Why does God allow suffering?
I wish I had a satisfying answer to that. I can give you my best theological explanation, but it won’t satisfy what that question is really seeking. (The theological answer: God doesn’t create suffering, but he allows it. Through our free will, we have chosen evil and suffering has entered the world. But, of course, there is the follow-up question…why does he allow it?) I could also tell you that the answer is, ultimately, a mystery, but that isn’t very satisfying either.
However, I can give you the only answer I’ve found any satisfaction is, an answer that is worthy of reflection as we enter this Lenten season.
The only real answer to suffering in this world is the cross.
But first, let me tell you a little story.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I was recovering from a break-up with my freshman year boyfriend. While I don’t number it as one of the worst sufferings in my life, it certainly felt like it at the time.
One Saturday evening that summer, I went to the vigil Mass for Sunday. Before Mass, I was praying with the readings and was startled by the reading from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. St. Paul is sharing with the Corinthians about a personal (unnamed) struggle of his, a “thorn in his side.” Paul says, “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “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. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Those words from Scripture bolstered me like nothing else had. My weakness could be a strength.
Therein lies the truth of the cross.
The Catholic answer to the problem of suffering looks different than that of some other Christian denominations. I remember realizing this when reading the memoir of a famous evangelical mother. She shares how she was near tears from exhaustion, folding laundry late one night. In that moment, she realized that she should have been praising God in the midst of her suffering, rather than succumbing to her sorrow. In response, she forced herself to smile and sing a hymn of praise.
This is a beautiful reaction, but it bypasses an important step. Jesus was not smiling and singing songs of praise on the cross. His mother was not doing that at the foot of the cross (or else we would wouldn’t have a song like Stabat Mater). The normal stages of grieving do not preclude holiness. It is not necessary to undergo suffering with a cheery look on your face. The tears, the cries of anger, the emotional roller coaster — they are a part of the cross. Sainthood, thankfully, is not about keeping up appearances.
What is God’s answer to suffering? How is the cross an answer? There are two facets to consider, and both involve a deeper look at Christology (the study of who Christ is) and soteriology (the study of salvation).
From a Christological perspective, who is Jesus? Our faith proclaims that Jesus is “true God and true man,” both completely God and completely man. Jesus is the divine person of God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. As such, he possesses a divine nature (since he is God). However, in the Incarnation, he freely takes up a human nature. (If we look at the implications of this even more deeply, this means that human nature is forever caught up in the love of the Trinity, thus elevating us to a state above even the angels.) However, Jesus is without sin, including original sin. In him, we see what man was truly created to be. Jesus is far more than a mere moral example and teacher, but we can learn something from looking at his life. Too often, the life of Jesus is watered down to appear to be that of someone who was merely good and kind and peaceful. Of course, there is some of that, but Jesus himself says, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” That sword includes the cross, which is, as St. Paul writes, “…a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”
Here is where the soteriological point comes in. The punishment for Adam’s sin was death, and this created a “debt.” Jesus, free of sin, did not owe that debt. Yet, out of immense love for us, he died and paid that debt. Because he was free of sin, he paid it superabundantly, thus opening the way to heaven.
Jesus did not have to choose to suffer. He didn’t have to undergo the normal sufferings of being human — yet, he embraced those in the Incarnation. He also didn’t have to undergo the suffering of death — yet, he embraced that suffering in the most painful way imaginable.
For Jesus (who is God and therefore all-knowing) to choose to love in this way, there must be some value in it.
On the one hand, there is the answer to loneliness. Through his life and death, Christ unites himself to our suffering. This is a very different God than the one taught by pagan religions. For one who is omnipotent, eternal, all-knowing, etc. to chose to be born in poverty and die a violent death – it makes absolutely no sense. The only answer for the actions of God is his love. God loves us in such a radical way that he thought that we were worth it. Because Jesus (who is God) chose to suffer in his human nature, we no longer suffer alone. He has suffered, too. When we suffer, we don’t face a God who is cold and unfeeling, but one who entered into suffering for love of us.
On the other hand, he who united himself to our human suffering, invites us to unite ourselves to his cross. As Catholics, we don’t believe that suffering is pointless, meaningless, or worthless. We believe it can be “offered up” – united to the suffering of Christ, in order to be a part of his work in redeeming the world.
Any parent can tell you that it is more difficult to let a toddler help with a task than to do it yourself. The gap between God’s greatness and our littleness is even greater than that between a parent and toddler. Why would God allow us to be a part of his salvific work? It is a part of his love, and his trust in us.
But…what if we don’t want to be a part of that suffering? I wish I could say that I gladly welcomes the sufferings that God has given me, but I haven’t always. When we lost our tiny Gabriel, and I found myself weeping at his grave site, you better believe I had some choice words for God. I couldn’t imagine why he had taken my child away. I still can’t understand it, and I still long for the pitter patter of those little feet that will never run down my hallway, for those little hands that will never grab my cheeks.
As a miscarried baby, I only knew Gabriel for a short time. I have friends and family who have lost babies to stillbirth or even later in childhood. I cannot begin to imagine their grief. I cannot begin to imagine the questions they have for God. Although my suffering is not the same as theirs, I continue to grieve for my little lost baby.
But, as with other sufferings in my life, I have found comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my suffering. And I have found hope in offering up my sufferings, uniting them, in love, to the love of Christ. This seemingly meaningless suffering of mine can find some meaning in that. My suffering can become an act of love.
This kind of love, this love of the cross, is the mystery we enter into during Lent. It is in this mystery that we find our hope.