Apologetic Tracks: Why is there suffering?

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Why is there suffering?

Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, since the entrance of sin into the world, suffering is part of the human experience. God said to Eve:"I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." (Gen 3:16) And to Adam he said: "Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread. "(Gen 3:17-19)

Pope John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Exhortation on suffering called: Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering)

In it he tells us suffering will always be a mystery and a question that human beings will seek to understand through their natural reason, but will fall shor. We may understand when someone suffers because of his own actions. But when others, who are innocent, also suffer, that defies rational understanding.

This is how the Pope begins to set the stage in looking at this mystery."In order to perceive the true answer to the "why" of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the "why" of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love. In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering . . . we must above all accept the light of revelation. . . . Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ." (SD 13)

We can only begin to glimpse into the purpose of suffering and its role in our journey, other than destruction, if we see suffering in the life of Jesus. Though innocent, he is condemned to the death of the cross. He is scourged, beaten, crowned with thorns, ridiculed and mocked, forced to carry his cross, stripped of his tattered, blood stained garments, nailed to the cross, left hanging for three hours gasping for air in a slow and painful death. To what purpose? To reconcile us back to the Father by sacrificing his life in our place, so that we may have eternal life.

There is a good that can come from the evil of suffering, it is love. Here is how the Pope states it:

"We could say that suffering . . . is present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s "I" on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love that stirs in his heart and actions." (SD 29)
Out of love for the Father and for us, Jesus embraced the will of the Father even to the death of the cross, as Paul tells us. And that love, through suffering, brought the good which is our redemption.  

Not focused on self
In the same Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us that Jesus, though he was God, emptied himself of his divinity and took the form of a slave. He embraced the form of a creature in relationship to God the Creator. What Adam and Eve would not do, submit to the will of God, Jesus, in his humanity patterned for us. Here is how the Holy Father stated it:

"To suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self." (SD 23)

Suffering leads to growth
Suffering can be seen as negative and debilitating. At the same time, it can be seen as transforming and renewing. Just as an operation may be painful, the beneficial healing that occurs afterwards make the time of suffering purposeful. Jesus put it this way: "When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world." (Jn 16:21-22)

Pope John Paul had this to say about the transforming purpose of suffering.

"Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation." (SD 26)

Sin can result in suffering, but not every suffering is caused by sin
There are consequences to every action. The same is true when we sin. If one drives in a drunken state, an accident may occur that causes the death or injury of the person and others. The sin of one person affects the lives of many. It is not a punishment as much as a consequence. But we can’t automatically conclude that every suffering is the result of sin. Jesus made this clear in the healing of the man born blind.
"As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.
‘"(Jn 9:1-3)

Jesus manifested the works of God and the glory of God through his own sufferings for our sins. Through his death of the cross–the cruelest of all suffering–Jesus saved us from the eternal suffering of alienation from God, that justice required for our sins. Here are the words of Pope John Paul II:

"The only begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection." (SD 14)

Called to share in redemptive sufferings of Christ

There is a mystery in suffering that is only known through revelation. This is how St. Peter states it: "For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.

"(1 Pet 2:19-21)

St. Paul went further. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church." ( Col 1:24)

By God’s design, we are called to unite our sufferings to those of Christ, so that they may have value and purpose beyond the moment. Paul further stated this in Romans 8:18: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us."

Our Holy Father puts it this way:

"Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. . . . Christ has accomplished the world’s redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ." (SD 24)

Suffering: a call to embrace the mystery of the cross

Realizing that after his death, suffering will continue to be part of the human existence, Jesus invited all to embrace the cross of the moment as a sign of being a true disciple. As he didn’t avoid the cross, so we are called not to avoid the crosses of our journey. Listen to the words of the Pope.

"Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. The answer that comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him." (SD 26)

In the end, the question is still there. "Why is there suffering?" It is a mystery that in and with Christ I have the answer. For some it may seem useless and for others it may still be viewed as a punishment. But for one who has embraced the life of Jesus, it is a path to a greater existence beyond suffering.












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