Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Why Must I Suffer ?
Tears streamed down the little boy's
face. He had just emerged from a memorial service for the crew
of the space shuttle Challenger a few days after it had exploded
in the sky over Florida, January 28, 1986, killing all seven
astronauts. "I just don't understand," he told the
TV reporter, "why God wanted to take them now."
The young boy expresses our tendency
to picture God as wanting human beings to suffer and die. But
do we really buy this idea? Deep down we believe that God is
all good and not to be blamed for space tragedies, earthquakes,
hotel fires, cancer and the whole jagged range of human misery.
In fact, most of us would assure the boy that God didn't cause
the shuttle to blow up: Such things happen in an imperfect universe.
And yet few of us are better equipped than the little boy to
cope with the evil of pain and suffering or to avoid the temptation
of holding God responsible for them.
The questions about suffering are
real! How can we reconcile God's goodness with the birth of
deformed babies, with innocent people being killed or maimed
by drunk drivers, terrorist attacks, starvation, disease or
natural disaster? Where is God in all this? Isn't God in charge
of his own creation? Why didn't God prevent this?
Getting beyond 'ambush theology'
Although we can never presume to fathom the mystery
of evil, we can look to God's revelation for greater understanding
and to correct misconceptions about God's role in human suffering.
In one of his tapes, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) tells how a distorted
view of God can stifle our relationship with God and even our
everyday prayer life. Merton refers to a deep-seated inner fear
many of us have that if we really open up to God really
surrender to his willhe may inflict some terrible cross
on us. Merton says it's like thinking: If I submit totally
to God today, tomorrow he'll give me leprosy! We have to uproot
this very warped idea of God, he insists. A loving God doesn't
play cruel tricks like this. We have to eliminate this way of
thinking. Scripture scholar Father Stephen Doyle, O.F.M., says
many people see God as someone "who's gonna get you!"
Adherents of an "ambush theology," they see God as hiding
along the path of life just waiting to spring upon them to get
even for some wrong they have committed. A basis for this view,
says Father Doyle, is found in the Book of Deuteronomy where Moses
says: "I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing
if you obey the commandments of Yahweh our God; a curse if you
disobey..." (11:26-27). To put it mildly, the curses are
less than appealing: "the plague," "boils,"
"swellings in the groin," " scurvy," "the
itch" and many more (see chapter 28).
As Father Doyle points out, this is a very simplistic
theology written for simple peoplefor desert nomads. The
Bible takes people where they are, with later books often correcting
the incomplete views of earlier ones. The picture of God doling
out blessings for good conduct and curses for bad was meaningful
for earlier stages of human history, just as a system of certain
rewards and punishments may work for children at a particular
age. But, later, in Jeremiah's time, for example, the inadequacy
of the old "just desserts" system became apparent. It
could no longer hold up in a world where innocent people suffer
and scoundrels often succeeda point Jeremiah was about to
Trying to lock God into the old system, Jeremiah
complains to Yahweh: "Why are wicked men so prosperous?"
Why don't you "drag them away like sheep to be butchered"
(12:1-3)? But God answers in effect, "You are in over your
head, Jeremiah; you have to get beyond the old tit-for-tat theology."
In his day, Jesus, too, found it necessary to correct
his disciples for following the same simplistic system. In the
Gospel of John, for example, when Jesus and his disciples encounter
a blind man, the disciples ask: "Teacher, whose sin caused
him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents' sin?"
Jesus flatly rejects this way of thinking and answers: "His
blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents' sins.
