Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Problem of Suffering

Readings for Sunday, June 9/ 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
1 Kings 17:17-24
Psalm 30:2, 4-6, 11-13
Galatians 1:11-19
Luke 7:11-17

As we come to this 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time we hear these two striking stories of people being raised from the dead, each of them being the only son of a widow. In these two stories we are shown the reality of a God who is good and active in our lives. In the Gospel reading we can especially see this as Jesus himself is said to have pity upon the woman who having already lost her husband has now lost her only son. He showed compassion. And for all of us the story is the same: our God loves us, is compassionate, desires our good, and is active in every moment down to the seemingly most insignificant details. As I was reflecting on this reality something kept coming up in my heart: if indeed we have a God who loves us and is compassionate and involved in our lives, which is true, then why is there still suffering? Why is it that in the past few months I’ve done a number of funerals for men who left behind children much younger than I am now? Why is it that as a hospital chaplain I had to sit with a man as he watched his 7-year-old son die? Why is it that some people experience not one major illness or setback but many all at once? And if not some major tragedy like that, then still there are countless other sufferings and trials that come. We all know it and we all have to deal with this question in our own hearts how the loving God can permit such things to happen.

The difficulty in understanding this is only intensified by the approach to suffering of some of our fellow Christians. So many preach a gospel of prosperity, that if we do what Jesus wants and the Bible says then everything is going to work out for us. We will be prosperous in our finances, have good health, no problems, and everything will be wonderful. And if everything isn’t wonderful? Obviously we’re not living right! This is the message that we hear from the lips of the woman in our first reading today. Upon seeing her son dead, she turns to Elijah to blame him. This was because the prophet was a person of incredible power in ancient Israel; they truly represented God. If a prophet blessed you, it was a sign of God’s blessing. And likewise a curse was God cursing you. So when she points out that he came and showed her guilt, she implicitly says that he saw her guilt and cursed her by killing her son. We see this mindset also in the gospel story of the man born blind. The disciples see him and immediately asked Jesus “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” In other words, ‘he is suffering, so he obviously did something to deserve it.’ And if that is not enough, we also have the conviction of some that if we have enough faith Jesus can heal anything. The power of Jesus to heal anything is absolutely true and we must have faith in that. But one cannot make the step, as some do, to think that if healing doesn’t take place then we lack faith because ‘if we had faith he would be healed.’ Not being healed doesn’t mean we lack faith. And enduring suffering doesn’t always mean that we’ve done something wrong.

The reality is something much more mysterious – that in the mind of God suffering is permitted for some greater purpose that we cannot yet know. We can get glimpses of it, certainly, but not the full picture. For instance, God sometimes permits suffering so as to change the one who suffers, to make them more Christlike. We can think of St. Paul with his ‘thorn in the flesh’ that kept him humble. But I bet each of us has a personal story of our own where some suffering in the past changed the way we lived and responded to things in the future. It had a purpose in the mind of God. And just as it can have a purpose for ourselves, it can also have a purpose for others. I have seen it time and again in my own life that things that have happened to me in the past later on happened to someone close to me and I was able to speak to them of my experience and give a word of hope and consolation that what they were enduring at the time would not always be the case. Again, we cannot know for certain why God permits sufferings great and small in our lives, but the reality is that He does and He does for a reason. It is not for us to understand fully here on earth, but rather to do our best to stay close to Him in the midst of those sufferings.

So how do we stay close to the Lord? How is it that we are supposed to respond when suffering comes our way? The first step is simply to acknowledge the pain. If we hide it away and act like everything is fine when in fact that world is falling down around us, it only hurts us all the more. But if we acknowledge the pain and bring it before God, it gives Him the opportunity to come into our lives and work with it. Sometimes that will mean taking the pain away and if that is the case, then praise God! But sometimes it is not the case, and we are invited to continue our journey with the pain present to us. In those cases, we must still praise God and then ask for His grace to carry the cross. This is one reason that I particularly enjoy reading Psalm 13 and 22 in times of trouble. Both of them go through the full emotions of one in pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”, “How long with you hide your face from me?”, “How long shall my enemy reign over me?”, “They gather around me and mock me.” It voices the reality of what is going on in our hearts. And yet at the end of each of them it turns to a praise of God who despite everything is clearly still at work somewhere in the midst of it all. That’s the place we’re called to get to: trusting that He is indeed at work despite what we can see, feel, or experience in the moment. To help with that I find it helpful for all of us to reflect often upon the crucifixion of Our Lord.

The passion of Christ is by far the most unjust act in all of human history. The one who had committed no sin, who deserved our worship, was mocked, beaten, spat up, crucified, and left there til His death. Imagine all of that through the eyes of Mary, who had known since the Annunciation from Gabriel that Jesus was the Son of God, the Savior. Imagine the thoughts of her mind as she beheld her God and her beloved son enduring the most humiliating death possible. The test of faith in that moment was like none other. What seemed to be the most hopeless of times, as we now, was not the end. Christ conquered death, raised up from the dead, and opened heaven for us to enjoy God for all eternity. What seemed to all to be absolute unjust suffering was transformed by God to be the salvation of humanity. And in a similar way God sometimes seeks to work in our lives, permitting some pain or trial knowing that He has something greater in store. He is always there for us and always doing something, we are never alone. C.S. Lewis adds to this reality of God’s presence in our pain. In his book The Problem of Pain he says, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” He shouts in our pain because He knows that in the midst of it we must try to focus on Him. That’s why any time we experience some pain what do we do? We go to Church, go to the chapel, pick up our rosary, read the Bible, or seek out some inspirational connection that will bring us into union with God. We’ve been hardwired that way, to draw near to God in our suffering so that we can do our best to trust in Him and there find consolation and the courage to bear our cross.

We are never alone. Our God is always with us, always there to care for us, working even in the smallest ways to bring about something good for us and for others. He loves us infinitely. And yet, in His mysterious ways He permits us to endure sufferings here in this life. The consolation above all of this is that if we persist in carrying the cross we can be assured of the eternal life won for us, where there is no pain or suffering but only the joy of beholding God’s face and rejoicing in the heavenly feast for eternity.