know has an Instagram account dedicated to posting about the saints. Other teens I know go on Discord or other chat rooms to debate atheists or to encourage other young people in their Faith. Without a doubt, there are good uses for social media in evangelization and forming Christian community. And yet…do the benefits outweigh the risks? A good maxim in the spiritual life is: “Trust God immensely…never trust yourself!” Should we entrust a young person with unfettered access to the internet? Even if they start out with the best of intentions, are they strong enough to resist the temptations? Social media can be a cesspool—not just obvious temptations like pornography or glorifying violence, but even more insidious temptations like gender ideology, bullying, becoming addicted to the “high” of getting likes and views, and feelings of inadequacy when teens start to compare themselves with others on social media. In my opinion, the risks outweigh the benefits of allowing young people access to a secular world which will try to form them away from the mind of Christ. Recently a mother and I were discussing her teenage daughter’s poor behavior and attitude, which was correlated to her use of TikTok and her unfettered access to the internet. The mother said with a sigh of resignation, “It’s just so sad that teens are so addicted to their phones…but what can you do?” What can you do? You can be a parent! Yes, I know peer pressure is tremendous to allow your kids a phone or device with endless free access to all the worst humanity has to offer (aka social media) – but as a parent your job is to form your children to be saints. Their souls are in your hands. We must be that first line of defense against the dangersof the world. We would never allow them to spend time with apedophile; if we knew they were being bullied we would try to protect them; if something were harming their health, we would spare no expense to rush them to the doctor. Then why wouldwe allow them a window into the cesspool of porn, hatred, and time-wasting trash that’s readily available on the internet without offering careful guidance? Study after study has shown the negative effects of the internet in general—and social media in particular—but still we turn a blind eye and wonder why our teenage sons and daughters struggle with identity crises, depression, self-hatred, addictions, aberrant behavior, laziness, a lack of desire for holiness! Parents, do not abdicate your authority and your responsibility! At the end of your lives, the Lord will ask you how well you shepherded these souls He entrusted to you—whether or not you led them to Heaven and preserved their souls from sin to the best of your ability. We cannot use the excuse, “Oh, well everyone else’s kids have one, so my kid would be strange if they didn’t! Will your kids be angry with you, maybe even say they hate you, if you put restrictions on their devices? Probably. But their anger will be temporary—their gratitude will be eternal. Recently another friend who travels the country speaking about the dangers of social media told me that after her talk she always has many young adults come up to her with one of two reactions: “At the time I was furious with my parents for taking away my phone, but now I’m grateful.” OR “I really wish my parents had protected me from losing so much innocence.” No one has ever been grateful that their parents were so permissive! So, what can be done? First, do not give teens (or younger!) phones with internet or apps. There are plenty of dumb phones still in existence! If you must give them phones that access the internet, put parental restrictions on them. Install Covenant Eyes on your son’s phones—and on your home computers while you’re at it (almost every Confession I hear involves pornography, which is mortally sinful and can lead your son to view women as nothing but objects, which will have huge ramifications on his future relationships). Do not allow them to use their screens at meals or while alone in their bedrooms. Get the support of other families who have the same policies. Most importantly—do not try to be your kid’s friend, but be their parent. Authentic love requires boundaries, discipline, and sacrifice. Your kid’s eternal welfare is worth it, so do not say, “Alas, I can’t do anything—my kid needs to fit in.” It’s better to stand out here on earth so we can fit into the Communion of Saints!