He is blind so that God's power might be seen at work in him"
(9:2-3). In other words, the real focus of God's powerthe
real intention of God's willis not to inflict blindness
or leprosy or suffering upon people. Quite the contrary, God's
glory and power is to be revealed through the removal of such
Without ignoring God's role as our ultimate judge,
Jesus tried to correct the distorted view of those who see God
as a cruel tyrant just waiting to punish people. Jesus knew how
this image can poison a trusting relationship. Therefore Jesus
kept insisting that God is the source of goodness, not evil. "Is
there anyone among you," he asks, "who would hand his
son a stone if he asked for bread? Or a snake when he asked for
a fish? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children
what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good
things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:9-11)
God's will is our healing
The best way to know God's attitude about human
suffering is to watch Jesus. Jesus embodies God's wishes toward
humanity. What do we see Jesus doing? He goes about healingsaving.
We never see him inflicting blindness, leprosy, lameness, insanity
upon people but setting them free of these misfortunes. Jesus
is, indeed, the best gauge of God's true intentions toward us.
To follow Christ in the Gospels is to follow a trail of discarded
crutches, stretchers, bandages and oppressive bonds of every kind.
If Jesus is the embodiment of God's will among us, as the Gospels
teach, then certainly God's will is our healing.
We see God's healing mission continue in the Church.
So many of the women and men we call saints were devoted to bodily
healing, often setting up clinics to care for the sick. How many
men and women founded communities precisely to serve the sick
and handicapped and dying? The history of Christianity is proudly
marked with hospitals, medical centers and healing ministriesgiving
lie to accusations that the Church cares only about "saving
souls" and not healing bodies as well. The Church's mission
of healing, like that of Christ himself, is thus further proof
of God's desire to eliminate human misery wherever it is found.
This is what God is all about. Therefore, when we say, "Thy
will be done" in the Our Father, we do well to add silently,
"Thy healing will be done." God's will is always
to heal, never to destroy.
Who caused Jesus to suffer?
"How can you say God doesn't will suffering?"
the critic objects. "Look around youthe world is full
of suffering. And didn't God want his own Son to suffer and die
for the salvation of the world?" Doesn't Isaiah speak of
the Suffering Servant as someone "punished and struck"
by God (53:4) and doesn't God say in Isaiah, "It was my will
that he should suffer" (53:10)?
Well, O.K., the sacred writers use this kind of
languageand so do we. We say things like "God willed"
Jesus or Aunt Mary to suffer, but it is important to realize this
is a roundabout, human way of speaking. And we need to understand
it correctly. Certainly, it seems blasphemous to picture God as
wanting Jesus tortured and killed as if to "pay off"
some debt to Satan. Responsible theologians do not speak in such
terms today. In his book Answer to Job, psychologist Carl
Jung says that the viewpoint "that the God of goodness is
so unforgiving that he can only be appeased by a human sacrifice"
is "an insufferable incongruity which modern man can no longer
It seems contradictory for a good God to "will,"
in any direct way, that Jesus undergo such a horrible death. What
then should we say God willed regarding Jesus' death? Why not
that God willed Jesus to be a whole, honest, loving human beinga
model for humanitya person who would serve others totally,
especially those in need, setting people free of all oppression.
The price, however, of being a completely just and
loving person in an unjust and imperfect world and of confronting
the world's sin could well be suffering and death. And so it was
for Jesus. God did not want Jesus to die on the cross at all costs
so much as want him to be an exemplary human being at all costswhich
predictably meant death on the cross. In this sense, of course,
God was willing to give up his Son.
When we look closely, however, Scripture does not
portray God as the one who actually willed or inflicted suffering
and death upon Jesus. In fact, it was precisely the anti-God forcesthe
enemies of Godwho caused Jesus to suffer. Jesus' crucifixion
was not orchestrated by God's will but by human beings who were
acting in direct opposition to God's will.
Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff writes in similar
tones in Way of the CrossWay of Justice. Jesus' "cross
is not the result of an arbitrary whim on God's part," writes
Boff. "It results from the way the world is organized. Sinfully
closed in upon itself, the world rejected the God of Jesus and
eliminated Jesus himself. The execution of Jesus is the greatest
sin ever committed because it stands in opposition to God's will,
which is to establish the Kingdom in the midst of creation. God
does not will death but life in all its fullness. That is another
name for the Kingdom of God. Even though human beings rejected
that Kingdom and crucified Jesus, who proclaimed and embodied
it, God did not cease to will it... .God's Son was required to
remain faithful to the divine plan and to accept death as a consequence
of his fidelity."
