Viewpoint: If God is Good Why is There So Much Suffering in the World?

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Of all the agonized questions posed to me over the years, none is more difficult to answer than the problem of suffering. Here is my attempt at an answer.

According to the Book of Genesis, the world God created was the perfect world of paradise. But with the sin of Adam and Eve, the world fell from its original perfection, and the whole order which God created unraveled. Human history, both at the human and natural levels, has since then experienced suffering, evil, and tragedy.

In his saving ministry, Jesus came to reverse the world of Adam and to restore humanity and creation to their original order of blessedness. Jesus did this through his death and resurrection, when he broke the chains of death and opened the way for the ascent of humanity and history toward the new creation.

Humanity and the world live now in the “in between,” between the original paradise and the new creation of God’s Kingdom. Though evil and suffering continue in the world, they no longer have the ultimate word and are not the final chapter of human history. Human life does not end in the grave, and human history is not a tragedy; it has a glorious ending.

Thus, we live today in an imperfect world in which creation is unfinished and incomplete. Suffering is part and parcel of creation groaning toward perfection. If God were to intervene in the processes of nature, he would short-cut the whole course of history, and he has chosen not to do that. This causes many to lose faith. The Christian can only conclude that God has his own good reasons for allowing suffering, and that in time we will fully understand God’s mysterious ways.

If we cannot answer the question of why God allows suffering, we can answer the question of where God is in the face of  suffering. People often ask: Why has God abandoned me? Why does he let me and those I love suffer? The truth is that God is with humanity in the midst of suffering. When people suffer, the Son of God suffers. (A number of modern theologians have spoken of “the suffering God.”)

We should not see Christ only in heaven at the right hand of the Father; we should see him in the pains of suffering humanity. The philosopher Blaise Pascal could say that “Christ suffers until the end of the world.” Thus, we should not separate God and human suffering. They belong together and will as long as history continues.

We can never forget that in Jesus Christ, God has taken suffering to himself. Calvary continues through history. But if Calvary leads to the resurrection, then the end of the world will be a glorious one in which all suffering will be overcome.

That is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so crucial to Christians. Christ is not disconnected from human suffering, but is permanently in the midst of it.

When all is said and done, what those who suffer need most is not a theological explanation about the role of God in human suffering. What they need is the solidarity of their fellow men and women. That is why the Christian response to suffering is not the provision of a theory, but the practice of charity, solidarity, and the practical alleviation of the pain of those in need. Christians are called to be the face and hands of God in times of suffering.

 

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

6 comments

  1. I struggled immensely with this as my husband went through the almost 4 year process of treatments and eventual death as a result of acute myelogenous leukemia. To top that off, I was also working as a lab manager in a small rural hospital 120 miles from my home, driving there every Sunday evening, working 4 10 hour days and going home on weekends to be with him. One evening as I got to the small cabin I was living in in this town where I was managing the lab, I was overcome by the anger I felt, lifted my head up and screamed at the top of my lungs “Why are you doing this you SOB?” I lived with that pain even after my hubby’s death…we had been married 40 years…until I read the excerpt below from an interview Andrea Tornielli from La Stampa did with Papa Francesco on December 10, 2013:

    “You have met with seriously ill children on more than one occasion. What do you have to say about this innocent suffering?

    “One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up”, doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys”. What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.”

    Knowing the gaze of the Lord was with me and did not abandon me even though I screamed at him that he was an SOB helped to heal my soul.

  2. I don’t think the “suffering God” idea works very well as theodicy. Karen Kilby wrote …
    “If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable. If one wants to say that there is any level on which God is responsible for evil or suffering, whether that be by causing it or by permitting it or by creating a world in which it occurs, it is hard to see how God participating in the suffering would diminish the responsibility …”
    http://theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/papers/Kilby_EvilandLimits.pdf

    And, does anyone still believe in a literal Eden where and when everything was completely swell? Evolution would seem to show that this world has always been full of suffering.

  3. I’m almost finished reading the best book I have ever read on this subject: The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil by Christopher Southgate (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 978-0664230906.

  4. I had a very close friend, Debbie, who was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia that clusters around the spine. She was in her early 30’s. She had not done much with her life outside of partying and working from a fast food career into an excellent teller at a bank. She had some friends and a few very close friends. Debbie had always fought with her weight. When she went to the doctor because her leg was turning blue and purple, rather than delving deep into possible reasons, he chalked it up to her being “fat” and told her to lose weight. She got worse and eventually went to a different doctor. It was leukemia and it was now advanced.
    She was angry. Angry at the doctor, angry at the disease, and very angry at God. Then she decided it wasn’t going to be about her sickness, but what she was going to do with it. She became a beloved mentor to other cancer patients in the oncology ward where she received treatments. She joined them on their own journey. She was highly respected by the entire medical staff. She was transformed. The saint in her came out in a big way.
    I was with her the day she died. Her only ‘fear’ was that no one would come to her funeral… that no one would care. Her funeral was packed with patients, old and new friends, doctors and nurses. Who, on their own, wanted to show this transformed woman just how much they cared.
    I have not questioned God’s plan with suffering since that day. I just trust, with all the faith in my heart, He’s present through it all .

  5. Thanks for the mention of Christopher Southgate … I looked him up and found an interesting article online … http://collegevilleinstitute.org/bearings/debunking-bambi-theology-interview-christopher-southgate/

    I haven’t been a Catholic long, but one of the most disturbing things about it for me is the belief by some that suffering should be accepted, that you can somehow wed your suffering to Jesus’ when he was killed, that if you really love and trust God you won’t be angry or scared or lost when something terrible happens to you. An interesting past discussion on suffering between David Bentley Hart and some Catholics touched on this. You can read the whole thing here … http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2009/09/david-b-harts-discussion-of-suffering.html

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