The world’s greatest treasure is within the reach of every person! The reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is something great and marvelous. I know that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist from my own experience not just because the Church teaches this truth. The First Touch One of the experiences I had that helped increase my faith in the Lord was after I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in my early days in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. I was still not a priest at that time. I was leading a prayer meeting and during this meeting, we were praying over people. We had the Eucharist exposed for Adoration and then people would come one by one to be prayed over. A woman came asking me to pray over her with folded hands and I thought she was praying. She asked me to pray for her husband who had a problem with his foot. But as I was praying, I felt in my heart that the Lord wanted to heal her. So I asked her if she needed any kind of physical healing. She told me, “My hands are like this because I have frozen shoulder.” She had a problem of mobility with her hands. As we were praying for her healing she said that a great heat came out from the Eucharist, descended on her frozen shoulder and she was healed then and there. That was the first time I actually saw such healing taking place through the power of the Eucharist. It’s exactly as we have in the Gospels—people touched Jesus and power came out of Him and healed them. Unforgettable Moment I have had another powerful experience of the Eucharist in my life. Once I was praying with somebody who was involved in the occult, and she needed a deliverance. We were praying as a group and there was a priest with us. But this woman, who was on the floor couldn’t see the priest who was bringing the Eucharist inside the church to the sacristy. The exact moment the priest brought the Eucharist, from her mouth, a male violent voice said these words: “Remove Him whom you’ve got in your hands!” It choked me because the demon did not say ‘it’- a piece of bread, but “Him”. Satan recognizes the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I will never forget that moment of my life. When I became a priest later, I kept those two incidences in my heart to really believe and preach the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Unspeakable Joy As a priest I had one another experience which I will not forget. I attend prison ministry when I am not preaching around. Once I was giving communion to a particular division in the prison and had the Eucharist with me. Suddenly I felt in my heart the joy of Jesus in giving himself to the prisoners. This is something I cannot explain to you. If you could only experience and know the joy Jesus has in the Eucharist to come into each and every one of us! Another experience I have had of the Blessed Sacrament was a personal, emotional healing for myself. Once somebody who was in the church really hurt me with his words. It wasn’t easy and I was starting to get angry. Although I am not aggressive by nature, this hurt stirred up a lot of feelings and bad thoughts against this person. I fled to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and just cried. In that moment I felt His love, for that person who hurt me, radiating out from the Eucharist and entering into my heart. Jesus in the Eucharist healed me, but more than that, as a priest it helped me to realize where the real source of love and healing is in our lives. Not only for me as a priest, but for married persons and young people - who can really give the love that we are looking for? Where can we find love that is greater than sin and hatred? It’s in Him, present in the Eucharist. The Lord gave me so much love for the person who hurt me. On the eve of the day I was going to make my first vows, a sudden darkness entered into my heart. I went straight to the tabernacle instead of finding my new room in the community. Then from the depths of the heart I heard the Lord telling me, “Hayden, you are coming here for me.” And suddenly all the joy came back. In the Eucharist Jesus taught me one very important thing about my life as a Franciscan priest—He has called me for Him, I exist for Him. The Eucharist teaches every one of us that we can do nothing apart from Jesus—it’s not about us, it’s JUST ABOUT HIM. We are in the Church to be with Him! As a priest, celebrating the Eucharist is the most wonderful moment I have with the Lord and it also brings me closer to the Christian community. It is Jesus in the Eucharist who is the source of communion between us. As a priest, I cannot live without the Eucharist. What is the greatest thing we can ask Jesus when we receive Him in our hearts? It is asking Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit once again. When Jesus was resurrected, He breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles. When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, He gives us once again the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ask Him to fill you with the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit. Broken for you Once when I was lifting up the Host and breaking it, I got this deep conviction regarding the priesthood. We look at the people through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is a broken body. A priest should be like that. He breaks his life so that he can give it to the community and the rest of world. One can also discover this beauty in the married life. Love is like the Eucharist. You have to break yourself in order to give yourself. The Eucharist has taught me how to live a celibate life, how to be Jesus for the community, giving my whole life for them. The same thing has to happen in married life. Finally, I can tell you that whenever I have felt lonely or down, just going near him—is enough to receive all the strength that I need, even if I am tired or sleepy. I can’t count the number of times I have experienced this in my travels and in my preaching. The best rest is to get closer to Him. I can assure you; He can renew us physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Because in the Eucharist Jesus is ALIVE—He is there for us!
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