The most we can say is that God allowed Jesus
to suffer, or perhaps that God willed Jesus to enter the full
range of human experience, which includes pain, frustration
and death as well as joy and exhilaration. But it is dangerously
misleading to say God wanted Jesus to suffer as suchjust
as it is misleading to suggest that God wishes evil on any other
Incomplete answers to 'Why do we suffer?'
People have always struggled to find meaning in
suffering. Answers have not always been satisfactory. The three
following attempts to explain suffering are certainly not successful
in all respects. Rabbi Harold Kushner covers some of the same
ground (with different perspectives at times) in his best-seller
When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
1. Those who suffer "deserve what they get."
This tit-for-tat theology was mentioned earlier in this article.
This is the kind of analysis Job's pesky friends heap upon their
bewildered companion as he protests his innocence in the Book
of Job. "Think back now," one of them sniffs. "Name
a single case where a righteous man met with disaster" (4:7).
In other words, if you were innocent you would not be suffering.
The fact that you are afflicted obviously shows that you did something
wrong. We have already shown the limitations of this simplistic
2. God afflicts us to test usor to bring
about a greater good. Most of us have experienced good coming
from suffering at one time or another. Maybe our life was literally
saved through the surgeon's knife, or our heart was left more
noble or human after some deep personal loss. Responding to tragedy
in a generous, faith-filled way can lead us to greater compassion
and wholeness. And thus we say, "God has his reasons for
making us suffer," or "God chastises those he loves,"
to quote the Book of Revelation (3:19).
Such statements express a deep truth and are consoling
when fully understood. But aren't these "benefits of suffering"
something that emerge after the factthanks to our
inner growth, perhaps, and to our openness to God's healing presence?
Indeed, God is present to us even in our pain and is so good and
healing-oriented that he can create goodness even out of suffering.
But has the evil really been devised beforehand by God? (Or has
it not, rather, resulted from a sinful, incomplete world at enmity
with God?) Our theology limps badly if it portrays God, for example,
as giving out brain tumors for a little child's deeper happiness
or that of the parents.
Great good came from Jesus' cross, that is, from
his incredibly great act of loving us to the end. But is it really
worthy of God to describe him as staging the torture of his Son,
as it were, so that something goodthe salvation of the worldmight
be achieved? Our human ways of speaking can be understood correctly,
but at times we must also watch our words.
3. Tragedy leads to a "better place."
Again, this is more an after-the-fact statement of faith than
a convincing rationale to justify the inflicting of suffering.
Our Christian hope in the Resurrection has an important place
in the grief process. At times, however, this kind of comment
can be simply a mechanism of denial and an attempt to mask the
pain of the moment. Rabbi Kushner tells of a sermon delivered
at the funeral of a little boy killed by a car as the child chased
after a ball. Kushner recalls the words of the family clergyman:
"This is not a time for sadness or tears. This is a time
for rejoicing, because Michael has been taken out of this world
of sin and pain with his soul unstained by sin. He is in a happier
land now where there is no pain and no grief; let us thank God
Kushner continues, "I felt so bad for Michael's
parents. Not only had they lost a child without warning, they
were being told by the representative of their religion that they
should rejoice in the fact that he had died so young and so innocent,
and I couldn't believe that they felt much like rejoicing at that
moment. They felt hurt, they felt angry, they felt that God had
been unfair to them, and here was God's spokesman telling them
to be grateful to God for what had happened." Even as we
grow in our faith in the Resurrection, we need to grow in this
kind of sensitivity, too.We also need to look for better ways
to understand and cope with the mystery of suffering.
