God and Human Suffering

During Lent, we take stock of our own sinfulness and its consequences. The toll is heavy, both personally and socially. Faced with this picture of evil in our lives and in the world, many come to question God and his relation to his creatures.

Responsibility for Evil

Sometimes it's easier to blame God, even for our own sinfulness, than to take possession of our sins and admit our guilt. It's easier to blame someone else, whether the devil, bad companions or God, than to take personal responsibility for our evil actions.

Our Lenten penance should help prevent us from lying to ourselves about our sins. But, in fact, sometimes we truly are victims. Children die of cancer; college students are shot in class; a tsunami destroys thousands of homes and lives.

Considering the toll of evil and suffering in the world, some deny God's existence. Our life then becomes, as Shakespeare put it, a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. At best, some put on a stiff upper lip and develop habits of life that bring them along from day to day, without any cogent response to the many evils that smear the pages of life and history. Others come to regard God as real but ineffectual or powerless to shape the course of human events. But if God is not provident, then worship becomes meaningless. A merely cosmic principle is cold comfort.

Part of a response to the problem of evil points to the fact of human freedom. Evils are caused by sinful human beings and by a physical world that fell when men sinned. God permits evil because he respects our freedom.

There are evils, however, that are not just permitted by God but, in a certain sense, caused by him. Some months ago, the "private writings" of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta were published by the priest responsible for advancing her cause toward sainthood. The degree of her suffering, of her sense of being abandoned by God, surprised many who thought of her only as a particularly generous religious sister who had given her life to the poorest of the poor. The letters she exchanged with her spiritual director revealed, however, a life of acute suffering; and God himself seemed to cause her suffering. Why?

From Purification to Participation

In the spiritual lives of very holy men and women, union with God begins, like every loving relationship, with consolation and joy. In order to live habitually with God, however, the sins that separate us from him and from one another have to be abandoned. This purification of one's life, this turning from everything that could distract from the love of God, brings its own suffering.

Mother Teresa thirsted for God, and yet God seemed to abandon her. As she progressed in holiness, her soul moved from purification to participation, that is, she began to experience the thirst that Jesus himself experienced on the cross, a thirst for the salvation of the poor and most abandoned. Jesus on the cross cried out, "I thirst," and these words were burned into Mother Teresa's every thought and desire.

Like Jesus, whom she loved with all her being, Mother Teresa became a voluntary victim for the salvation of others. Christ was intensely present to her in the experience of his absence, and the experience was filled with interior pain.

During Lent, we contemplate Christ on the cross as we prepare to look into an empty tomb. These two images, Christ crucified and the tomb from which he rose from the dead, speak to God's own answer to the problem of evil. Through Christ's suffering and death, freely accepted, we see the consequences of sin and how much God will not violate the freedom he gave us even to prevent our sinning.

Instead, he sends his only Son to experience sin's consequences. But in the empty tomb we discover that God can bring life out of death. God brings good out of evil in ways that surpass our understanding and that will become fully clear only when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Out of the pain of Mother Teresa's spiritual suffering, God created a sisterhood dedicated to bringing life and hope to the poor of India and the world. Suffering, poverty, death and all manner of evils are real, but they are not more real than God's infinite love.

Lent is a time of voluntary penance, undertaken to invite God to make us holy, no matter the cost in pain and suffering. More, Lent is a time to marvel again in the faith that tells us that an all-powerful God is not defeated by evil but is able to reweave the broken strands of human existence and create new life.

May God continue to bless us this Lent and use our penance for his own purposes in the world. God bless you.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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