We don’t like suffering. Therefore, we try to avoid it, quit literally, at all costs.
Which is the wrong thing to do, frankly. Even if we could actually avoid all suffering (which we can’t), it would be the wrong thing to do.
I got started on this line of thinking while reading a book a friend lent me on learning to be more thankful. (I’ll write about the book eventually; it’s good.) The problem was, the book started with a lot of dramatic stuff about the very traumatic death of her little sister when the author was young. Her sister was hit by a delivery truck in her farmyard, in front of the whole family.
Yes, this was truly horrible. And, yes, nearly everyone’s first reaction at that point would be to do a lot of crying and yelling at God.
So many people, however, forget to quit yelling at God and let Him comfort us. An acquaintance in college lost her mother to cancer, so she quit going to church. In the book I read, the author’s family accused God of, essentially, not paying attention and letting their daughter be killed, so they quit going to church. Plenty of other people I know or have read have said things in this pattern, “(Horrible thing A) happened, therefore I quit going to church.”
We usually accept that as a normal reaction (at least in this country, in this time), but should we? (I shall refrain from commenting on the sad, sorry state of catechesis in this country, at least in this post.)
I once commented to a friend in a Bible study that angrily walking away from God when suffering enters our lives is like throwing away your life preserver for letting you get wet when you had to jump off the sinking ship. Of course you got wet! The life preserver keeps you from dying; there is no promise that you won’t get wet. And if you throw the life preserver away when you need it most, you’re still going to be wet, but now you’re also going to drown!
So it is with God: He has promised to save us if we trust in Him. He has NOT promised us that our lives will be pain-free. Jesus died horribly on the cross, the only totally innocent man there ever was. Mary stood there and watched her son be tortured horribly and die. Who do you think you are to think God is going to only send you health and wealth, if He didn’t spare His own Son and the special woman He chose to be His mother? I won’t even get started on the thousands of martyrs; they took suffering for Christ’s sake as a blessing and went to their deaths not just content, but joyfully and often singing. Suffering didn’t drive them away from God, but closer to Him.
And yet, so often, we flee from suffering. Our lives are generally very comfortable here in the U.S. We sit in some of the most well-endowed houses the world has ever seen and make excuses for why we couldn’t possibly give more to the poor or sacrifice a job to stay home with our kids, because we can’t “afford” it. Even our parish choir can’t be bothered to sing any “negative” psalms; frequently, the psalm for the day was supposed to be about God protecting us in adversity and our need to trust Him and praise Him anyways… and we get, yet again, “This is the day the Lord has made, we will be glad and rejoice.” Nothing wrong with the second psalm, of course, except that the psalms about pain and trouble are scheduled to be sung in the normal rotation of things because we need to hear them.
What do you do when suffering hits, when you thought God always gives His children only good things? When you skip the “Be near me Lord, when I am in trouble” psalms, where is your blueprint for what comes after the suffering? Do you panic, wondering if maybe you aren’t saved, maybe you didn’t mean it enough when you came to Jesus? Do you suspect you’re being punished by God? Do you get mad at God and leave, because you think He broke His end of the deal?
In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a chapter called “The Grand Inquisitor”, which is about a story by the atheist brother that he tells to his younger brother, the novice monk. After the story, the atheist demands of the monk how he could believe in a good God when nobles have their dogs tear children apart in front of their mothers for some minor infraction. How, he demands, could the noble repent and get to heaven after that? How could the mother embrace the noble in heaven and say she understands that God brought good out of her child being mauled to death by dogs? How or why could a good God allow any of this?!?
The monk, distraught to the point of tears over the story, insists that we have to believe it is so. God brings good out of the evil, always, even when we don’t see it or understand it.
The atheist replies angrily that he won’t believe it, because he can’t understand it. (He’s a rather tormented character.)
When we were struggling through infertility, there was a lot of yelling at God. “Why us? Everyone else can have kids, even people who will just abort them, so why not us?!?” Eventually, we decided we’d gone as far as was moral and available to us, and we adopted. It took some time, but I can now say, “It wasn’t our Plan A, but it was God’s Plan A,” and I don’t have to grit my teeth so much when I say it anymore, either. The pain fades, and I can see a little bit of what my suffering led me to.
I have four beautiful children so far. If we hadn’t been adopting, they might have not found homes.
I can argue the Church’s position on IVF (in short: NO), and nobody can say (although, illogically, they still do), “Your opinion doesn’t count, because you don’t understand what it’s like!” No, I understand exactly what it’s like; it sucks. It hurts. It’s hard. Painfully. Freaking. Hard. People won’t understand why you adopt instead of trying to force God to give you “one of your own,” and they will say stupid, hurtful things about adoption, even people you trusted. But I now understand the beauty of the Church’s teachings on life, and I am in a position to be an unusual witness to them.
Being adoptive parents made us much, much more aware of the pro-life movement. We’d always been pro-life, but not particularly involved. We realized that our children were all being stalked by the culture of death before they came to us. Whether it’s Planned Parenthood here or the One Child Policy in China, they all beat the odds just to be born and make it into the adoption system. It is the most horrendous evil of our day that so many children in the womb should have to fear for their life. And, like so many others, we were sort of ignoring it, until we looked into our children’s faces and realized that they could have just as easily been among the dead and discarded.
When we encounter suffering, we are forced to lean on God. Often, this turns us in new, surprising directions. The point is not the suffering itself, it is what comes of it. Instead, we tend to focus on the suffering, endlessly rehashing it or claiming victim labels. What we should be doing, rather, is taking what God gives us and asking Him humbly, “Ok, so what the heck was I supposed to do with this? I am trying to believe You will bring good out of this; Lord, help my unbelief!” Then we have to wait for the answer. Even if we don’t see it this side of Heaven, the answer is in God’s hand.
Job rails against God for all his misfortunes, losses, and pain, but, ultimately gets through it to, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord!” We can’t offend God by admitting we’re mad about the situation; He knows it already. We can’t shock God with our howling sorrow; He’s borne that, too. But we have to end the suffering with Job, all the suffering Psalms, and the martyrs: by praising God, whether or not we think we understand the suffering and whether or not things get better by earthly standards.
And there’s our blueprint.