Why do people suffer?
This question is asked often the context of criticizing the Christian faith such as, “Since God is so loving and merciful, why do innocent people suffer?” Pope Benedict XVI recently gave an answer to one such question this past Good Friday (2011) saying, “I also have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease? And we do not have the answers but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent…” He went on to say that one day we will have the answers but that this time may be far off. So what do we do until then?
This is where redemptive suffering comes into play. Redemptive suffering is suffering that is given meaning where otherwise it might not. It is suffering that is not in vain, but instead something good comes out of it no matter how bad it is. For the greatest example we turn to Jesus’ crucifixion. He was the ultimate innocent who never sinned once in His life, yet he was abandoned, spit upon, tortured, stripped of his clothing in front of a crowd, crucified, and died all for righteous deeds. Yet from that terrible suffering and terrible sin of humanity (Deicide – the killing of God Himself) good came out of it. The “redemptiveness” of this act comes from the washing away of our sins. The proof is in Jesus’ resurrection.
Though God could have chosen another means of saving us, he used the worst thing that could ever happen and out of it came the best thing that could ever happen. Some may not accept this though, citing that Jesus chose to do this of His own free will. Other things can cause suffering to us as well so how do we reconcile that?
Suffering at the Hands of Others
Evil comes upon others due to the misguided free-willed sins of others. Terrible things such as stealing, abuse, murder, and rape all happen due to the sins of those who chose to inflict them on the victims. The innocents who are subjected to these horrendous actions are often affected deeply causing them to lose hope and dignity. But they need not lose hope, because even though they were unwillingly subjected to these things, God promises us redemption and retribution by His own hand.
“Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."” (Romans 12:19 NAB)
In Romans 12:19 we see particularly in the last part that God will repay our enemies with His vengeance. This does not mean that God desires our enemies to fall, nor that God wants them to perish:
“’Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?’” says the Lord GOD. ‘Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?’” (Ezekiel 18:23 NAB)
Other times it might not even be a person who causes suffering.
Suffering at the Hands of Natural Disasters
Recent earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other “acts of God” seem to also be the loss of hope for many, some even attributing these to God as punishment. Truly, would the God of infinite mercy and love send these disasters to hurt His children? What good would that do? God desires the conversion of sinners, not their destruction as seen in the previous quotation.
Then what redemption can come from this suffering? Great amounts of people donate money and items and their time and strength to help people in need. What greater example of God’s love that God’s people (and even people who may not believe in God) acting according to God’s will to help those who are afflicted, displaced, and suffering? We are the hands of God; we are a part of Jesus when we help another whether we believe in Him or not.
Where is God?
If you have ever asked, where was God when I was afflicted? Where was God when I was suffering? He was on the cross praying for you and dying for you so that your suffering would have meaning and that your pain would not be for nothing. Any suffering that you have to endure here on Earth will be paid back to you in heaven as partially referenced to in the Beatitudes (found in Matthew 5 (NAB)) among other places in the Bible.
Concerning God’s will, disasters, and the effects of sin
It is never God’s will that bad things happen, though why He allows them to happen may elude us sometimes. We do know, however, how it all first started. The moment Adam and Eve first sinned against God (thus bringing sin upon their descendants, us) sin has been with us. As such, sin’s inherited effects are also with us. The effects of sin include every kind of suffering imaginable. So why doesn’t God just take these effects away? Here is a parable Jesus told explaining this situation:
24 He proposed another parable to them. "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. 26 When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. 27 The slaves of the householder came to him and said, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?' 28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' His slaves said to him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 29 He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’'"
In this parable, the seed is a metaphor for the people of the world, the enemy is the devil, master of sin and temptation. The weeds are sinful thoughts, actions, and depending how you interpret it, sinful people. The man who sowed his seed in this parable is God, not wanting to cut down the crop because there are weeds corrupting the crop. In the end (harvest time) God will tell His harvesters to individually pluck the weeds and burn them getting rid of them. He will then take the good wheat and gather them into His barn (heaven).
In this particular parable Jesus does not address why the weeds aren’t just taken (as God likely can do), but there are some logical thesis’s that make sense of this. To list them would take another article or two, so I may address them at a later date. Until then, they can be found simply enough by doing a search (particularly around http://www.catholic.com.) Until the harvest though, we have the prospect of having our suffering be redeemed.
How can we participate in redemptive suffering when we are afflicted?
In the same way that Jesus offered His suffering for our sins, we can offer our own minor and major sufferings as a sacrifice that God can use to (for example) for the conversion of sinners, lessen someone’s time or suffering on Earth or in purgatory (whether we know the person or not), or for anything according to God’s will.
So if you are sick, have a headache, experience a loss, suffer from an impediment, are bullied, or suffer in any greater or lesser way, instead of complaining offer it up for God to do something good out of the suffering so that it may not be in vain.
16 The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. 18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Romans 8:16-18 NAB)
May this and indeed all Jesus promised give us hope that our sufferings and the sufferings of everyone across the globe will not be in vain, but instead be used by God for the good of us and for the good of all His people.
Miscellaneous verses and Quotes:
33 “…I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world." (John 16:33, Jesus, NAB)
More may be added and more can be suggested.
All verses were taken straight from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's website (http://www.usccb.org) and are the New American Bible translation used in the American English mass.