True causes of human suffering
If God is not the real cause of our suffering, what
is? Scripture suggests two basic causes: our own sinful choices
and the imperfect state of our world. We consider each briefly.
1. Suffering results from human sin, from
our misuse of freedom. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eveand
their descendantsare given the awesome gift of freedom and
moral decisionmaking. That means we human beings are able to make
choices that hurt ourselves and others, and we often do. Adam
and Eve chose to disobey the life-nourishing will of God. That
decision brought brokenness and death in many forms upon themselves
and upon their children, who continue making destructive choices
of their own.
We can't blame God for the human pain and misery
flowing from these choices. Moreover, God so respects our human
freedom that he does not interfere with our decisions even if
immense harm is to result. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to
blame God for the millions who died, for example, in Hitler's
death camps in Nazi Germany. Yet some people are inclined to ask,
to quote Rabbi Kushner: "Where was God while all this was
going on? Why did he not intervene to stop it? Why didn't he strike
Hitler dead in 1939 and spare millions of lives and untold suffering?"
The simple answer is that God does not control our choosing
between good and evil.
If God forced us to be good, moreover, what kind
of goodness or virtue would that be? The fact that God lets us
remain free despite the possibility of destructive choices demonstrates
the amazing trust he places in us. And yet the cost is tremendous
in terms of the human suffering resulting from the sinful choices
of Adam and Eve as well as from our own.
2. Suffering results from an imperfect world.
God put Adam and Eve in charge of the fish, the birds and animals
and told them to bring the earth "under their control"
(Genesis 1:28). In other words, human beings are to be cocreators
with God. This implies that creation is not finished. God
has drawn an amazing amount of order out of chaos, but creation"the
process of replacing chaos with order"goes on.
If the universe God has created is still "in
process"still evolvingthen there continues to
be something incomplete, unfinished, "imperfect" about
it, in its own right, even apart from the severe brokenness it
suffers because of human sin. Perhaps, just as God refuses to
interfere with our decision-making in the realm of moral choices,
so also God hesitates to force our hands as stewards of creation.
Perhaps our dignity as God's cocreators is such that we have been
given a major role in gradually replacing chaos with order. Though
God is very close to us and intimately involved in our struggle,
he does not choose to be a puppeteer controlling the world's events
by strings. Creation continues through human mediation. As the
Scriptures show, God's healing intentions toward humanity are
revealed at times through miraculous cures and healings. Yet,
God's healing usually comes about through scientists, doctors,
nurses and others in the healing community.
Thus, human suffering and tragedy caused by natural
disasters (earthquakes, floods, epidemics, etc.) or from human
ignorance and miscalculation should not be blamed on God but seen
as resulting from an unfinished and imperfect world. An evolving
world implies that there still exist "pockets of chaos"
not yet under our control, nor even, in a sense, under God's controlgiven
the way the universe was created. God's will, which is committed
to our healing, is that sin and chaos be eventually conquered
and the world move toward perfection through the cocreative efforts
of humanitywith Christ at its head. Patiencethe capacity
to suffer and see God's creation as in processis
often the missing, though understandably hard to find, ingredient.
As Paul assured the Philippians, "I am sure that God, who
began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished
on the Day of Christ Jesus" (1:6).
How to respond to suffering
The presence of sin and the incomplete state of
the world, therefore, are the twin causes of the suffering that
often leaves us face down in the dust. Jesus chose to lay himself
open to the same fate, accepting suffering as the price of becoming
human. And he often tried to prepare us to do the same: "If anyone
wants to come with me, he must forget himself, carry his cross
and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose
it; but whoever loses his life for me and the Gospel will save
it" (Mark 8:34-35). The Scriptures and other sources of wisdom
provide us with guidance in facing suffering.
The nearness of a caring God. The heart of
the Good News is that God is with usa God who wills us,
not to death and destruction, but to healing and fuller life.
