Probably one of the best lessons that I learned as a kid is that life is not fair. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it’s a lesson that has served me well, helping me to accept the inevitable trials and suffering that I’ve experienced along the way. So, why is it so hard for us to swallow? It’s because we have this innate sense of justice, and when it gets out of balance, we feel it acutely. Even if we could somehow accept it as a child – understanding our littleness and our inability to control what happened around us – as adults, we just don’t want to believe this to be true.
One of life’s most pervasive questions – and one of the things we find so unjust – is the existence of suffering. Why must life be so hard? Why do we suffer? Sometimes it seems that suffering is warranted, that people bring it on themselves as a natural consequence of their actions. We may even think that they “got what they deserved.” Like the guy who blew up his meth lab and himself in the process – frankly, he had it coming, right? Other times, that’s definitely not the case. Accidents happen, those we love get cancer, and natural disasters befall us through no fault of our own. It seems so unjust. We can be doing everything right – living a good and moral life – yet, in an instant, the entire course of life changes. Don’t we deserve better, a kind of reward for good behaviour? And what’s more, how can an instant count for so much? How do we make sense of it all?
How God Works
To begin with, God is not arbitrary or haphazard. Things happen for a reason, whether we can clearly see it or not. We live in a fallen world, and pain and suffering are part of that reality. Does this mean that God causes injury or suffering? No, but He does allow it. Even the earliest apostles recognized that “nothing ever happens without God’s concurrence.”1 You see, our Creator has this amazing ability to know our actions – what we will choose – without influencing our freedom to choose it. There’s no conflict of interest with God; the only pre-existing condition is His love for us, a love so pure and complete that it wills the best for us in every circumstance. If we are open to God’s grace, He will always bring about the greatest good in our lives.
Sometimes, after the fact, we are able to see why a seemingly unexplainable event has happened (and God allows that, too, if it will be helpful to us). But if we become fixated on the “why” instead of the “what now,” we torture ourselves needlessly and may even lose faith in our loving God. Ultimately, what’s important is that we try to see where God is in the midst of our suffering, to discover what He wants us to learn.
How God Doesn’t Work
That being said, the things that happen to us are neither a reward nor punishment for our behaviour. It’s important that we remember this, because there is a contradictory message that’s being preached in the world today under the guise of Christianity. Some “Christians” would have you believe that health, wealth, and prosperity will follow if only you lead a good life. Make no mistake, this is not the Gospel! It’s not what Jesus taught. Our faith is not some kind of talisman meant to protect us from all harm. The way of suffering is the path of Christ, thus it is the path of all Christians (though the cross that each of us will be asked to bear may be different). When we begin to think that our good behaviour will merit us a reward in this life, we fall prey to the assumption that we are in control of our lives and place ourselves on par with God. In truth, we are completely dependent on Him for all that we have and for our very lives – God not only created us, but also holds us in existence.
At best, we can rely on the 20/20 vision that we gain after the fact – after something has happened – to learn from our mistakes and try to determine how to go forward. But God always sees everything clearly, the whole picture. His perspective is eternal. When we experience some type of affliction, we only see the injury, the illness, and their effects – the things we can no longer do. We tend to focus on the negative – what’s missing or lacking. But God sees it so differently. Our earthly bodies are only temporary. Ultimately, what’s most important is the soul, which is eternal and awaits that wondrous day when we will rise from the dead with a body like Christ’s own. As St. Paul reminds us, “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this…affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
To be sure, God’s ways are not our ways.2 His “accounting” doesn’t always make sense to us. Yet, believe it or not, He makes it work in our favour! He doesn’t pay us according to what we deserve. Life truly isn’t “fair” because mercy trumps justice. Remember the parable about the workers in the vineyard…even those hired in the eleventh hour are paid the same wage.3 It just goes to show that time is of little consequence to God, yet it means everything – eternity! – for each of us. That “instant” we want to negate (because we think it will result in catastrophe) is infinitely valuable because it could just as easily bring about the exact opposite – conversion, redemption, salvation. A moment is all it takes for Christ to touch our hearts and transform our lives.
Making Use of Suffering
Suffering is part of the human condition, but it needn’t be senseless. It elicits a response, both from the one undergoing the suffering and from those around him. This can happen in several ways. First, it draws us into friendship and community as we depend on one another for physical, emotional, and material help. The prayers and support we receive help us see that we are not alone in our time of need. At the same time, our suffering can have a profound impact on others. For instance, it may be the way for those around us to witness our faith and abandonment to God’s will. Or perhaps it is the means God uses to call a person to greater love and service as they care for someone who is suffering.
Without a doubt, suffering humbles us and makes us aware of our own human weakness. We realize that we aren’t invincible and that we can’t control everything that happens. Regaining a sense of our own mortality, our priorities are realigned and our intentions are purified. In the process, something else very beautiful happens – it carves out a place in us for God to reside. St. Paul reassures us of the words of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). We can be confident that God will fill whatever is lacking in us.
Sure, most of us wouldn’t freely choose pain and suffering. But when we realize it is the Cross made manifest in our lives, we can recognize it as a moment of grace. We are configured to Christ and begin to understand the depth of His love for us. He is very near, offering himself to us in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick, which strengthen and encourage us. As we unite our sufferings with His, we allow them to take on even deeper meaning, becoming a means to save souls. “He [Jesus] made it clear that it was by means of his suffering that the world’s salvation was to be accomplished.”4 By His Cross and Death, Christ removed our death sentence. But we can join in His redemptive work by offering our sufferings as He did, “to atone for the sins of others.”5 As St. Paul suggests, the only thing lacking in Christ’s affliction is our participation!6
Abandoning Our Lives to God
As Christians, we can be comforted with the thought that all of the injustices exacted on us in this life will be made right in the next. Christ became “our mediator and our justice by taking on all our injustice and sin out of obedience to [God’s] will…”7 Seen through the eyes of faith, all that we experience in life is infused with purpose. We can trust in the promise that “…in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Our lives are utterly in His hands. There’s nothing we must do – or that we even can do – to earn God’s love or our own salvation. It’s a free gift. The mystery of the Cross turns all of our notions of fairness upside down! Without the truth of the Gospel, suffering doesn’t make sense and can crush us. But, with Christ, we can see what lies beyond – the promise of eternal life. “In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up; here we see who God is and what He is like. Heaven is no longer locked up. God has stepped out of His hiddenness.”8
– Kelley Holy
1 From a letter attributed to Barnabas (Cap. 19, 1-3.5-7.8-12: Funk 1, 53-57), The Liturgy of the Hours vol. iv (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975), 71.
2 Cf. Isaiah 55:8
3 Cf. Matthew 20:1-16
4 St. Theodoret of Cyr, “On the Incarnation of the Lord,” (Nn. 26-27: PG 75, 1466-1467), The Liturgy of the Hours vol. iv, 94.
5 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1998; reprint, 1998), 201.
6 Cf. Colossians 1:24
7 St. Catherine of Siena, On Divine Providence (4,13: ed. Latina, Ingolstadii 1583, ff. 19v-20), The Liturgy of the Hours vol. iv, 91.
8 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 48.