All people suffer in life and most of them cannot understand why. This is particularly problematic for the secular person, who we will loosely define as the kind of person who does not believe in anything beyond his senses, including God and an afterlife. Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, was such a person. For Epicurus, governed completely by his senses, the greatest goal in life was to have pleasure and to avoid suffering. In fact, the existence of suffering was perhaps the single biggest reason that Epicurus and countless others like him are secular people to begin with. Ironically, if he was open to analyzing the reasons for his suffering, Epicurus had the wherewithal to understand and even appreciate the suffering in his life. This is generally true of all secular people.
For Epicurus and countless others, the one defining truth was that he desired pleasure and abhorred suffering, which is, by its very nature, unpleasant. He then reasoned that a good God would value men’s comfort as much as Epicurus did and that an all-powerful Creator of the heavens and earth would be able to o away with human suffering. If he couldn’t, then God was not powerful and if he could eliminate human suffering but just didn’t want to, then he could not be good, whether because He was malicious in his intent or uncaring and inattentive to his creation. Many people follow Epicurus into outright atheism because if suffering opposes goodness and its continued existence precludes the existence of a good and all-powerful God, who by definition should be motivated and capable of eliminating suffering from the face of the Earth.
Epicurus and the modern day secularists were right about the assumption that the Creator of the universe, if sufficiently motivated, should be able to eradicate suffering. That He has not done so should have been the clue they needed to question their assumptions on what motivates creation, as would be expected from any rational being, they might have come to the conclusion that’s been born 300 years later, he would have been exposed to the teaching of Christ who taught in the parable of the prodigal son that the Father wanted his wayward children to return home to him, more than anything, where he would fulfill their every need, In the parable itself, Jesus showed how suffering (from hunger) drove the return of the prodigal son to his father, when he came to realize that his father was the only one who could or would help him. This also happens to ordinary people in extraordinary situations in which they come to realize through suffering that no one but God can help them and they seek him out and return to Him,
Most people do not suffer through such a cataclysmic conversion event. For most people, suffering works more subtly and incrementally, but with the same goal in mind, to prepare everyone to be like God so they can live with God forever. The first task of suffering is to build virtue and proper self love into the secular person. This is done through simple feedback loops. For instance, temperance, which drives moderation in eating, drinking and sex, is developed because when a person does something unhealthy for themselves, like eating too much or too little, suffering ensues. Because suffering is designed to be unpleasant, the person will be motivated to eat if hungry and to stop eating if full to avoid the unpleasant situation. In a similar way, people learn to deal with each other with justice, because if they treat others unfairly, their neighbors will complain or fight for their rights, making the unjust uncomfortable.
Most people are uncomfortable in these situations and so will learn to give others what they deserve to avoid conflict. Suffering builds fortitude as people are forced to go on with their lives even when they are suffering. The greatest and the last moral virtue to be acquired is prudence, which is done by observing the types of behaviors that avoid suffering, leading to the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice. And acting accordingly. It is easy for people of all cultures and timeframes to recognize these same dynamics at play in their lives—it has been a universal human experience since antiquity and virtue was highly regarded in Rome as well as Greece and all the leading civilizations in antiquity.
It will not be lost on the prudent secular person, having been trained so thoroughly in the virtues by suffering, that the design of the universe yielded consistent laws of behavior for living the best version of their lives and that requires a God to arrange the design. They can also see what God values by what causes and what alleviates suffering. When they act prudently, they are aligning themselves with God by avoiding what causes suffering. This reorienting one’s self to God is the second task of suffering and this is the end of the secular person as a secular person.
The third task of suffering is to give the now theist the opportunity to love and to be loved as we seek to alleviate the suffering of others for love of God. Suffering not only gives the opportunity but also the impetus to treat others as we would want to be treated because to do less than that will lead to additional suffering by others, which they will transfer to you in various ways (through complaints, lawsuits, civil punishment, fighting for their rights, etc.). Having been taught to love themselves properly as well as to love God and their neighbors, the former secularists are challenged to love as Christ did, being willing to suffer for the benefit of others. If they suffer as Christ did, they will also share in His glory. It is also at this point that the prudent person will be searching for the worship community, whose teachings best fit his or her experiences. This is where Catholic outreach is critical to the continued growth of the person, focusing on its teachings on suffering. This is particularly true because the analysis required to become prudent is beyond the capability of most people, but many more can understand the realities discussed here if they are exposed to it so they can identify what they are experiencing.
It is perhaps ironic that suffering, which many people blame for their loss of faith, is actually the instrument God uses to bring us from sin to salvation, just as it brought the prodigal son home to his father after his life of dissipation in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. And, just as in the parable, Our Heavenly Father will be waiting joyfully for our return with arms wide open.