On May 21st, many of us were deeply saddened to hear of the accidental death of seven-year-old Maria Chapman, daughter of well-known Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. My wife and I live just outside of Nashville and it seems that the entire city has been in mourning for this little girl and her family.
Newspapers and blogs are overflowing with questions: How this could happen to such a “spiritual” family? How can God be considered “good” or “loving” when He allows this type of thing to happen? Moments like these cause many of the questions we normally keep suppressed to show themselves. Our society normally removes itself from any meaningful discussion of suffering. But this tragic event should cause us to reflect for a moment on the Catholic response to suffering. What are some of the ways Catholics approach the mystery of suffering and how do we find meaning and hope in its midst?
The question of how a “good” God can allow such horrible things has haunted mankind for thousands of years. Although the most famous (and often misunderstood) is Job, the Bible is full of people who experience great tragedy in the midst of this life, even while serving God. Think not only of Job, but of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Think of the innocents slaughtered at the hands of Herod as he sought to kill the Christ child. Think of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, stoned not for a crime but for his faith. Of course we need to look upon the cross and see the bruised and bloodied man upon it and reflect on the harsh truth that being a Christian does not shield one from suffering and pain. And yet we wonder. We ache for an answer. Why does this happen? Something within us knows that it shouldn’t.
Salvifici Doloris: A Response
Salvifici Doloris (The Christian Meaning of Suffering) by Pope John Paul II is one of the most helpful writings on suffering and the Christian. And as we grieve with the Chapman family, Salvifici Doloris can offer hope and strength as we face our own questions. One of the beautiful things of SD is how it affirms the very question of “Why?” We are not chastised for wondering, for struggling, for longing for meaning in the midst of suffering:
Whereas the existence of the world opens as it were the eyes of the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering and of so many faults without proper punishment. So this circumstance shows — perhaps more than any other — the importance of the question of the meaning of suffering; it also shows how much care must be taken both in dealing with the question itself and with all possible answers to it (SD, 2, 9).
Job is the first order example of dealing with the question of suffering, particularly because of his innocence. The reader of Job is confronted early on with the paradox that this man is suffering and does not deserve it. One of the first and oldest explanations for pain is punishment. There is a part of us that understands the argument of justice. But that argument is not always applicable, right or helpful. Pain and suffering are not limited to the unrepentant and disobedient. Pope John Paul notes, “While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment” (SD, 2, 11).
The hard truth is that Job really doesn’t answer the question. At the end of Job his suffering is not explained. His innocence is vindicated. The friends who wanted to condemn him are chastised. But God does not explain “why”. For Pope John Paul II, the why would come later; it would be revealed at the cross.
Begin with the Cross
So the reflection on our suffering does not begin with us, but with Christ. We are called to look upon the life, death, and yes, the suffering of Jesus if we are to deal with our own pain. Suffering, we must see, is not just a natural consequence of the cross, but the point of the cross. We are challenged to see that what actually achieves our salvation is His suffering.
Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life”. Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation (SD, 4, 16).
When we seek to understand our suffering we look at the Cross of Christ and consider that the cross “proves the truth of love through the truth of suffering” (SD, 4, 18). Pope John Paul continues,
Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning (SD, 4, 18).
How does this help us with the question at hand, namely our own suffering?
Human Suffering Redeemed
It helps us by showing us not only that God shares in the suffering of humanity, but that by His own suffering He has redeemed our suffering. We understand that through the cross and suffering of Christ He participates in our suffering. But also, Pope John Paul II reminds us that through our suffering we participate in the suffering of Christ. This is not a new idea but one we see reflected in the words of Scripture:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body (2 Cor 4:7-11).
For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow (2 Cor. 1:5).
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship (Rom 12:1).
Our suffering then is not meaningless, but overflowing with meaning as it is connected with the very suffering of Jesus. By the cross, we are able to become participants in the suffering of Christ and the experience of suffering is not only given dignity but power:
All human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open, to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ (SD, 5, 23).
Power Replaces Hopelessness
God truly acts through our suffering, speaks through it, strengthens us through it, and displays His power through it. This is what He did through the cross. When we begin to view suffering in this way our trials and tragedies are rescued from the curse of meaninglessness; of not only being painful but hopeless. This always underlies our frustration and hurt. Yet here we see that God is at work through suffering, redeeming it, displaying His power in it. Has He not told us that His power is shown in our weakness? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Cor 12:9).
In our suffering, and in our witness of the suffering of others, we certainly experience our own weaknesses. We know, in a very finite way, our need of God. In these moments we look and strain for the hand of God. The counsel of the saints through the ages is that when we search for God in the midst of suffering we will find Him. For He is not outside suffering, but within it. Constantly within the Gospels we see Jesus dealing with the suffering of others with words of compassion and miracles. So much of His earthly ministry was to alleviate suffering and redeem it for the Kingdom of God. Jesus promises His followers that suffering will come their way. If we understand suffering and its intricate connection to the cross, our experience of suffering, while no less painful, is redeemed. Jesus answers our pain from the experience of His own pain which is the ultimate display of His love. Love reaches out to us in the midst of pain.
The Gospel of suffering is being written unceasingly, and it speaks unceasingly with the words of this strange paradox: the springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness (SD, VI, 27).
The Love of God
In the case of the Chapmans, we are left with no truly satisfactory answer to the question of “Why?” In Christlike compassion we should avoid clichés and superficial answers. Instead I believe our call is to “weep with those who weep” and like our Lord, enter into their suffering with our prayers. Savifici Doloris reminds us we should understand that the cross is the backdrop for all our suffering, including the Chapmans’. And it is through the cross and because of the cross that we can rest with certainty in the Love of God.