God and Suffering

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As superb look at suffering by Dr. Peter Kreeft, courtesy of Prager University.  I agree with his division of suffering into what Man causes through our actions, wars are a classic example, and suffering caused by nature, the type of suffering caused by the seizure that took the life of my son Larry on May 19, 2013.  He is also correct that when we cry out against such suffering inflicted by nature we are appealing to a standard that presupposes a God, since nature cares not a whit about human suffering or the lack thereof.  It is only by belief in God that the scales of what occurs to us in this brief life are ever balanced.  To us death is often regarded as the greatest of evils.  To God physical death is merely our gateway to Him.  CS Lewis captured this perfectly in Letter 28 of his Screwtape Letters:

They, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda. I know it seems strange that your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient’s lover and his mother are praying – namely his bodily safety. But so it is; you should be guarding him like the apple of your eye. If he dies now, you lose him. If he survives the war, there is always hope. The Enemy has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it”, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth. While they are young we find them always shooting off at a tangent. Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion, the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry – the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon – are always blowing our whole structure away. They will not apply themselves steadily to worldly advancement, prudent connections, and the policy of safety first. So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or “science” or psychology, or what not. Real worldliness is a work of time – assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death as good sense or Maturity or Experience. Experience, in the peculiar sense we teach them to give it, is, by the bye, a most useful word. A great human philosopher nearly let our secret out when he said that where Virtue is concerned “Experience is the mother of illusion”; but thanks to a change in Fashion, and also, of course, to the Historical Point of View, we have largely rendered his book innocuous.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a “normal life” is the exception. Apparently He wants some – but only a very few – of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.

The sufferings we encounter in this life, and they can be ghastly beyond words as I know to my sorrow, are the products of free will and our living in a fallen world.  However, they are as nothing to the good that awaits us in the next world for those of us who love God and our neighbor.  That is our chief consolation as we make our way through this Vale of Tears to the land that knows no human tears.

 

10 Responses to God and Suffering

  • John by any other name says:

    I’ve heard a number of Professor Kreeft’s talks and my wife and I got to meet him once…he is a very gracious man. He also did an adult Catechesis series, Luke E Hart, which is on the Knights of Columbus website in both PDF and audio book. It’s a good 30-part series for any Catholic raised in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond as well as anyone interested in a summary of the Catholic faith.

    On a related note, I find it intriguing that some of the best modern Catholic apologists weren’t cradle Catholics (Kreeft was Calvinist)…and Lewis, though he disappointed Tolkien by not swimming the Tiber, was an atheist before he joined the Church of England. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is a pretty good work related to the topics of suffering as well. The audiobook is strangely appropriate for mowing a yard or working in a garden…

  • Robert A. Rowland says:

    For over 8 years, every day has been filled with some level of pain because both knees are affected with degenerative arthritis. I can barely make it around with a cane. I could moan and say why me? But I accept it as a blessing because it gives me a tremendous chance to emulate the suffering of Our Lord and offer it to help the poor souls in Purgatory atone. Advil helps blunt the pain but never completely removes it. I pray to God only for perseverance. I am confident that those I help are helping to sustain me. I am 86, and when I leave this world, I don’t believe I will leave it alone. That also sustains me, and I don’t think I will lose my joyful sense of humor until the day after.

  • Ginny says:

    So often, it seems to me, angelic children, like Larry, run ahead to enjoy the Beatific Vision, leaving their families in deep grief. Perhaps the suffering that families endure over the loss of a beloved child is refining, purgatorial, and is God’s way of preparing the bereaved for reunion with that beloved child to enjoy the Beatific Vision together for all eternity. Dostoyevsky wrote, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God.”

    May God and His Holy Angels surround you and your family with kindness and comfort.

  • Thank you Ginny! That is precisely the way I like to look at it. Larry was always running ahead of the family when we were going to some favored destination, and now I look upon him as a Heavenly Advance Guard for the rest of my family.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Pope John Paul II (and Job) taught:

    “Suffering – as I wrote in the Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris – [...] Christ does not explain in some abstract way the reasons for sufferings, but says first of all: “Follow me”, Come, with your suffering share in this work of salvation of the world, which is realized through my suffering, by means of my Cross” (n 26). …

    “Suffering is transformed when we experience in ourselves the closeness and solidarity of the living God: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last…I shall see God my savior” (Job 19:25-26). With this assurance comes inner peace, and from this a spiritual joy, quiet and deep, springing from the “gospel of suffering” which understands the grandeur and dignity of human beings who suffer with a generous spirit and offer their pain “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). This is why those who suffer are no burden to others, but with their suffering contribute to the salvation of all.”

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