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Why Must I Suffer ?

by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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 will—he 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 people—for 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 succeed—a point Jeremiah was about to learn.

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 power—the real intention of God's will—is 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 scourges.

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 healing—saving. 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 ministries—giving 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 you—the 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 language—and 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 swallow."

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 being—a model for humanity—a 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 costs—which 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 forces—the enemies of God—who 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 Cross—Way 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 such—just as it is misleading to suggest that God wishes evil on any other human being.

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 approach.

2. God afflicts us to test us—or 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 fact—thanks 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 good—the salvation of the world—might 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 for that."

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 Eve—and their descendants—are 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 evolving—then 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 control—given 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 humanity—with Christ at its head. Patience—the capacity to suffer and see God's creation as in process—is 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 us—a 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 blindness—I 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 yourself—not 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 will—God's judgment—upon 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 judgment—not 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 before him."

Jesus did not seek suffering for its own sake. On the contrary, he asked that this evil—this cup—pass 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 places—to 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 example—the crucifix—everywhere: 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: abandonment—separation 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.

Jack Wintz, O.E.M., is editor of Catholic Update and associate editor of St. Anthony Messenger.


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