Some wonder how to reconcile the evil and suffering in the world with a God who is all-powerful and all-good. God really does care… He loves us. He did not have to, but He proved it when He became one of us and took on our pain and suffering and sin. His death on the cross for you and for me is the greatest act of love ever performed. And it does not end there. But why? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Why does God permit suffering?
To be called to suffering in this life is to be called into the mystery of Christ’s Passion and to cooperate in the redemption of mankind.
1. Romans 5:3-5
3 Not only so, but we[a] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
2. Romans 8:18
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
3. Romans 8:28
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
4. Colossians 3:24
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
5. 1 Corinthians 10:13
No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.
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But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.
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Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:
For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.
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In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures: “It was not you”, said Joseph to his brothers, “who sent me here, but God. . . You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” From the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that “abounded all the more”, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good.
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“We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him.”180 The constant witness of the saints confirms this truth:
St. Catherine of Siena said to “those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them”: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”181
St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter: “Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”182
Dame Julian of Norwich: “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith. . . and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time – that ‘all manner [of] thing shall be well.'”183
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We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”,184 will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest185 for which he created heaven and earth.
Small Group Questions
1. Think about a situation where you or a loved one experienced pain and suffering. Looking back, was there even the slightest scenario in which some sort of good came about out as a result?
2. In what ways can you view suffering as a means in which God can work toward his plan or glory?
3. Has God ever used pain and suffering in your life to get your attention? What was he attempting to get across to you?
1. Article: Why Does God Allow Suffering? http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2011/07/bickerstaff-why-does-god-allow-suffering/
2. Book: “Why Suffer” by Mary Ann Budnik. http://www.scepterpublishers.org/product/index.php?FULL=312
3. Why Does God Let Us Suffer? (A Catholic Perspective) Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan
4. Book: “The Problem of Pain”, C.S. Lewis
5. Book: “Grief Observed”, C.S. Lewis
6. Salvifici Doloris [On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering], Pope John Paul II
7. Book: “Making Sense our of Suffering”, P. Kreeft
1. Think about some ways in which a pain or hardship you are currently suffering could be used to help God fulfill some sort of purpose for good.
2. Think of any past situation in which you may have blamed God for your suffering. How does God’s allowing of free will and evil in the world fit into this picture?
3. This week, consider prayerfully asking God to reveal to you ways in which you can view suffering as a means of glorifying Him. Share any thoughts or experiences during your next small group meeting.
I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.
I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.
Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.
Teach me to realize that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.
– from The Universal Prayer of Pope Clement XI
Why Does God Allow Suffering? – Karl Erickson
The unfolding tragedy in Japan is surely prompting many to ask hard questions such as why does a good God permit the evil of suffering? While I can’t do more than scratch the surface of such a deep question, we can certainly say what the answer is not. After every natural disaster resulting in tragic loss of life, some misguided people–e.g. Hillsboro Baptist Church–always insist that the earthquake, tsunami, etc. was a direct punishment from God. Sometimes, I think this serves as a personal coping mechanism, a way to make sense out of destructive chaos. In the case of the aforementioned church, though, I suspect that the motivation is darker in nature.
It’s a misleading and dangerous line of reasoning to pursue, however. Since we read in James 1:13 that God is not tempted by evil, nor does He tempt us, it would be impossible for Him to be the source of such suffering. This is simply an example of what the CCC calls “physical evil” as opposed to “moral evil”. The world is a complicated machine in which God does not constantly insert His hand when something is about to break and cause harm. He permits nature to run its course. To do otherwise, would be heaven, and we’re not there yet (except in Mass, as Scott Hahn might say).
Here’s a small part of what the Catholic Encyclopedia offers on the three different dimensions of evil. (I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard of “metaphysical evil” before. It’s also not mentioned once in the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
With regard to the nature of evil, it should be observed that evil is of three kinds — physical, moral, and metaphysical. Physical evil includes all that causes harm to man, whether by bodily injury, by thwarting his natural desires, or by preventing the full development of his powers, either in the order of nature directly, or through the various social conditions under which mankind naturally exists. Physical evils directly due to nature are sickness, accident, death, etc. Poverty, oppression, and some forms of disease are instances of evil arising from imperfect social organization. Mental suffering, such as anxiety, disappointment, and remorse, and the limitation of intelligence which prevents humans beings from attaining to the full comprehension of their environment, are congenital forms of evil each vary in character and degree according to natural disposition and social circumstances.
