February 24, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Our suffering can be joined to Christ’s suffering on the cross

Someone asked that I write about why bad things happen to good people. A young child had just been struck with a fatal disease. Recently, I was visiting with a gentleman who had just been devastated by the news that his younger brother had a malignant brain tumor, and he is not sure how to feel about God. A plane crash took the parents of three children.

The stories come close to home for all of us. I dare say, at one time or other, all of us meet devastating suffering and wonder why. One of the lessons of growing older is that life is not always fair. And when it is not, we are tempted to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or, “It’s unfair that she has cancer. She hasn’t done anything wrong.” Sometimes we are tempted to say, “Why couldn’t it happen to me rather than her?”

I am not sure an intelligent answer to these questions is what we really desire. Mainly, we want and need compassionate companionship in our journey through suffering. Yet, we have searching minds, and we try to understand. Sometimes our questions about the unfair turns of life may imply an ingrained but wrong idea about God and God’s way of loving. We may think that when things go wrong we are being punished by God. Maybe we think this way because so much of human love is conditioned on a reward and punishment basis. If I have been good, then I am loved. If I have been bad, I am not. However that may be, God’s love is not like ours. God doesn’t turn love on and off depending on our goodness or sin, or someone else’s goodness or sin.

How can a loving God allow unfair suffering? It’s a fair but tough question, and doesn’t allow for an easy reply. In the mysterious ways of God, there may be two approaches to answer the question. First of all, God has a much longer view of earthly life, death and eternal life. And God has a larger and deeper view of “the good life.” Secondly, God gives us all the room in the world to be humanly free. In other words, we do not live our lives like puppets on a string or like animals on a leash.

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, abused this freedom—in effect—by wanting to be equal to God. They fell and lost paradise, and we inherit the consequences. We can fall into accidents and suffering. Does human accident mean the victim has sinned? By no means! The same is true of bodily illness. There is no perfect and eternal human body, and so the life of the body is terminal and there is and will be physical failure.

God lets us be free to use our human talents to build and develop our earthly environment. Sometimes we do things that make us sick (mostly for profit or pleasure). Yet, God gives us the gift of freedom. By definition, he gives us room to make wrong choices and thus get hurt. Yes, some hurt is because of sin, but much is not.

In a way, we could say bad things happen to us because we are not God, we are not perfect, nor are our bodies. The good news is the story doesn’t end with our imperfection, suffering and death. The good news is that we have a divine destiny that will make “the good life” here on earth pale by comparison. The real tragedy occurs when we forget we are destined for the kingdom of God, where every tear will be wiped away. In the end, that’s what counts. The real tragedy happens if we do not have faith in God, especially if we try to take God’s place—like Adam and Eve.

Our deepest consolation in suffering is the knowledge that God truly understands because, in his tremendous love, he allowed his only son to share our journey. Unfairly, Jesus suffered and died for us and conquered sin and death forever.

Soon, as we make the Way of the Cross during Lent, we will pray “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Because of God’s love enfleshed in Jesus, we have the unfailing hope that we are not doomed to an unfair life forever.

As Lent approaches, we are called back to this wonderful mystery of faith.

Maybe our Lenten challenge can be the renewed effort of considering prayerfully how the suffering that comes our way can be joined to Christ’s on the Cross. There can be real consolation in believing that Christ helps us carry our burdens. †


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