Walking Our Faith: The question of suffering
The other day, I listened to Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Conner, host of the CosmicSkeptic and university student at Oxford, debate the existence of God.
Eventually, the argument came to the question of suffering. This argument usually proceeds as: If God exists and allows suffering, he is uncaring or uninvolved in our lives, or God does not exist. In any of these instances, this God is not worthy of our interest, much less worship.
The counterargument generally revolves around original sin, fallen man, therefore there is evil, and while God might permit evil to play out on earth, in the afterlife, all will be redeemed.
If you have ever had a loved one who died of a terminal illness despite your prayers, this explanation feels inadequate. Then the response becomes, well disease is part of life, and through the experience of the disease, we find a cure.
That provides hope but leads to the question of when and how God intervenes. Why are some people healed while others die from the same illness?
I don’t know why God’s intervention in human suffering feels random and inexplicable at times. But here’s something I find just as confounding: God has never hidden the suffering that faces humans.
I pray the Psalms as part of my daily Liturgy of the Hours. However, as many of the psalms praise God’s deliverance, just as many lament the suffering endured during God’s delay.
Likewise, the Book of Job, the most well known exploration of human suffering in the Bible, is equally perplexing. When God finally shows up, he answers Job’s questions by questioning Job’s questioning of him.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.
“Now gird up your loins like a man. And I will ask you, and you instruct Me. Will you really annul My judgment and set it aside as void? Will you condemn Me that you may be righteous and justified?” — Job 40:6-8
Job immediately retracts his questions, but part of his reply is quite interesting.
“I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You.” — Job 42:5
The Bible, which we consider the word of God, includes songs of praise but also cries in dismay when God’s arrival is not immediate. It contains the lamentations of Job and, perhaps most challenging, the son of God calling to his father from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” That question is left without a response as the son of God dies.
Wouldn’t religious leaders hoping to increase their numbers want to hide these uncomfortable questions? Yet, the Bible has endured for thousands of years. Wouldn’t Christians want to erase the martyrdom of the early apostles, each one of whom suffered torture and death while proclaiming the love of God?
Is the decision to believe in God to accept what cannot be adequately explained by reason? Is suffering a consequence of free will, the freedom to act in our own interests at the expense of others?
Is the answer to God’s abandonment of Christ on the cross to be found in the resurrection, the promise that we are always loved, even when that love is not fully comprehended?
I find it comforting to know that God welcomes my questions and tears and anger, not because God enjoys my suffering, but because my questions draw me closer to God, and as I draw closer, I experience God’s love for me.
I can only offer one proof of God which feels truest for me: When I am in the depths of despair, I go to St. Mary’s at 5 o’clock on a Thursday when we have the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and silent prayer.
I sit there, staring at the monstrance, my mind whirling by turns with accusations and lamentations. Yet no matter how desolate I feel, being in the presence of God always brings me consolation, rarely answers. But no doubt that God is present with me. Sometimes, that is enough.
Which brings me back to Job’s experience of seeing God with his “spiritual eyes.” Notice in that verse Job says that before his great suffering he had only known of God from what he had heard secondhand. But after his suffering, he sees God through firsthand experience. That is my experience of God and therefore my proof of God’s existence.
A knowledge of God is, I believe, accessible in the same way we experience beauty and joy and love. I realize this is not an adequate explanation for the question of suffering or whether or when God will intervene in our lives. It is only an expression of the relief of my suffering, which I feel when I am in God‘s presence.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson’s column “Walking our Faith” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Anderson is the author of 10 novels and nonfiction books on faith. She has lived in Breckenridge since 2016. Contact her at email@example.com.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson’s column “Walking Our Faith” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Anderson is the author of 10 novels and nonfiction books on faith. She has lived in Breckenridge since 2016. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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