Are all types of pain and suffering, then, because of the Fall of Man? The simple answer is Yes. The choice of Adam and Eve, already created in the image of God, to disobey their Creator in a tragically misguided attempt to be “like God,” led to evil being allowed to enter the world, permanently changing every facet and dimension of our lives. With the barrier of sin now present between us and our Heavenly Father, however, God never gave up on mankind, but He continually sought to give us the means to seek and receive redemption and freedom from the sin. While the sin weakens us, the suffering may build spiritual strength and endurance.
The simple answer to Why does God allow suffering? is really impossible until we first have a solid understanding of the nature of sin and evil. Once that is understood, we can say that suffering allows us to become the people God created us to be, refined by fire as it were. As previously mentioned, God allows our broken world to run its course. When my grandmother lay dying in a coma some years ago in a small hospital room overlooking the brilliant fall tapestry of the Yakima Valley below, I remarked to my grandfather “that it wasn’t ever supposed to be this way.” By that statement, I was trying to say that God had other plans for us–even though his omniscient nature was fully aware that we would fail. If there was no free will, we could not truly say that we could independently love God; we would be automatons, machines. Likewise, suffering may also be tied to this free will. We are held accountable for our bad choices and decisions–sin being the worst.
Along our journey, it’s important to remember that every person we meet within our hectic daily schedules is someone for whom Christ’s blood was spilled, and, therefore, a fellow member or potential member, of the Body of Christ. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, there aren’t “ordinary people.” We all have everlasting souls. We are familiar perhaps with the idea of redemptive suffering, offering our pains and struggles up to God. If we can apply this kind of internal reverence to our daily lives, we are offering these routine activities up to Christ. In this way, we are also acknowledging that we our identity is greater than what our daily life may trick us to believe. That is, our identity should not necessarily be tied so closely to our work or vocation. We are more than what we do from 8-5; our jobs should not define us. When we understand this, we are transforming the mundane to the eternal as we strive to live Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “whatever you do, do for the glory of God.”
Not only may suffering lead us to a closer union with Christ, but God can bring good out of the evils we face. In conclusion, here is a passage from Saint Thomas Aquinas’ masterpiece Summa Theologica. It’s also followed by a short quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.
I answer that, It must be said that every evil in some way has a cause. For evil is the absence of the good, which is natural and due to a thing. But that anything fail from its natural and due disposition can come only from some cause drawing it out of its proper disposition. For a heavy thing is not moved upwards except by some impelling force; nor does an agent fail in its action except from some impediment… (Saint Thomas)
Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made perfect through suffering is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design. (C.S. Lewis)
HOW SHOULD THE CHRISTIAN RESPOND TO PERSONAL SUFFERING?
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:9a
Have you have been waging a battle against forces that threaten you and your family? You need to be assured that the Savior who loves you and who died that you might live with Him throughout all eternity will give you the strength of faith to endure your ordeal of suffering. You must claim the promise our Lord made to us through His Apostle Paul that He will not give you more than you can bear, “None of the trials which have come upon you is more than a human being can stand. You can trust that God will not let you be put to the test beyond your strength, but with any trial will also provide a way out by enabling you to put up with it.” [1 Corinthians 10:13]. As you experience your trials I urge you to unite your suffering, both emotionally and physically, with the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ and to take courage from the words of our late Pope who wrote that “God is always on the side of suffering” [Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II, page 66]. God the Son’s love and mercy are demonstrated by the fact that He freely chose to suffer as the means of His plan of redemption for the salvation of mankind, as from the cross He spoke the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” the words of all those who suffer in this life. Those very words are the proof that He chose to unite our suffering to His! What greater demonstration could there be to the depth and sincerity of His love for us? He loved us in His suffering to the end of His life’to His last breath as the Apostle John testifies in John 13:1, “having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.”
Why would a just and loving God allow suffering? When God created man to “know, love, and serve” Him, God desired a purity of love which cannot be exercised without the human freedom to choose to love or not to love [cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1604]. With this freedom of choice to love God expressed in obedience of faith or not to love expressed in our disobedience comes the possibility of sin, and with the possibility of sin comes the resulting suffering which can lead to sickness, mental anguish, pain and even death. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of the willful turning away from God and His infinite love, but God did allow for the possibility of sin and the resulting evil so that the greatest of human good’genuine love, could be manifested in mankind. The negative result of that freedom of choice is sadly, sin and suffering.
In the Old Testament Book of Job God exposes us to the incomprehensibility of suffering in that even the good and the innocent must endure suffering in this life as a result of sin in the world. The full depth of the injustice of and gravity of the suffering of the innocent is fully revealed in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth when God unites Himself to the suffering of man. There is no more complete answer as to why a just God allows the innocent to suffer than the answer that is offered up to humanity in the saving work of Jesus Christ. In addressing the question of human suffering in the document Salvifici Doloris , Pope John Paul II writes “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, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross!'” [Salvifici Doloris, 26]. In Jesus the Messiah, the dimension of the suffering of the innocent is revealed to be a redemptive suffering’a suffering transformed and redeemed through the cross of Christ. Reflecting on this mystery John Paul II wrote, “Christ has opened His suffering to man… Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them through faith, enriched with a new content and meaning” [Salvifici Doloris, 20].
