I have a dear friend who recently shared with me a worry that her life has been too smooth, too free of pain and strife. She is a wonderful person—kind, deeply caring, with a heart so large that she feels the pain of others as her own. She’s had a long and profoundly good life of prayer and service—and seen her share of loss—but because she grew up in a decent family and was spared major tragedies of illness and injury, persecution, war, famine, or crime, she wonders if God expects more of her than of those who have been so burdened and if she has delivered on those expectations. And she wonders why God hasn’t sent her way the trials that He sends to His beloved.
I haven’t stopped thinking about her since she told me about her fears.
These ideas are common in the Christian world: that God will give us all that we can handle but no more, and that He afflicts the ones He loves. I have heard this many times—it is so common that it’s become a platitude. More often than not, we dig up this bit of worldview when we deal with grief or hardship, holding someone’s hand or praying for relief. There’ve been times when I myself have found consolation in the thought. What I haven’t before considered is where this worldview leaves the beloved of God who haven’t been terribly afflicted. When we say that pain is a sort of signal of being somehow chosen by God, are we implying that He is not paying attention to the healthy? When our world crashes around us and we say God gives us as much burden to carry as we can handle, are we implying that people whose worlds are still standing are weak?
Of course, not. At least, not consciously. Of course, neither thought is intended to denigrate the relationship between God and anybody else. They are kind thoughts, encouraging by nature. I think they have grown out of our attempts to make sense of the pain and injustice we encounter in the world every day—the uncertainty and loss we live, the bad things that happen to good people. These concepts have grown out of the problem of evil. Century after century, humanity looked heavenward and cried, Why? And for those whose worldview included a personal God, this was one answer. It’s not a bad answer: there is meaning in it and there is precedent.
Throughout history, many of the best of humankind have been steeped in tragedy: exiled and persecuted and murdered, and they were painfully ill and went mad, so when we suffer we look back and find ourselves in enviable company. And we look around at those we know and see it too: wise and kind and courageous individuals who battle cancers and loss of children, who flee war zones and find it in their hearts to smile and to channel their insights and their compassion into helping the suffering others. Then we say, “Good people suffer. We can see it clearly. Suffering is not a curse. It must have a blessed meaning to it.”
The human psyche does not tolerate randomness. We seek to discover order and meaning in all that is, so since the dawn of our history we have offered explanations for why things happen. Suffering especially. The theodicy of the Hebrew Bible evolved over a thousand years: They started with a straightforward rule that the good would be rewarded, and the bad, punished. A down-to-earth people, the Hebrews expected the reward and punishment to show within a lifetime and, obviously, kept running into the incomprehensible fact of life: bad things did happen to good people, and while it was possible these “good” people were secretly bad, there was no denying that some clearly bad people lived out long lives in health and wealth, and no mighty hand of God struck them down.
They revised their understanding of theodicy—God’s justice—to extend to progeny and corporate identity. Reward and punishment would take several generations and extend to family, tribe, the whole nation. Late biblical philosophers—think book of Job—added folds of complication to the worldview, warning that sometimes we just don’t understand the big picture. But all in all, Christianity took its root from a tradition that at the time still firmly believed that suffering was punishment, a sign of preexisting sin—yours, your family’s, your nation’s.
It is this belief that Jesus fought in the gospel where he healed a blind man. He said outright, “No one sinned” to deserve this blindness. Suffering was not about sin. And he healed, person after person. Freed from suffering. Life, good, salvation were not about suffering. He pushed back against it, and his disciples got the message. He suffered and died himself, and the mutilated body of the best of men became the symbol of our faith. Clearly, suffering could not be about sin.
But then… A mutilated and innocent body was the symbol of our faith. Suffering had to be about something, and sin was still the scriptural tradition we had to go on.
Paul came along and drew a line between Adam and Jesus: Adam plunged humanity into the state of sin, and Jesus healed it. Augustine came along and formulated the doctrine of original sin: suffering may not be direct punishment for individual sins, but it results from the wounded human nature, corrupted by the original sin of Adam, perpetuated by humankind. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas came along with theories of satisfaction: death is the penalty for sin, and Christ paid humanity’s debt to God by offering his own life. Twentieth century has seen a rise in distaste for penal theodicies. The more broadly and abstractly we think about the nature of the Divine, the more aware we become of the world’s ubiquitous injustice, the more hesitant we are to blame victims for their misfortunes. The more we rediscover the message of the Gospel: think less about sin and more about forgiveness, less about blame and more about love. Help, healing, and compassion. We return to the Gospel and find Jesus in the thick of the sick and sinful humanity without a hint of judgment. And when he yells at people, it’s mostly for lack of faith.
Bernard Häring, Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan refuses any theory that implies that God is wrathful or bloodthirsty and reworks the theory of satisfaction from penal substitution (where Christ dies to pay for our sins) to something analogous to the sacrament of reconciliation, where Christ’s death is an expression of his revulsion at sin and of his love for God. Lonergan’s “law of the cross” creates a model of Jesus’s actions that any of us can follow and, by transforming sin-prompted dying into an act accepted out of love, receive the blessing of a new life.
