Why Does God Let Us Suffer?
by Most Rev. Michael Sheehan
Archbishop of Santa Fe
Founding Bishop of the Diocese of Lubbock
At a recent diocesan meeting on evangelization, one of the participants noted that people often turned away from God in anger when terrible suffering comes into their lives. "What can we do to help them get over their anger with God and return to the church?," he asked.
The question is ages old. How can a good God allow the innocent to suffer? A seemingly healthy young mother is cut down by cancer. A young child dies in an auto accident. An honest, hardworking business man watches his business collapse. A marriage, once considered ideal, ends in divorce; the children angry at both parents and God. How do we make sense out of the suffering these tragedies cause?
The answer to human suffering is not an easy one. Every person will undergo a certain amount of pain in his life. Some more than others. How, then are we to deal with it? Our choices are only two: become bitter and angry, asking, "Why me?" or accept the suffering with faith, courage and dignity.
We will never fully understand the meaning of suffering in this life. Suffering is a mystery. We do know that God does not want us to suffer. Rather, he allows suffering because it is a part of the material world in which we live. Christ stands ready, however, to help us cope with the pain and suffering that come our way. The suffering of Jesus - his passion and death - was redemptive suffering.
Christ Jesus has shown us that suffering has great power for good since his suffering led to the Resurrection and the promise of redemption and eternal life. The Christian faith has always joined our sufferings to those of Christ who suffered for our sins. Our suffering, therefore, becomes redemptive for us. Saint Paul said that he, in his own flesh, filled up that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for he sake of his body, the church. (Colossians 1:24). In some mysterious way our sufferings can be seen as God's invitation to enter into communion with Christ's sufferings and, in fact, contribute to the redemption of the world.
The suffering of Jesus on Calvary led to his resurrection on Easter Sunday when he broke the power of sin and death and offered us hope. The Catholic teaching on the paschal mystery says we should enter into the sufferings of Jesus so that we also may participate in his resurrection; gaining peace here and eternal life hereafter. Our sufferings can have meaning if we bear them with dignity; join them to those of Christ; and, offer them for a particular intention, such as comfort for persons dying of AIDS and other terrible diseases or for people who have neither hope nor anyone to love them.
I recall the late Pope John Paul the Second's visit to San Antonio in 1987.
Father Joseph Kolodziejcsyk, one of our priests, was looking forward with joy to the opportunity of seeing and hearing the pope. At the last minute, Father Joe suffered a painful fall. Because he was hospitalized, he was unable to go to San Antonio. He later told me he offered his physical sufferings and his disappointment in an effort to insure that the pope would be safe and that God would open the ears of those who would hear his message. Father Joe gave meaning to his sufferings and it helped him enormously.
The pope also traveled safely. And many were touched by the sermons he preached.
Acceptance of suffering does not come easily. I recall a woman in Texarkana who got word that she was to die of cancer. She experienced fear, denial, anger and resignation before reaching a level of faith-filled acceptance. It was, of course, a struggle for her as she went through each of the stages in dealing with her physical and emotional pain. That faith-filled faithful woman showed me a wonderful witness of prayer.
When we pray, we must pray not just that the suffering will go away or that a miraculous cure or solution will come about. We must pray also for the strength to bear that which we must bear and for the courage needed to deal with the crisis we are facing. We thank God for the gift of faith and pray that God will deepen the faith (Philippians 4:6).
It is also a tremendous comfort to have others praying for us and, thereby, showing us that we are not alone. Our relatives, friends, fellow parishioners and the Saints can literally divide our sorrows and multiple our joys.
How many times the presence of friends and their quiet support has eased the pain of sickness or the loss of a loved one. Our church community stands ready to help us in dealing with suffering. We should, obviously, use every appropriate remedy in order to find a solution for the suffering. Modern medicine, for example, can take away much physical pain. Ultimately, though, some suffering is inescapable; and our faith in God is essential if we are to deal with it through acceptance and courage rather than bitterness and anger. In dealing with suffering it is important to remember that God's ways are not our ways. He will answer our prayers for help. Oftentimes, however, he answers in a way that is better than any solutions we may have had in mind.