Several years ago in Winnipeg, I picked up a young man who was hitchhiking a short distance. He saw the crucifix on the dashboard of my car and commented, "I don't believe in God anymore. I can't. I've seen too much suffering."
Sometimes, it's too much for the human mind to comprehend that a loving God would allow anyone to suffer, let alone experience the appalling atrocities we have seen in this century. How could an all-powerful, loving God allow the innocent to suffer?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church frankly admits, "Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. . . .
"Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God's almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself God's power" (no. 272-273).
We need, first of all, to view suffering in the context of human sin. Not in the narrow, mechanistic way which says, "God will get you for that." Rather we must see suffering and evil as consequences of sin which has broken the unity between God and humanity and shattered the wholeness of creation.
Someone once told me how she asked a cab driver in a foreign country she was visiting why there was so much poverty there. His response was that the poor must have sinned and are now being punished for it.
This is a horrible image of a vengeful God. It is directly opposed to our Scriptures which describe how God holds a special place for the poor, even holds them next to his breast (Luke 16:23), and will leave the 99 saved ones behind in order to bring the lost sheep home. This is a God of unfathomable mercy, not of jealousy and vengefulness.
But neither must suffering be totally disconnected from sin and punishment. In a 1984 apostolic letter, Pope John Paul wrote that "Even if we must use great caution in judging human suffering as a consequence of concrete sins (this is shown precisely by the example of the just man Job), nevertheless suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what St. John calls 'the sin of the world.' . . . At the basis of human suffering there is a complex involvement with sin" (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 15).
Even earthquakes and tornadoes — random "acts of God" — are a consequence of sin. Because humanity is not at peace with God, the earth itself rebels.
But our exploration of suffering must go deeper still if we are to fathom this mystery.
We cannot make peace with the mystery of suffering by remaining outside faith, by suspending judgment about the existence of a loving God in order to reach a reasoned judgment about the "facts." The only way to begin to understand this mystery is to first accept that God is real and loving.
With an acceptance of the amazing truth that not only does God refuse to abolish suffering, but that he became human in order to share in our suffering as the most totally innocent victim, we can begin to enter into the meaning of suffering.
Our suffering can only be understood in the light of Christ's suffering. Jesus Christ has saved the world through his suffering. We can share in that act of salvation through a free acceptance of our own suffering. In his apostolic letter, the pope described suffering as "something good, before which the church bows down in reverence with all the depth of her faith in the redemption" (no. 24).
This is a shocking statement. Suffering good? Isn't suffering evil, something which should be avoided at all costs? When I first experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, I thought God was going to heal me and make me happier. I thought God was going to take away all suffering, "wipe every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 21:4).
We should try to end suffering, especially suffering inflicted on others. But suffering need not be useless. In the cosmic battle of good against evil, the pope wrote, "human sufferings, united to the redemptive suffering of Christ, constitutes a special support for the powers of good, and open the way to the victory of these salvific powers" (no. 27).
One of the paradoxes of Christian living is that it is through our acceptance of suffering that human suffering can finally be brought to an end.
If I was confronted by that young hitchhiker again today, I would tell him to look at that crucifix on the dashboard. I would tell him that that is God hanging there on the cross, the almighty God who he wants to end all suffering. I would tell him that if God will freely suffer for us then we should be willing to suffer for God and for others. Moreover, our sufferings can have merit. We should ask God to use our sufferings for the final defeat of evil.
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