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The mystery of human suffering: a Christian understanding
In our attempt to explain or understand our own or our neighbours' suffering in this life, we probably should start and end with the words of God to the Prophet Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways - it is Yahweh who speaks" (Isaiah 55:18). So how can we really ever know for sure the answer to the big question: "Why do we suffer?"
God reinforces this view in the Biblical story of Job, when He scolds all the wise men who proudly sought to answer why God allowed Job to suffer so much. God says to the wise men, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?" (Job 38:4); and "Has your arm the strength of God's?" (Job 40:9).
In other words how can our littleness know anything? To quote the Biblical directive, "Be still and know I am God" (Psalm 46:10). It is, then, for the reason of God's power and authority that we must bow to His wisdom in such matters as suffering. Maybe this is why God has so few friends, as Saint Teresa of Avila once famously suggested.
Nevertheless God loves and guides his theologians and thinkers. We are therefore invited to surmise about and contemplate the reasons for suffering so long as we conclude in humility, "Thy will be done". After all, the greatest of all the Church theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his last year said he received visions on many of the mysteries upon which he had written leading him to conclude that his writings were of little value: that's humility God's style!
Sin, the breaking of God's law, sin to the present time, has placed man in this situation. If suffering or sacrifice - the two are interchangeable - and death were not a punishment or a penance upon mankind in order to pay its debt to God, then we would all still be in the Garden of Eden and Jesus need not have gone to the Cross.
However, Heaven's gates have been opened through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. So suffering will always bring forth reward if we attach all our fear and pain to the Cross of Christ. It is like us saying, "Me too Father, I am in the shadow of the Cross". It does not mean we must or can be heroes or saints in our suffering; but just be aware of its favour before God and trust Him.
So to look at suffering from an earthly perspective will give no answers, create frustration, and ultimately snuff hope. Rather, in our attempt to deal with, even explain suffering we must use as our touchstone heaven or eternal life in the love of God.
When we fairly ask: "Why do some suffer more?", remember we all have our cross to carry. When it seems some are given a heavier cross than others, be thankful for such a blessing and recall Christ saying, "When a man has had a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him" (Luke 12:48).
The most holy Saints were not spared suffering by God just because of their great love and devotion to Him; more often the opposite was true. For example look to the lives of the martyrs or to the lifelong bad health endured by the likes of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The much-loved Mary Magdalene was inconsolable when witnessing the Crucifixion and her extreme distress is displayed on the Stations of the Cross in churches around the world.
Yet they all took on lovingly their suffering for their own sins and the sins of others in order to save souls. In short, would not loving parents happily suffer and even die for the good health of their child? Then what of Eternity! Jesus said to Saint Faustina, "You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone".
While we are not saints, we can do the same. If we offer anything to God or everything to God, nothing big or small, nothing precious or worthless, nothing exciting or mundane, nothing happy or sad will be wasted. It is all accepted by God and multiplied back in overwhelming graces, to us, to the whole world and to all the souls in Purgatory. Such is our power and relationship with God on this earth.
Indeed we are told by the saints that if given the choice to do our suffering here on earth or later in Purgatory then take the former, for it is easier, in fact a blessing. Saint Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, said, "the purifying purgatorial suffering will be, in its kind, more severe than the greatest trial on earth."
Our suffering is not just a penance for our salvation and the salvation of others, it also works to bring us closer to God's love, thus preparing us for eternity. Suffering forces the soul to be more detached from this world's attractions and more abandoned to God. It may be for some, or all of us, the only way He can get our attention.
Depths of love in the soul will be fathomed, unknown before, unique and personal between each soul and God. To Saint Padre Pio, Jesus said, "Beneath the Cross, one learns love and I do not give this to everyone but only to those souls who are dearest to me".
It was one of the Uruguayan rugby team survivors of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes in South America who said many years after his miraculous survival that he would trade the rest of his days on earth to again feel as close to God as he did on the Andes mountain top under the worst and most hopeless of conditions.
It was Jesus who assures us he would have suffered all of the passion of the crucifixion, all, for just one person's entry into Heaven. This is not just a measure of Christ's love for every individual but a fair measure of how great Heaven is and how the reward of eternity swamps the pain of suffering.
However we are assured by Jesus that we will never be given any more than we can bear or carry. With His help we will never be broken under the weight of trial. "I will give you courage for anything I ask you to endure".
In our suffering we can be angry, at least initially, with God for such a visitation upon us at such a time, and in such a way. In other words, "Why me Lord?" Of course we can be angry but not abusive. Being abusive will not get us anywhere and will keep us in permanent estrangement. This is not good for the health of the body or soul.
Our anger is really a crying out to God for help to allay our fears. If Jesus did it so can we. He cried out on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mt 27:46). As Saint John of the Cross tells us, it was at this point Jesus' soul went to the depths of despair and suffering. It was for us that he so suffered. He can meet us at any depth as he knows how we feel. Of course his Father did not abandon him but heard his cry and his appeal for mankind. His father glorified him, along with all mankind and all due to the sacrifice on the Cross borne of love.
So we come back to our touchstone, eternal life that is Heaven.
To enter eternal life we will be judged on our love, charity and sacrifice to God. All three are interrelated. It is known only to God how he will assess us on all three and how He will apply His mercy on all three.
Details of references are available from AD2000 on request.
Julian McGauran served in the Australian Senate from 1987 to 2011. He is a qualified chartered accountant and company secretary.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 25 No 3 (April 2012), p. 13
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