Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Christ the Consolator by Bloch

Is Something Going On?

Just a little over two weeks ago, our central air conditioner failed. If you could have seen us, you would have thought that our family was the definition of suffering… temperatures in the 90’s and sweat dripping. But then I remembered that my son’s house was severely damaged by a tornado in late April. They are living in an apartment while their house is repaired.  You can rebuild houses, but my 3 year-old grandson lost a bit of his childhood innocence. Their situation was much more uncomfortable and disruptive. And for a moment (only for a moment) I began to reflect on the reality that many other people suffer far more than I do. Then I promptly refocused on my own suffering.

That was interrupted when I received a call from my son.  I had visited his family just last weekend and the repairs on their house were progressing very nicely – it would be no time at all before they were moved back in. I asked him how things were going and he replied, “The contractors arrived at the house this morning and discovered it was on fire.” The damage was moderate but extensive.  The new floors and roof will need replacing… more walls and ceilings to be repaired… smoke, soot and water damage throughout. Can you imagine the stress and disruption to life? But, then again, no one was injured or lost their life.  We should count our blessings!

Really. I don’t know if it is true, but I read recently that energy consumption to run residential air conditioners in the United States equals the amount of energy consumption to produce electricity for all purposes in the entire continent of Africa. I didn’t even have air conditioning when I grew up in a semi-tropical climate. And I am worried about a temporary absence of cool air in my house?

Turn on the television and watch the news… wars, famines, natural disasters, strife, crime and economic uncertainty. And not just lives disrupted, but lives ended prematurely. I read our parish prayer chain daily.  The heartache, pain and suffering revealed by the prayer requests can be staggering… mainly requests for improved health. It is especially heart-wrenching to read of the suffering and loneliness of the elderly who approach the end of their natural lives. And we all know of men and women who have lost their jobs… too young to retire, yet too old to hire, in spite of the laws prohibiting age discrimination.

Sometimes you feel simply overwhelmed and discouraged. You might ask in desperation, “What’s wrong with this world? Please, God help us!”

Of Course God Cares

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. The Person of God whose name is Jesus is forever True God and true man. He loves us so much that He became man and will always remain man – even while remaining One God forever. He has left us His Real Presence and sent the Holy Spirit to set us apart and make us holy.

But why? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Why does God permit suffering?

The Problem of Evil

We have to return to the act of creation.  All that God made was good and that includes His special creation, man and woman.

When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them sanctifying grace, that is, they were able to partake in the Divine Nature – they had a share of the Divine Life in their souls. They had no right to this grace; it was freely given them by God. They also were granted what is referred to as the preternatural gifts of bodily immortality, integrity and infused knowledge.

We were created freely by God out of His infinite goodness to live and love freely as He does. We were given free will. He allowed temptation in the world, not so we would choose evil, but so that we would choose the good. Otherwise our freedom to choose the good would not have been free and our love would not have been freely exercised and authentic. Our first sin was not a given, it was our choice. Thus we come to a principal truth about evil – it is primarily the absence of good.

When Adam and Eve lost, due to their sin, the gifts God bestowed on them, we lost them too. After all, we could not inherit from them that which they no longer possessed. It is through sin that death entered the world. So it is now our condition that we will one day die. We lost the first preternatural gift.

The loss of the second preternatural gift, integrity, has resulted in our inclination to sin; what we now refer to as concupiscence. There are two types of sin.

The first is Original Sin which we inherit by generation; by the fact that we were conceived by our parents, who were conceived by their parents… in a line that stretches all the way back to Adam and Eve. Original sin will not directly send anyone to Hell, but it will keep us from Heaven unless we are cleansed from it.

The second type of sin is Actual (or personal) Sin which is sin we personally commit either by acts of commission or acts of omission. The Church has traditionally taught that there exist Seven Deadly (or Capital) Sins. “Vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also be linked to the capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great. They are called “capital” because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth…” (CCC 1866). Personal Sin can be mortal, that is, it can deprive us of the free gift of Heaven and merit for us Hell.

These sins result in pain and suffering. And they do not affect only mankind, all creation has been harmed.

The loss of the third preternatural gift, infused knowledge, as bad as the loss of the first two gifts was, should not be neglected in our efforts to grow in the spiritual life and understand the presence of pain and suffering in the world. This gift allowed Adam and Eve, without personal study or experience, to know Who God is, who they were, the “why” or relevance of creation, and their place in it all.

I sometimes think that it is the absence of this knowledge, despite God’s Divine Revelation lovingly given to us over the centuries, which seems to allow the Seven Deadly Sins to give rise to so much personal sin in our lives. Our priorities and the self-absorption from which they derive, tells me this is so. Of course this is our failure, not the Lord’s. We are quick to acknowledge in word that Jesus is our Savior, but not so quick to acknowledge in action that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are the cause of suffering and this suffering affects us all, the righteous and the unrighteous.

The reason God became man was to redeem us and be our savior, to make all things new. This act of love can save us, it is the final victory over death, but death and evil will persist in the world as long as sin continues… but we are now equipped to overcome their effects on our spiritual souls.

God Brings Good out of Evil and Suffering

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

We have seen that death, pain and suffering resulted from the actions of mankind.  God did not create evil – He created only the good. But that does not mean that God cannot bring even good things out of the absence of good. Look first to the Sacrifice of the Cross to see that the life willingly laid down for the good of the other to see that this is true.

We are finite beings and cannot begin to understand and see the whole of the plan of Divine Providence. We are not God and our knowledge and wisdom are not infinite. But we can see in our history that God can make use of the absence of good for our benefit. Indeed, what we sometimes see as “not good” is instead a good thing. It is will infinite wisdom that God helps us. But the grace He grants requires our cooperation.

Consider these writings from St. Paul…

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. (Colossians 1:24)

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5) 

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:15-25 – emphasis added)

When we look around us with the capacity of our human mind and see things we do not understand – the suffering of the innocent, the worldly rewards for the great sinner – we must remember these wise and inspired words of St. Paul and place our trust in God who knows all things and loves us more than we are capable of loving ourselves. The present world is passing and in the life to come all things will be set right.

Pain and suffering need not be punishments, they can be medicine. The saints know that holiness and spiritual growth can come from our sufferings.

We do not seek out suffering and it is not wrong to try to lessen it, but there is a saying among Catholics that needs to be understood and embraced – “Offer it up!” If we offer up our sufferings to Christ, join them to his sacrifice, and cooperate with God’s grace, these sufferings we endure can be redemptive and benefit our soul and the souls of others in the world.

Through our suffering, offered up, we allow God to transform us more and more to the image of His Son.

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


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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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3 Comments

  1. > Of course this is our failure, not the Lord’s.
    From your argument, it is indeed the Lord’s fault for withholding the gift of infused knowledge. This statement therefore comes as an abrupt non sequitur. Please revise.

    > But we can see in our history that God can make use of the absence of good for our benefit. Indeed, what we sometimes see as “not good” is instead a good thing.
    You say “Indeed” where you should have given an example. I cannot think of a single instance where something ‘not good’ turned okout to be good.

    > The present world is passing and in the life to come all things will be set right.
    That has been said for two thousand years. What do you think ‘passing’ means?

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