The Problem of Suffering

Mission Dolores Altar (San Francisco) Photograph © by Andy Coan

Mission Dolores Altar (San Francisco)
Photograph © by Andy Coan


I remember sitting in my Introduction to Moral Theology class as a college undergraduate and being asked, “What is the problem of suffering, and how do we respond to it?”  We were then introduced to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Rabbi Kushner explained that there are three basic premises we accept about a monotheistic God: He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  Kushner rejects the fact that God is omniscient in order to resolve his problem of suffering.

I had a problem with his solution.

Fast forward to last weekend, when I was invited to speak to a group of teens at a Catholic parish.  I wasn’t sure how to talk to young people about the depth and importance of redemptive suffering, because it’s a spiritually mature concept, so I vacillated before finally flat out telling them, “Without the Cross, nothing in life makes sense, but with the Cross, everything makes sense.  Everything is a grace and can be used for good.”  Slowly, deliberately, I saw some lips quiver and tears form in some of their eyes.  I realized in that moment that I had underestimated these kids.  They understood the concept perfectly well.  I was the one who tried to over-complicate the issue.

Usually people ask me to share our story, and I show this video that visually captures an excerpt of my own experience with suffering.

Long ago, when Sarah was born, I wrestled with the question that many of us still ask today: “If God is so good, why does He allow [x,y,z] to happen?”  It seems trite and spiritually petulant to suggest such a question, but most of us—at some time or another in our lives—have asked or will ask some variation of this question.

When I finished talking about how I resolved the question of suffering through the lens of redemption, I was immediately met with deafening silence.  At first, I thought I missed them all and performed a major fail.  But then I saw a girl’s hand slowly raise in an effort to speak.  I nodded my head toward her.

“I’ve been reading about the Holocaust in my World History class, and it’s too much for me to bear.  When we read about how babies were thrown into the furnace to burn alive, I was angry with God and wondered why He would allow such evil to exist.  But then I heard you speak tonight about the meaning of suffering, and I realized that my question was answered.”

That girl didn’t need a complex answer.  She needed to hear about a person’s encounter with God through suffering.

When people ask me how I kept my faith in God after Sarah was born with a rare disease, I tell them it was a process.  Here’s how you can journey from the role of a victim to the role of victor.

1. Allow yourself to wrestle with difficult questions.

It’s okay to be angry with God and to tell Him so.  When you experience an injustice or ponder the increasing presence of evil in the world, bring it to prayer.  If you yell, so be it.  Cry, scream, do whatever it takes to reach God’s heart.  The key is to approach Him with the intention of an honest dialogue rather than a monologic rant.  Don’t build emotional barricades between you and God when you are hurting.  Keep talking and keep listening.

2.  Look to the Cross.

Reacquaint yourself with the Paschal Mystery by meditating on the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.  Start by revisiting the Stations of the Cross.  Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries.  Develop a devotion to our Sorrowful Mother.  Read the Passion Narrative in the Gospels.  Through it all, pray that God will reveal to you the gift and beauty of love through suffering.

3.  Unite your sufferings to those of Jesus.

The central tenet of redemptive suffering is that it has meaning, value, and purpose.  Suffering, while not part of God’s perfect plan for humanity, was transformed into love on the Cross.  Most Catholics hear at some point, “Just offer it up,” which can become a cliche that ricochets off of our ears and into oblivion.  How do we offer up our sufferings?  What does it mean to suffer well?

Offering up our wounds requires more than mere lip service to God.  We cannot say, “Jesus, I unite my pain to yours.  Please do with me as You will, and I pray for [intention] through this act of love” without sincerity.  Otherwise, to merely speak this offering would likely translate into resentment.  That is not suffering well.

If you cannot sincerely offer your pain to Jesus as an act of love, pray that your heart will change so that you truly desire to give Him every misfortune, struggle, and obstacle in your life.  Once you reach that point and your prayer is authentic, Jesus will transform your pain into love.  He may not remove the suffering, but He will transform it.  It is a way for you to unite yourself more closely to Jesus’ Passion, and that is suffering well.

Ultimately, the world constantly bombards us with the message that all pain should be eschewed at all costs and that life on Earth is only worth living if we pursue happiness and comfort.  The truth is, the path to Heaven is strewn with thorns, rocks, and tears.  How many of us will abandon the opportunity to grow in virtue, become purified through pruning, and ultimately reach our eternal home?  We cannot allow fear to dictate how we will live.  Love calls for radical transformation, and this often occurs in the form of trials.  When we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary, we walk to our death, yes, but we also await our own resurrection.

Let us say yes to all that God permits, knowing that everything is an opportunity for us to love.

Print this entry

1 Comment

  1. Hear His Voice, harden not your hearts
    (ccc #67)
    054/365 (Yr 5)

    Experiencing Jesus Christ

    Isaiah 48:10

    10 See, I refined you, but not like silver; I tested you in the furnace of affliction.

    NABRE

    8 * We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair;

    9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;

    10 * always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.

    11 For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

    * [4:8–9] A catalogue of his apostolic trials and afflictions. Yet in these the negative never completely prevails; there is always some experience of rescue, of salvation.

    * [4:10–11] Both the negative and the positive sides of the experience are grounded christologically. The logic is similar to that of 2 Cor 1:3–11. His sufferings are connected with Christ’s, and his deliverance is a sign that he is to share in Jesus’ resurrection.

    (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:8-11)

    Andrew Teo
    “It is not for God to know you ..but for you to know God”

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *