Whenever suffering enters our lives, those age-old questions comes back. Why does God allow suffering? How could a good God allow so much pain?
The truth is that we don’t have a complete answer. It remains a mystery. But we have some good insights. We know that suffering is redemptive. Even God himself chose to experience suffering by becoming a man and being crucified. He didn’t remain in the clouds or in an ivory tower. He came down into the trenches. Through this ultimate evil — deicide — he brought about the ultimate good: our salvation.
What specific good will come from the suffering that you’re going through right now? It’s not always obvious. In fact, it rarely is.
In some cases, the good might simply stem from the love with which you patiently bear the suffering, based on your faith and obedience to God’s will. That’s a huge good, by the way. It allows you to enter into a deeper union with God. This is essentially the source of the merits of Christ’s Passion. As St. Teresa of Avila wrote:
If His Majesty revealed His love to us by doing and suffering such amazing things, how can you expect to please Him by words alone? (Source: Interior Castle)
In other cases, the benefits are most obvious. For example, it was persecution of the early Church in Jerusalem that yielded the first missionaries.
While we don’t always see the benefits immediately, we know that the benefits are immense. Suffering united with the Cross of Christ is a source of unlimited power because it draws down so much grace on the world. God cannot be outdone in generosity. Whatever suffering you offer up, He will shower down incalculably more grace for souls.
So many brilliant thinkers have helped us better understand suffering. I’ll only quote two here.
Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even be plausibly be looked for. While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?
–C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
That’s a profound statement. The only durable and fulfilling source of happiness is union with God. But we won’t turn to him as long as we’re absorbed in fleeting earthly pleasures. There are only so many hours in a day. If we spend them on earthly preoccupations, there’s no time to seek the True Good. He prompts us gently at first, but if we’re stubborn, he won’t hesitate to engineer a system failure so that we can re-boot our lives into a more fulfilling operating system.
Growing through adversity
St. Josemaria Escriva once said:
You need a heart which is in love, not an easy life, to achieve happiness.
This is a hard one to swallow in our day and age because the Western culture has become so obsessed with living an easy life. This isn’t bad in itself, of course, but it shouldn’t take us to the point where we despair or rebel whenever we face any adversity. Adversity is painful, but it’s the best way to grow. Nobody grows by lying on a beach sipping a Corona and listening to their iPod.
So the next time you face adversity, ask yourself how you can use this opportunity to grow as a person.
No easy answers
There’s no easy answer to the mystery of pain. There’s a myth among some people that faith in God will make the pain go away. No, it won’t. But faith can help you deal with the pain, make it easier to bear, and serve as a catalyst for personal growth. It can help you put your life back into perspective.
Successfully dealing with suffering requires an act of the will. There’s no magic bullet or special prayer that will make the pain go away. You have to make a decision to continue your life despite the pain.
A wounded soldier on a battlefield may feel extreme pain if he tries to move. If he just follows the signals that his body is sending him, he would stay lying on the field in order to avoid pain, but such a passive approach would lead to him bleeding to death. His proper course of action is to force himself to walk back to his base, where he can receive medical treatment. Every step might be excruciating, but he must force himself to keep walking. His only motivation is the hope in the relief that he’ll feel once he reaches the base and receives proper care to return to health.
The same applies to you, regardless of the nature of your suffering. You may have to make heroic efforts just to get out of bed in the morning. You need to be tough. God’s grace is always available to support you, but the rest is up to your sheer will-power. Of course, make good use of natural means at your disposal to relieve your pain, just like the soldier would take a painkiller if he had one. But the rest is up to your will-power. Keep your eyes focused on the hope of seeing a better day in the future. If you’re terminally ill, your only motivation may be the desire to accept God’s plan as you await in hope for the day when your are united to God in heaven someday.
Will-power driven by hope can be a formidable force. May God help you to find his will through your trials.
Suffering puts you in the a very powerful position in the spiritual realm. You can obtain so many graces for yourself and the world through patience in suffering. United with the Cross of Christ, you become a spiritual powerhouse that brings life to the Church. You become a terrifying warrior in the fight to save souls. Don’t let that suffering go to waste.