Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 1

Where is God amidst suffering?

Poverty, war, ecological disasters, abuse, death, cancer, famine. Why do we experience suffering and evils? It’s a question that I’ve thought about for a few years now, and the lack of a concrete answer begs one of the oldest and most popular theological questions: if we are to believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and comprising all that is good, what does the existence of suffering and evil do to God?

There are two very common, and incomplete, answers to this question that attempt to justify God. The first is the claim that “everything happens for a reason.” If there is suffering, it is because God made it so. There is no such thing as coincidence: everything that happens, good or bad, is either a gift or burden from God based on his plan for each of us. This paradigm upholds God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but it also accepts that God permits, even sends, evil and suffering to the world. This is an unacceptable paradigm.

As a reaction to this cold-hearted God that sends despair, others will characterize God as a “watchmaker,” forming all creation as good but then stepping away and taking the role as compassionate observer as it is set into motion. This paradigm upholds God’s omniscience and goodness, but it asserts that God is distant from us in our suffering, and powerless to effect change in creation. This, also, is an unacceptable paradigm.

Though technically complete opposites, both of these explanations share the same flaw: neither is willing to accept that there are different forms of suffering that may have different origins. They both attempt to protect God by saying that he is EITHER in complete control OR completely innocent of any harm. The truth is, God is BOTH just AND merciful; BOTH respects our autonomy AND values our connectedness; and through the incarnation, BOTH separately divine AND similarly human. God is at once in our lives, articulating and inspiring his plan to us through word and deed, responsible for some of our suffering, and also autonomous, allowing for the world to work itself out, free from his every command or desire.

The true question in theodicy, thus, is not whether or not God causes suffering, but rather which acts of suffering are at God’s hand, and which are not (and what are other possible sources)? Part two of this series will deal with understanding how and why God causes suffering, how this suffering does not negate his goodness, and how we are to respond to it. Part three will recognize the free will God grants us, the inevitable consequences of such an act, and how God then responds to us. Taken together, I hope to create a more complete paradigm through which we may see and understand God, refusing to accept easy answers and half-truths. There is no doubt that my synthesis is incomplete and will need further adaptations, but I hope that it may add to each of your own perceptions of God.

Continue to Part 2

7 Comments on “Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 1

  1. Casey, you have me on tenterhooks. I didn’t realize that suffering is still such an open question. I anxiously await Parts II and III.

  2. Hi Casey,
    There is a wonderful , kind uncle of yours who has said, “how could a loving God permit any small child to be sexually abused?” This is a serious question that is difficult to answer – the only response I have been able to give is that God permits free will and he permits it to all of us – even the person inflicting the atrocity. Even the greatest of sinners has free will that God does not take away – all the while desiring for that person to experience HIS love and be converted. In the same time, God is suffering along with the child because he loves each and every one of us…especially the children. God suffers when we suffer. But this answer seems insufficient. Can you add anything to this question?
    Love, Aunt Mary

  3. Casey,
    You may wish to share this with Aunt Mary and/or include it one of your future posts. Feel free to copy & paste into an email. I was violated as a teenager by a parishioner from my church. It took until my late 20’s to come to forgive the man from my heart. It took a lot of prayer on my part and a whole lot more grace on God’s part, but it was something I knew I had to do. Each time I prayed the Our Father, I felt like a hypocrite when I got to “forgive us our trespasses as we for give those who trespass against us.” Eventually, it came down to separating the sin from the sinner and realizing that we all do stupid stuff. Some of us just do stupider stuff than others. While I have never done anything so grievous, God expects more of me, so my little sins aren’t any less offensive to God.
    Since I forgave that man, I have been able to forgive anything. Spiritually, that’s a great place to be. It doesn’t matter what anybody does to me, they’re forgiven. Learning forgiveness has been a tremendous grace.
    Psychological healing, however, took quite a bit longer. After the friars turned our parish over to the diocese in 2008, a young Polish priest was assigned to my church as a parochial vicar for just a brief while. We hit it off very well. One day after daily mass, he and I got to talking about forgiveness. I told him what had happened to me, how I had come to forgive the man, and how now I can forgive anything. Then I said, “So, spiritually, welcome to the best place a soul could possibly be, and psychologically welcome to my F***ed-up life.” He looked at me clearly pained by my story, quiet for a moment, and then said, “No suffering in this life makes sense unless you join it to that of Christ.”
    The next day at daily mass as our pastor got to Communion and was breaking up the large Host, I let myself go to that dark place, and joined my suffering to Christ’s. I saw the brokenness of my own life in the breaking of the Bread, and I was just starting to cry, when I heard God say to me (in a thought), “Yes but it’s in Christ, in the Eucharist, that you are made whole.” In one moment of Divine grace, it was instantaneous healing. I no longer have any pain associated with what happened to me. It’s just something that happened now, just a neutral feeling memory, like so many other things in life.
    Later in life, I made a Facebook friend who knew little to nothing of Jesus, and had been violated by her father as a teenager. I shared my story with her, and have been teaching her about the Lord ever since. It hasn’t all taken firm root yet, but I believe with God’s grace it will. Please keep her in your prayers.
    I don’t believe that God wanted me to be violated, but I do believe that God can take any circumstance, no matter how evil, and turn it to good for His glory if only we allow Him to share and enter our broken lives.
    All the pain, was more than worth the healing. I am the most blessed person on Earth.
    Pax et bonem, et some not so bonem, but okay now.
    Mary Louise 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 <—Stampeding herd of smileys.

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