Why Do We Suffer?

“Why do we suffer? Why does religion say that our pain, hardships, and the insults we face is a good thing?”

What can one say regarding suffering? It is difficult to give a final answer on the question of suffering because each instance of suffering is new. Because only the person who suffers knows how it feels to suffer. Because some forms of suffering are so extreme and unimaginable.

I think you would have to be God Himself to be able to explain each and every instance of suffering. Sometimes we just have to cast ourselves into the arms of God in trust, and abandon ourselves to the Heart and Mercy of God, because sometimes we can make no sense of the suffering.

As a true Mother the Church helps us, in principle, to put suffering in context, and nurtures us, in practice, on the grace and truth of God. I offer this reflection on human suffering based on the teaching of the Church in the hope that it may help someone, somewhere.

God does not want us to suffer but we (our first parents) abandoned God and brought suffering upon ourselves. So we have to endure our (limited) share of suffering until we are fully reconciled to God, and this as a kind of necessary path by which we return to God. It is not that God chose suffering for the human race; it is that we chose the path of pain and suffering for ourselves. And God’s response is to descend into the realm of human suffering, to try to restore us to the gift of happiness, rather than to allow us to perish in the misery that we had brought upon ourselves.

To put it more explicitly, our first parents rebelled against God (cf. Genesis, chapters 1-3). We abandoned God’s friendship and blessings, removed ourselves from the beatitude and happiness that God was freely offering, and merited enormous suffering and pain. If we observe the large scale suffering, pain and death that has marked human history we might begin to get a glimpse into the serious nature of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God.

Even in the face of this grave or “original” sin of our first parents, God did not give up on the human race. In His goodness and mercy, God made provision for our Redemption, despite the fact that human beings had chosen the path of suffering (see Genesis, chapter 3). God resolved to send His Divine Son, in the form of the Son of Man, to redeem and restore the children of Adam and Eve.

Jesus Christ came to take away the greater portion of suffering for us, that is, He rescued us from eternal separation from God (or eternal damnation), so that our measure of suffering is limited in time and is replaced by eternal happiness in Heaven, if we are faithful and true.

In His Sacred Passion, Jesus has changed the meaning and value of human suffering. Left to our own resources and devices, our suffering would have driven us further and further away from God, but Christ’s Passion has transformed the meaning of our suffering and given redemptive value to human suffering (compare with Colossians 1:24).

As we turn to the Lord with confidence and trust, Jesus is present with us in the midst of suffering to alleviate our suffering or to transform its effects or to strengthen us to carry our suffering, or all of the above.

Some suffering is unnecessary–we bring it on ourselves due to our negligence, ignorance or malice. Some suffering is a result of God’s justice and is meant to correct us so that we do not fall into greater evil. Some suffering is redemptive in that by participating in the suffering of Christ we help to save other souls. Some suffering is alleviated by Divine intervention in the form of miracles or supernatural grace so as to remind us of God’s Love, or miracles given to us as we seek the Face of God and draw closer to Him in prayer. All suffering has been endured by God Himself in the human form with which the Son of God clothed Himself, Jesus Christ, for our salvation.

It is true that suffering in time is rewarded with glory in eternity: “…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)

It is also true that some saints so loved to suffer with Christ, their love of Christ was so great, that suffering became sweet for them. In this sense, they could no longer suffer because they loved to suffer for the sake of their Beloved Lord. St Therese of Lisieux, for example, arrived at this high degree of holiness.

All of the above we know by faith or by reason. And as it goes, faith enlightens or illumines the human mind so that we are lifted to new levels of knowledge, so that human reason is ennobled by the light of faith, so that reason can increasingly participate in the truth and more deeply engage the truth. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth.” –Pope St John Paul II (Encyclical: ‘Faith and Reason’). St John Paul also wrote a letter “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering”.

Nonetheless, sometimes the everyday confrontation with different kinds and degrees of suffering leaves us baffled or confused. Sometimes the suffering is too great. Sometimes we cannot explain why this or that thing happened. It is then that our faith is tested. It is then that our trust in God is most needed. We may be tempted to doubt God or to turn our backs on Him. When Jesus’ teaching became so difficult that many walked away from Him, He turned to the twelve Apostles and asked, “Do you want to go away as well?” We will be most fortunate if we are able to turn to Jesus and say with St Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (St John, Chapter 6: 68).

It is also very interesting to note what Pope Benedict XVI said when asked why suffering is a part of human life:

“Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love–this exodus, this going out of oneself–is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.” –From “God And The World”, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).

These words of Pope Benedict sound so deep and ring so true with me!

Above all, I love to look at the example of the saints and learn from them. There is a beautiful and very deep passage from the Diary of St Faustina on suffering. I find that I often return to this passage and continue to draw truth and grace from its deep wellsprings. So I will share it here with you:

“At the same time, I saw a certain person [Father Sopocko] and, in part, the condition of his soul and the ordeals God was sending him. His sufferings were of the mind and in a form so acute that I pitied him and said to the Lord, “Why do you treat him like that?” And the Lord answered, For the sake of his triple crown. And the Lord also gave me to understand what unimaginable glory awaits the person who resembles the suffering Jesus here on earth. That person will resemble Jesus in His glory. The Heavenly Father will recognize and glorify our soul to the extent that He sees in us a resemblance to His Son. I understood that this assimilation into Jesus is granted to us while we are here on earth. I see pure and innocent souls upon whom God has exercised His justice; these souls are the victims who sustain the world and who fill up what is lacking in the Passion of Jesus. They are not many in number. I rejoice greatly that God has allowed me to know such souls.”

(Diary of St Faustina, paragraph 604)

Finally, a personal word from the Lord as I conclude this letter. Just hours before He was about to be arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gave a long discourse to His disciples in order to, among other things, prepare them for the great suffering He and they were about to experience. And at a certain point Jesus turned to them and said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

© LG Sleiman 2023

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