To be called to suffering in this life is to be called into the mystery of Christ’s Passion and to cooperate in the redemption of mankind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church assures us in article 307 that we can all become collaborators with God’s plan of salvation “…to human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of ‘subduing’ the earth and having dominion over it (Genesis 1:26-28). God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings. They then fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Colossians 4:11).” We can become collaborators with God’s plan of salvation when we unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and offer up our prayers for the salvation of our neighbors, our communities, and the world. Our suffering offered up to Christ places us at the pivot point of the history of man’at the side of the suffering Jesus who gave Himself up, Body and Blood, pain and tears for the salvation of the world. Our suffering also places us in a unique proximity to His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, our example of the model Christian, who also as prophesized [Luke 2:33-35], suffered united with her son and Savior. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this unique opportunity to participate in Christ’s sacrifice by uniting our suffering to His in article 618, “The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5).’ But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, ‘the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery’ is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to ‘take up [their] cross and follow [him]’ (Matthew 16:24), for ‘Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.’ (1 Peter 2:21). In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering [see Luke 2:35].
Pope John Paul II defined human suffering as “a great test not only of physical strength but also spiritual strength” [Crossing the Threshold of Hope, page 25]. Saint Paul understood this testing and the necessity to unite suffering to the suffering of Christ for the sake of the redemption of man when he wrote to the Christians at Colossus “It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church, of which I was made a servant with the responsibility towards you that God gave to me” [Colossians 1:24]. Paul is not saying that Jesus’ suffering was insufficient’His suffering was wholly and completely sufficient, instead Paul is keenly aware that as the battle against sin continues and the resulting suffering from sin continues that when a Christian offers up his personal suffering united with Jesus’ suffering that this mystical union works toward the continual call to salvation in the world. The Son of God willingly suffered to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth – the Catholic Church, and anyone who continues in Christ’s work and takes up the cross of our Lord must share in the suffering of that cross. In our suffering for the Kingdom we must unite our suffering to Christ’s suffering and in that struggle some of us will be called to deep physical suffering while others to emotional suffering and persecution for the sake of the Kingdom, for “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” ~Saint Rose of Lima
Therefore, suffering is not in vain. There is the promise of an eternal reward for faithful endurance in submitting to the will of God as well as the opportunity to cooperate in God’s plan of salvation. In 2 Corinthians 1:5 Paul writes “For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives; so too does the encouragement we receive through Christ. So if we have hardships to undergo, this will contribute to your encouragement and your salvation; if we receive encouragement, this is to gain for you the encouragement which evokes you to bear with perseverance the same sufferings as we do. So our hope for you is secure in the knowledge that you share the encouragement we receive, no less than the sufferings we bear.” This is the Pascal mystery’in our suffering we behold the risen and glorified Christ as we take our part in the New Creation and as we are hounded and wounded by the sufferings that are still our link to the old creation which is still held by the last threads of sin, suffering and death. Our suffering united with Christ and our prayers not only can work toward the salvation of those in whom we come in contact when we share His message of salvation in love in the midst of our suffering, but our sufferings united to Christ can also free us from the accountability and deserved penance of past confessed sins as well as strengthen our faith and the depth of our imaging Christ in our daily lives. All suffering united to Christ’s sufferings counts to the good for us and for our fellow man. In Philippians 1:20 Paul also writes, “…all in accordance with my most confident hope and trust that I shall never have to admit defeat, but with complete fearlessness I shall go on, so that now, as always, Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or my death. Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain…” But what we must never do in our suffering is to despair. Despair is a sin for in despair we no longer acknowledge confidence in God’s love and His plan for our lives as the best plan and the right plan.
Through our rebirth into the family of God through the Sacrament of Baptism and through the most Holy Eucharist, in which the believer receives Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity’a Christian is so mystically united into the divine life of Christ that the whole of the believer’s life’including his sufferings and death, are mystically united to Christ living in him and being glorified in him [see Romans 14:8; 1 Corinthians 6:20]. Our earthly suffering allows us a special intimacy with our Savior in those hours when His love for us was most visible. We must embrace our suffering when He calls us to suffering as though we were embracing Him and have the courage to repeat the words of St. Paul in his suffering: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinthians 12:9b-10]. May our loving and merciful God bless you and keep you in the arms of the Savior who loved you to the end.