The Mystery of Suffering

Monday, May 05, 2003



I believe that the issue of human suffering is the greatest challenge to faith we all will ever encounter. The mystery of suffering is just that - a mystery - meaning that my words will probably not be adequate.

I believe that God does not cause suffering, and I don't think this goes against Scripture or Tradition. But rather than citing authorities, let's talk in analogies for a moment.

God is our Father. Now, my earthly father, when I was young might have told me, "Don't touch the stove. It's hot." If I chose to test daddy, I might get my hand burned. Did Dad cause me to burn my hand?

Of course not.

Sometimes, good 'ol Dad even watched and let me hurt myself for my own good. I'm sure he let me fall one or two times when I was learning to walk. I probably didn't like it every time either.

God does not cause suffering, but he allows it.

This is still a great mystery, because it still leaves us with the question, "Why didn't he create a world where pain is impossible?" In other words, in Biblical terms, why was the tree of knowledge put in the garden?

I don't think we can ever adequately answer this question in this life. I do think that the tree (suffering) works in God's overall plan. Yet, I don't claim to understand how.

By analogy, if Dad had told me not to stick my baby fingers in the electric socket, and I did anyway - does that mean we should live like the Amish with no electricity?

The tree of knowledge perhaps served some purpose in God's plan, but it wasn't meant for human consumption.

By the way, it is not my intent to argue about whether Genesis is literal or not - I accept the possibility of this being a symbolic story, but it is still very meaningful.

In Genesis, God does not cause the curse on Adam and Eve. He does not say "I will curse".
Rather, he says "Because you have done this, cursed will be..."

What I am emphasizing here is that the results of the Fall are consequences of sin, rather than punishment per se!

God does not send people to hell (even John Paul II has said this recently). Rather, hell is a choice to deliberately reject God and chose to live with the consequences of sin instead.
Hell is a compliment to the dignity of human freedom. God loves us too much to force us to live with him in heaven, and he loves us too much to snuff us out. Yet, if there were no hell, could I really LOVE God? What kind of choice would that be?

Perhaps the mystery of suffering in this life is also tied to the mystery of human freedom.
But we're still stuck with the really hard question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

Again, I turn to the Genesis account. The Biblical understanding is that God is good and he created a perfectly good world. With each act of creation, he sees, and says "It is good." Creation progresses from the lowest inanimate objects to the height of humanity, who images the divine!

The garden of Eden is this perfectly balanced and absolutely beautiful work of art. Humanity, by acting in a manner less than our fullest human capacity messes it all up. Sin is dehumanizing behavior.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not just a personal act. In the Biblical world-view, it threw the whole balance of the universe out of whack. It put a blotch on the perfect work of art. It sent a ripple effect through the entire universe and through all time.

Suffering, sin, evil and so forth are the result of sin.

But here's the good news. God has joined us in our suffering on the cross.

No matter how bad it gets, God says to us in Christ, "I am with you".

And the good news doesn't stop there.

In the resurrection, a man conquered death - the most fear inspiring consequence of sin!
Through this event, he revealed his power over sin. The ripple effect was reversed. Now grace is being poured forth on the entire universe and throughout all time.

God and Satan are sort of playing a game of chess. By Adam's sin, we could argue that Satan won the first pawn. But in the resurrection, God took Satan's queen. If you know chess, the game is really over, though Satan may be trying for a stalemate at this point in your individual soul.

That's where we either accept the grace of Christ, or we affirm the choice of Adam.
When you sin, you contribute to the mystery of suffering in life. When you avoid sin and do good, you affirm the grace of Christ dwelling within you.

So how are we saved?

Must our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds?


Here again, we have good news. The Bible says that Satan is the accuser (Rev 12:10) - the prosecuting attorney in the case against humanity.

The Holy Spirit is our advocate - the Paraclete - our defense attorney before the Father.
Jesus has bore the penalty for our sins on the cross, and we can trust the one who initiated the salvation process in us through baptism to bring it to completion.

OK. I know I may be sounding just a bit Protestant now, but I believe that this is sound Catholic theology. The Council of Trent affirmed that salvation is by grace alone, and that faith is a necessary component of grace that is necessary to salvation.

Nor am I denying the needs for grace inspired works and grace filled sacraments as part of this salvation process. Furthermore, I am talking about trusting the living Christ knowing you are a sinner rather than "knowing that you're saved with absolute certainty".

The Protestant articulation of the salvation process is that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works.

The Catholic articulation would be more to the effect that we are saved by grace alone, through faith infused works.

To clarify, what I am emphasizing is that grace is God's life - the Holy Spirit - within the believer. Grace infuses faith, hope and love in the soul. In turn, the theological virtues inspire and infuse all our good works, so that they have merit only as a participation in what Christ has already done for us. Yet, because these works infused with virtue happen with our passive cooperation, the merit or reward is granted to the one cooperating.

Trent affirmed that even when we fall in mortal sin, and no longer dwell in grace, the virtue of faith lingers in the soul - we continue to place our trust in God. We trust the one who began the work of salvation in us through baptism to bring it to completion! Salvation is not primarily our own doing - but the work of God within us. Salvation is a free gift, and God never ceases to work in the entire process!

Thus, faith that lingers while we are in sin leads us back to reconciliation with God and the Church.

Yet, faith is more than a virtue leading us to reconciliation when we sin. It is more than a virtue of accepting propositional statements of creed (even Satan believes the articles of the creeds). Faith is the virtue of trusting God in darkness and suffering. This trust is an earned trust.

We experience the seeds of faith in the joys of life. It is further awakened in word and sacrament. It is tested and made stronger in trials. The goal of Christianity is not the trials - not suffering. The goal of Christianity is trust in the goodness of God, even in the midst of trails!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 2:28 PM

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