God, the Truth and Suffering

The Truth. It describes how the world operates, so it is needed to operate optimally within it. It differs from opinion in that it describes our reality effectively and consistently and can always be trusted to do so. The truth never fails because it is a clear understanding of a consistent universal design that never changes because if it didn’t operate in such a predictable manner, once understood, then there would be no way for us to operate effectively within it. For instance, imagine how life would change if physical laws like gravity were randomly applied so that sometimes, for no apparent reason, people just floated off into space.

The truth points to the existence of God because it would take an all-powerful, all-knowing entity to create and maintain a universal design that works so consistently that we can live within it effectively. From what we observe every day, we see the beauty of this design, from the flowers in our gardens to the smiles of our children to the smell and tastes of our favorite foods. Using the scientific methods developed for systematically observing and interpreting the secrets of the universe, we have come to learn that accomplishing this requires a very precise combination of factors involving the size and composition of the earth and the sun and the distance between them to even make life as we know it possible. This could not have been an accident.

 The truth incorporates everything we experience and everything we know that we use to live our lives effectively. Some people don’t believe in God or that He has created absolute truth, choosing instead to believe in what Pope Benedict labeled the tyranny of relativism, a philosophy where there is no truth, only opinions and desire. This is where suffering has one of its most important roles in God’s economy of salvation, because suffering is the greatest arbiter of truth. God is the fount of all that is good and true and the two are always aligned.

What is good is always true, in that it is aligned with God’s plans. Because, as we are told in Genesis 1, everything God made was perfect for its purpose, evil can only be an absence or lack of goodness or truth. Suffering is our God-given ability to sense when we lack goodness in a way that threatens us. It is uncomfortable and persistent by design to motivate us to attain the good we lack. To the extent that relativistic opinions and desires drive us away from the good and true, they will cause suffering, which will drive us back in line. No one out lasts God, and no one escapes suffering when they act in contrast to the truth, whether they believe it or not, any more than they can escape the pull of gravity.

Suffering then has two intertwined roles in regards to the truth. First, it shows us that there most certainly is absolute truth because it is uncomfortable and even painful to deviate from it. Second, it teaches us what is good and true because those things are free from suffering, whereas we will cause suffering for ourselves and others when we deviate from the truth by our actions. But suffering is not the only, or even the best way to learn the truth. We can find out how the world works through simply observing the world around us and by using the scientific approach of experimentation.   

We humans cannot create truth, we can only discover how to use it. Everything we know was, at some point, discovered by a person through observation and experimentation, usually driven by the desire to alleviate suffering, and communicated to others. This second step of communication is as important as the original discovery because it allows us to use and build on other people’s discoveries. In fact, it is through the communication of our discoveries that most learning is accomplished because it is not efficient or even possible for any individual to discover even the small subset of universal knowledge that each of us needs to live our lives effectively and efficiently on our own in today’s world. For example, very few people could build themselves a cellphone, yet almost everyone relies on them in modern societies. We need to share in other’s knowledge and expertise to function. This is true in every aspect of our lives, from when our parents teach us to walk, talk and use the bathroom to academic disciplines as diverse as theology and chemical engineering.

Therefore, all learning, other than the very small subset of things we discover on our own, is an act of faith in the person teaching us the truth. This is true whether we are learning about God and his plans for mankind or if we are learning how to make our mother’s secret recipe. Because people are making decisions based on what the teacher tells them that could result in suffering for one party or the other if what they are told is not the truth, it is incumbent on the person giving the advice to make sure that it is true.

Again, this is true at all levels, from professors and theologians to parents in their homes. Deliberately misleading someone is malicious and is a sin, and depending on the gravity of the action taken by a person based on this misinformation, can be mortal. Telling a person the wrong thing through ignorance is irresponsible. On the other hand, accurately witnessing to the truth you have experienced firsthand through experience or through learning from others is an act of love. 

This does not mean that we are obligated to tell everyone the truth. It only means that we should not lie. There are many situations where silence is the preferred choice. As discussed throughout this article, the truth is powerful because it allows the person who understands how things really are to take action accordingly.  For instance, it is better to be silent than to help a Nazi agent find the Jewish children he is looking for by telling the truth about where they are hiding. The truth should indeed be spread, but only to those who have a need to know it and who will use it according to God’s plan

This leads to another important question, how do we know what we are told is truth and not opinion , or worse, lies. There are several “tests” that people innately do to ascertain whether what they are told is true. The first is to evaluate the source of the information. If the person has been found non-truthful in the past or if the person stands to gain from your use of the information, then you have reason to doubt what you have been told.

On the other hand, if the person who tells you a “truth” has nothing to gain from it and particularly if that person has been reliable in the past and has had your best interests at heart, you will usually believe them. Your parents are a good example, but even in that case, children will eventually find areas in which they doubt their parent’s knowledge, usually in about the 6th grade. Fortunately, most parents “regain their wisdom” when their children become more experienced in life, particularly when they become parents themselves.  

  A prudent person might also believe someone who has a reputation of expertise, either from testimonials from others you trust or from acknowledged credentials like teaching degrees or passing qualification exams. In the internet age, many make judgements of expertise based on the 5 star ratings given by anonymous strangers on various social media websites if the reviewers appear to be credible using one of the other “tests” mentioned below..

There are two additional “tests” that are best for evaluating the truth. The first of these is that the new truth must be self-consistent with all other truths. If two truths come into conflict, that is a sure sign that one or more of them is indeed false: a non-truth. The second is to use suffering as an arbiter: if a “truth” you are told leads to suffering for yourself or others, it is also a sure sign that it is not a true truth because truth is always aligned to God and to the good of Man and will not lead to suffering except in the case where the truth is being twisted to a falsehood.

These two truth tests together also prove that God exists and cares about the salvation of man because of the existence of absolute truth and suffering to detect when the truth is being violated. The fact that there are absolute truths that everyone can consistently rely on is made clear because when we deviate from them, we suffer. The fact that there are physical and moral laws requires that there be an all-powerful, all-knowing God capable of setting these laws in place and maintaining them, The presence of suffering to alert us when we deviate from the path back to God, where we will find eternal happiness, is proof of His love and care for mankind. The fact that these three concepts fit together with what we know to be true is a sure sign of their credibility.

image: iPhoto-Thailand / Shutterstock.com

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Paul Chaloux was born in Maine in 1960 to Paul and Dolly Chaloux, the oldest of 6 children. He grew up in Northern Virginia and attended public schools. After graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1982, Paul worked for over 30 years as an engineer, manager, and strategist for IBM in upstate New York. While there, he also served as a catechist for 15 years at St. Columba Parish in Hopewell Junction, NY.  In 2015, after earning a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham University and retiring from IBM, Paul was accepted into the PhD program at the Catholic University of America to study Catechetics, with the goal of teaching future catechists.  However, his plans changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease just after moving to Washington, DC for his studies.  His new neurologist, after learning that Paul was studying theology, asked him why people suffer. He had no answer since it was not his intended field of study, but the question intrigued him enough to cause him to take up the subject. Five years later, having earned his PhD in moral theology, Dr. Chaloux wrote Why All People Suffer for general audiences as a follow on to his dissertation, The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude, which he defended at CUA on March 5, 2020.   Dr. Chaloux currently teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and serves as a catechist at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Virginia. He has been married for over thirty years to his wife Sue and they have 4 adult children and 2 granddaughters.

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