Though our world and our lives seem utterly broken by sin and
incompleteness, God's power is at work bringing all to wholeness.
No matter how crushed and abandoned we feel, Scripture assures
us that God has special care for us even in moments of suffering
and death. "Not one sparrow falls to the ground without your
Father's notice," says Jesus. "As for you, even the
hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth
more than many sparrows!" (Matthew 10:29-31)
The dangers of trying to outguess God. There
is so much we don't know. "My thoughts are not your thoughts,
my ways not your ways," says Yahweh (Isaiah 55:8). All of
us humans, and that includes writers like me, make fools of ourselves
by suggesting what God can or cannot do, failing to heed God's
reply to the complaining Job: "Where were you when I laid
the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you are so well-informed"
(38:4). And with Job we often have to confess: "1 have been
holding forth on matters I cannot understand" (42:3).
Advice against harsh self-judgment. If you
find yourself saying things like, "Lord, cut and burn me,
strike me with cancer or ulcers or blindnessI really deserve
it," you are probably revealing your own anger and self-hatred
rather than God's wrath. That condemning voice is really a harsh,
self-judging part of you punishing yourselfnot God.
It's an inner you that doesn't want to forgive yourself even though
God wants to forgive and heal you. It's not fair to project your
self-directed violence onto God.
This kind of self-hatred can even result in suicide.
No doubt, some suicide victims think they are carrying out God's
willGod's judgmentupon themselves, but in effect they
are revealing their own merciless judgment toward themselves.
In forbidding suicide the Church is saying: "Wait, God is
for healing, for saving, for forgiving, for merciful judgmentnot
for the destroying of one's self."
Jesus: a 'lived' example for sufferers. Jesus
does not give us an abstract answer to the dilemma of suffering.
Rather, he gives us a lived answer, a breathing model
to follow. Pope John Paul II brought out this point dramatically
in 1984 in his apostolic letter, The Christian Meaning of Human
Suffering. The Pope writes that when someone asks Christ why
we must suffer that person "cannot help noticing that the
one to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes
to answer him from the cross, from the heart of his own suffering...
.Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering,
but before all else he says: 'Follow me!' Come! Take part through
your suffering in this work of saving the world... .Gradually,
as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself
to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed
Jesus did not seek suffering for its own sake. On
the contrary, he asked that this evilthis cuppass
him by. But he was willing to endure it ("not my will but
yours be done") as the price of being a loving human being
in an unjust world. It was the price of serving the poor and standing
in solidarity with suffering humanity against all that oppressed
them. His example is a clear cue for us: to walk with those who
suffer and to undergo this kind of sacrifice, not for its own
sake, but to bring God's liberation to all who need it. "There
is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's
friends" (John 15:13).
Suffering can be redemptive. Through God's
healing power, new life can be created out of suffering and death
for those who respond to it in a loving spirit. This death-resurrection
pattern is at the heart of reality. Even broken bones and broken
hearts heal strongest in the broken placesto borrow
an image from Ernest Hemingway. Jesus never talks about his suffering
and death without adding that three days later he will rise again.
The power of God which raised Jesus out of suffering and death
to new life will raise us also. Thus our everyday trials, borne
with love, can be redemptive, bringing forth goodness and new
life for ourselves and others.
Why must I suffer?
As suggested earlier, neither lofty words nor careful
reasonings can answer our questions about suffering so well as
the lived example of Jesus. Christians see the image of this lived
examplethe crucifixeverywhere: on the walls of our
homes and churches, around oui necks and sometimes even on the
dashboards of our cars. It consoles us to know that the question
"Why must I suffer?" was not easy for Jesus either.
In the face of suffering, he trembled from fear,
anguish and the ultimate terror: abandonmentseparation from
Love itself. Yet, Jesus trusted that his loving Father was with
him. His final prayer was: "Into your hands I commend my
spirit." We can do nothing better than to return often to
this lived answer.