Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why does a good God allow suffering?

In an email I received just today, a non-Catholic friend of mine reported, “A very good friend of mine, her dad’s a rancher, & he fell off a flatbed truck & broke his neck & is mostly paralyzed now & in terrible pain constantly now, next week moving from rehab to the VA. It’s heartbreaking. Very hard on my friend. What can prayer do for that, huh?”

Before you get huffy, let me tell you that the question wasn’t meant to be sarcastic. I don’t know, and won’t presume to guess, where she is on her spiritual journey. But she is respectful of other religions, even as she struggles with the tough questions … as do we all, if we possess sufficient reflection.

The problem of suffering is one such question: “How can a benevolent God allow people to suffer?” In fact, if you equate suffering with evil, you can see it ties into the logical problem of evil. At some point, every philosophical and religious system must directly deal with suffering and give some answer to it; otherwise, it’s not worth holding.

The problem starts when we assume that a benevolent God would not allow people to suffer. As I’ve pointed out before, such an assumption takes for granted that a benevolent God would have no higher priorities than making sure we’re happy and comfortable, that those higher priorities would not ultimately be better for us. We’re not God, so we can have no real understanding how being omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent would actually affect our decision trees.

Here’s another logical difficulty: If we have no fixed, absolute good—if good and evil are subjective—then we have no objective grounds on which to judge suffering evil. More to the point, to call God “benevolent” or “malicious” would mean nothing of substance. But if there is such an objective standard, such that it’s encoded into the DNA of the universe, then the God responsible for that encoding can’t be judged uninterested in human behavior—He must be good in order to desire us to do good. (See “The Euthyphro dilemma”.)

While there are natural events which cause suffering of an undeniably evil nature—consider Haiti—evil, being a parasite concept in the same way that darkness is parasitic on the knowledge of light, doesn’t succeed in being evil to the same degree that good succeeds in being good. The earthquake, for instance, caused great loss of life, destruction, starvation and disease; but it also enabled a tremendous outpouring of charity and mercy, with many acts of personal heroism to help the afflicted.

Think of a fractured leg: To set it, the doctor must cause the patient even more pain than she suffers; then, while it heals, there’s usually discomfort and minor suffering. Or of exercise: When you wake up the next morning with stiff muscles, that tells you the muscles got a good workout.

A lot of the personal characteristics we admire in others aren’t developed in comfort and happiness, but through struggle, sorrow and loss. People often learn compassion through their own suffering, as well as perseverance, charity and mercy.

But we also suffer because we sin. We suffer for the sins of others against us; we suffer for the sins we commit against others and ourselves.

For instance, my besetting sin is Gluttony. As a result of it, I am obese, which has led to numerous health issues. In a more abstract way, it has led me to take more than I need, which (in theory at least) takes away from others who have less. Because of my sin, I suffer, in a way that merits no pity.

Now, as I spoke of in “Do we have a right to miracles?” Jesus didn’t come to do away with suffering. While it’s true alleviated some instances of suffering, he didn’t come to heal in that sense; one even gets the sense in the synoptic Gospels that his miracles came almost by way of illustrating points rather than “art for art’s sake”.

Jesus came to die. This is the linchpin fact that brings together both Christmas and Easter; the road from Bethlehem to the empty tomb had to pass by the hill called Golgotha. Furthermore, the Son of Man died in obedience to the will of the Father. He fully dreaded the pain and ignominy of his death, and openly prayed that the cup would pass him by, yet still managed to utter the terrible words that committed him to the Cross: “Yet not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk 22:42).

And on that terrible Friday, God united with Man in suffering, in pain, abandonment and agony of the soul: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani (Mk 15:34)?

Again, as I’ve said before, at no point in the New Testament are we promised that true discipleship will be all beer and skittles. But more to the point, even if we reject discipleship, we can’t completely reject suffering without completely rejecting life. Nor is all suffering so evil that we’re justified in whatever we do to minimize or eliminate it. Evil remains evil, even when done out of misguided compassion.

In true prayer, while we pray that God grant us our request, we recognize that ultimately we have no power over God, that our relationship is de facto unequal. There is no way we can ask without recognizing that God has the power and right to say “No”, for reasons only He can finally know, according to criteria at which we can only guess.

So we pray that God will give us the strength, wisdom and hope to change what we can rightfully change, and endure what we can’t, even as we ask Him to grant that which only He can give. We also pray for the faith to believe that, whatever He does not do, He refrains from doing for love of us.

Even if we can’t see the love in it.


  1. Oh! I should comment here!

    Excellent. That's just it, at the end. All this stuff just goes on & we have little effect on it. But prayer can change the prayer. My alternate name for God is "IS." I'll suffer less once I get on board with the big scheme, adjust my attitude to quit struggling against the IS & concentrate my energy on the good I can do. Thanks!

  2. I guess a less feeling person could say it all boils down to "Put on your big girl panties and deal with it", but there really is more to it than that. For we are still called to help each other, and it's a good thing to do what's morally licit to help ease someone else's suffering ... even if we suffer in doing so. And it's not wrong to ask for or accept help. But it still comes down to taking up our crosses (Mt 16:24-25).

    The IS ... hmmm. Never thought I'd see an equivalence between "I am who am" and "It is what it is", but it does make some theological sense. :^)=)


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