A close friend of mine recently fell into a severe emotional state when a good priest friend, who had suffered a long and painful bout with brain cancer, finally succumbed to the disease. How could God have allowed such a horrible thing to happen? Fr. M was still quite young and apparently had many good years ahead of him. When I mentioned that perhaps this was God’s will for Fr. M my friend lapsed into a bitter state of denial. “I don’t believe that God had anything to do with it,” he snapped back as if unable to reconcile a loving, merciful being with a deity who could actually will such terrible suffering on such a good and decent man.
I had no quick answers to his complaint, yet something deep inside me said that no matter how unpleasant the implications God, in fact, not only permits us to suffer, to which my friend would tacitly agree, but more to the point there are times when God positively wills us to suffer. It is on this second point that my friend and many fellow Christians would violently disagree. In fact, the all too common depiction of God as some cosmic sadist has likely turned more people against religion in our materialist, pain-averse culture than ever before. A mass consumerism which promises instant gratification has somehow robbed us of the former stoicism by which our great-grandparents quietly accepted pain and suffering as natural parts of life. But modern medicine now gives us a million reasons to disassociate God, or sin, or even the demons as having anything to do with that great mystery of suffering. Still, when the miracle drugs and doctors fail us, what then? It such moments the only available response for many seems to be blaming God.
For Christians this dilemma can sometimes trigger a defensive response in order to get God “off the hook” short of denying his essential goodness. This particular rationalizing process amounts to “quasi-deism.” Such persons insist, like my friend, that a good God could never positively will suffering but that he only permits it. In other words God created and set this amazing world, which includes ours persons, in motion but then at some point he stands back to let “nature” run its course free of any divine plan or oversight. In this world view, intractable forces ─ bacteria and viruses, hurricanes, volcanoes, even the devil ─ all collude and collide randomly with our human destinies. God simply stands aside and lets various people and forces work their way upon us without any providential participation. Suffering is just some arbitrary, if unlucky, occurrence but really nothing more, and if we can only refine our techniques enough it will eventually be obliterated.
But such a shallow outlook denies that suffering might actually be a positive force, something which God uses providentially for our growth and development, perhaps even our salvation. Is it no longer regarded as something which helps us to develop the necessary virtues of good character, resilience, stamina, or endurance. Yet the Scriptures remind us that God chastises those whom he loves, just as any good father disciplines his children so that they can grow up to become strong, truthful, honest, and fearless men and women. For without discipline of any sort we naturally fall into complacence and self-indulgence. So if suffering is a form of discipline that ultimately makes one a wiser, better person why does modern man insist on viewing it as something evil?
Even the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis became conflicted late in life over this very thing ─ that God’s positive will might be the cause of his own personal suffering. In his book A Grief Observed written after the death of his wife, Joy Gresham, Lewis bitterly compares God to a vivisectionist. His belated recognition that God not only allows suffering but at times actively wills it upon innocent souls (think of children) brought him into sharp conflict with his own understanding of God. So is God really the dispassionate vivisectionist operating on his unwilling subjects without the benefit of basic anesthesia, the “cruel God” summoned forth by Iago in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Othello?
Too many Christians today prefer to see suffering only as a punishment for sinfulness, that is, “a man is punished by the very things through which he sins.” (Wis 11:16) And yet the same Scriptures attest, “You govern all things justly; you regard it as unworthy of your power to punish one who has incurred no blame.” (Wis 12:15) While there is undoubtedly some connection between sin and suffering as its consequent punishment, this passage implies that there also exists a type of suffering which is not punitive. Rather it encompasses some deeper dimension in the divine logic which, unfortunately, many Christians today prefer not to focus upon. They forget that God can and does will suffering in the active sense of ordaining it as an effective means for one’s salvation. St. Paul alludes to this fact in his beautiful letter to the Colossians. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the Church.” (Col 1:24)
The central mystery of the cross is that of redemptive suffering. Prior to the cross suffering could only be understood as a curse; a punishment inflicted by the gods on the one suffering. But with the Crucifixion, God’s only Son sheds a whole new light on the meaning of suffering for it becomes the necessary means of human redemption. It reconciles man back to God, the Father from whom we had been estranged by sin. God in fact actively willed the greatest episode of suffering in human history to be endured by his own Son. But it wasn’t just the suffering of the God-man Jesus that he willed but also those countless sufferings of the human race that were now given a whole new meaning in light of his own Son’s sufferings on the cross. St. Paul makes clear that we too, as his disciples, must “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Suffering is no longer simply a form of punishment but a participation in the efficacious work of Christ on his cross who mystically joins our personal sufferings to his universal, all-encompassing suffering for the world’s redemption. (Not that we can add anything to God’s work of redemption, only that we are given, through suffering, the opportunity to participate in what is already a fact accompli.) Suffering, in other words, was given a meaning and value that was unattainable until the moment that Christ sanctified it.
God can and does will that we suffer not only for our own sake but, at times, to suffer vicariously for others who may not have our same strength. For that reason the greatest saints are the ones who have suffered the most, especially the martyrs. For if their sufferings were not directly willed by God then what value could they really have? But through their sufferings the saints have brought countless other souls to Christ, by sheer example if nothing else. St. Paul attests to this truth in his letters to the Corinthians. “For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (2Cor 1: 5-6) Yet to deny that God ordained their sufferings is to make these same witnesses out to be either mentally unstable or some sort of deranged masochists. But clearly, the aim of such suffering as St. Paul outlines here is not to punish but to sanctify.
Christ was rather explicit regarding suffering as an unavoidable means to discipleship. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mt 16:24) Just as suffering is something that God positively wills for us at times, it becomes something we must generously accept if we are to bear good fruit. We can either accept the cross God lays on our shoulders or else curse and reject it, but either way we must still confront it. The saints are the ones who patiently and meekly accept it as the most perfect way to imitate Christ. The rest of the world runs from the cross, or looks to remedy, dodges, or generally try by any means to insulate itself from the suffering it represents. All such efforts are ultimately futile because death will still have the final say.
The epidemic rates of alcoholism and substance abuse today; the billions we throw into endless medical research all indicate that we are a people obsessed with the avoidance of suffering. Yet even in our highly technological, pain-pill popping society no one can entirely escape suffering ─ and no man, no matter how wealthy, swift, or intelligent, has yet been able to out-run death. So ultimately it is Christ who provides the key to that painful paradox which suffering and death represent. Only by freely embracing those sufferings which God wills for us to endure can we find our salvation. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:24) Suffering is the key that unlocks the mystery of the cross ─ a mystery whose answer is revealed only in the resurrection of the body in the life of the world to come.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.