Two thousand years after it all started, we find ourselves cooking in a stew of a convoluted tradition, which piles layer upon layer of meaning, myth, and history into our minds:
Humanity suffers because in the time immemorial—through pride, or greed, or distrust—we have shattered the created harmony of the world and alienated ourselves from God, from each other, and from nature, and now we pass on this alienation from generation to generation, a never-ending cycle of violence, loneliness, and unhealth: original sin. This suffering is bad.
Humanity suffers to learn and practice compassion, to comprehend the depth and the power of spirit, to appreciate its own strength, to develop and improve, to have a reason to look up from the slop and seek meaning beyond physical pleasure. This suffering is purifying.
The best of humanity suffer because the world rejects them, not always in obvious ways. The pure-hearted of any faith are beaten down by persecution, drawn to the most desperate circumstances, even flooded by the damaging vibes of the world’s aggression. They walk in the footsteps of Jesus and other prophets. They are disciples who channel the Divine, and for that they pay the price. This suffering is good—more than good: a privilege.
The body suffers because it should. We’ve inherited from the Greek world a dualistic mentality, in which body and spirit are separate if not opposite, and it is easy to think of the body as a lowly and imperfect shell, unworthy of the soul it carries, a temporary container and source of weakness and temptation. Christianity’s history of self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh is not even now over. When the body suffers, the spirit soars. This suffering is…purposeful. Enjoyable like self-cutting of a depressed teenager: a simpler pain than the pain of the heart, the kind of pain that allows to feel, to focus, to cry for the things that matter.
We are surrounded by suffering, and we recoil from it and are drawn to it. We feel compassion and fear and envy, mixed and complicated feelings. It’s bizarre sometimes to try to make sense even of our own hearts. We do not tolerate randomness, and I don’t believe that anything is random. But I do believe that the Big Picture is far more complex than we can hope to begin to discern.
Everyone suffers, and we can’t calculate the amount because suffering is subjective. I know people who consider themselves fortunate and blessed, and they’ve been through loss, shattered dreams, and illness. They just have never despaired, and they remember that somewhere out there, somebody is worse off—somebody watching one baby after another die of starvation or Ebola, a child soldier, a hostage, a crack whore, a broken and hopeless somebody in a basement, on a cot, in a desert, on the nearest corner. And none of us, I think, would dare—or care to—speculate which of these is better loved by God.
I honestly don’t think that it’s an issue. Besides the futile nature of the exercise, it seems to me offensive to the very essence of what God is, God as Love itself. If God loved some more than others, it would imply that God were more…Godly in some places of the world than others. That God could betray Himself. The way I understand it, the Love that is God creates and permeates reality, and flows and pools in our souls and makes them united with each other through Itself, and the only way to hide is to close the gates and feel alone. We cannot even then be less loved. We can only love less.
I don’t know how the world works. I know a few things only, but some of them I know completely and for sure, from the kind of depth of the being where gut and Heaven stem together and revelation bubbles up and bursts into consciousness. I know that Love is the way the nature of God makes up the fabric of temporal reality. I know that, when time comes to an end, all will be gathered unto eternity, and nothing will have been lost. And I know that God doesn’t hand out suffering—as punishment, training, or reward. God is not separate from the universe. Just more.
This universe is growing, blossoming, writhing, and spreading—developing through time, being created and creating itself into the Kingdom of God, and it’s not there yet. It’s a mind-bogglingly, insanely complex cauldron of dimensions and lives and things and time streams and God-only-knows-what things that swirl and contort, filling and falling into place, finding ways and colliding and sounding together in and out of harmony, tuning the cosmic orchestra for the mysterious chord—it’s not perfect. It’s very far from perfect. It’s full of muddy waters and bumps and lacunae, where darkness is too much and love is too little. Made of love and yet full of suffering.
That’s what I think. I think, suffering is not an active force or a message. I think it’s a result of the world’s imperfection, the inevitable and temporary side-effect of the process of Creation. The birth pangs of the Kingdom of God. And we… We are the body of the world, spirit and all, the future Kingdom, and parts of us hurt. Other parts, doing the hurting. Sometimes, both. We’re doing and are being done to, screaming and pushing at the same time, and making our way to the light.
Suffering isn’t good, I don’t think. In a sense by definition, it is a lack of Good. I do not seek it, and in the times of my greatest closeness with God I feel it melting away. But suffering can be a useful sign: pain is a signal of dysfunction, after all. As in a body, so in a society, on occasion we know we are making a difference in a righteous cause only by the beginning of persecution. Suffering can hone a sense of compassion, lead us to formulate bits of wisdom. Suffering is a fact of life in our temporal universe. And yet, there are no rules that couple goodness and suffering or badness and suffering. People are just…different.
In the end—after all this lengthy writing—of the three questions my friend asked me, I would only have a useful answer to one: Yes, I believe that we owe God and the world to give all that we are. I suppose, that means if we’re healthy and fortunate, we’ll be able to do physically more than those who aren’t. But that’s all it means, isn’t it? Because our impact on the world is so subtle sometimes and so complex, we cannot measure it. Who has done more for the world: a famous actor, a soup kitchen volunteer, a mother of six, a child who died of cancer at the age of four? She asked me if God expected more of her than of those more burdened, and I don’t really know what that means. I think only that God expects of all of us, everything. And I think she is delivering plenty well, at least from where I can see.