Priest Special: The Meaning of Suffering #1

Hey Guys! Last Sunday, we had a Priest Special session on the meaning of suffering and boy, was it an amazing session! We covered the usual questions such as “Why does God allow all the suffering we experience in this life, if He loves us and is all-powerful and all-knowing? What does the Catholic Church say about the meaning of suffering?” Father John Taberner, a priest at the Lagoon school, explained all the answers. His notes will be split into 3 different posts.

Why does God allow all the suffering we experience in this life, if He loves us and is all-powerful and all-knowing? What does the Catholic Church say about the meaning of suffering?

We believe in an all-loving, all-power God. Not only does all love come from God, but the Apostle John says that God is Love (1 John 4:8). And we know that genuine love seeks the good for the beloved. As Aristotle says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.” (Quoted in Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-I Q.26 a.4.). If you love someone, you want that person to have what is truly good for him, what truly and most perfectly makes him happy. But God loves us infinitely more than we love each other. Therefore, we know that God wants us to have what is good for us, what truly makes us happy.

If God is all powerful, and truly seeks our good, then why does He allow all the suffering we experience in this life?

Recently a young man I know survived a plane crash. Upon hearing the news, some of us responded by thanking God that he survived. Another person responded to our thanksgiving by objecting that if God existed, He would have prevented the plane crash. That response reminded me of Martha’s statement to Jesus: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) 3 possibilities:

– It is possible that Martha was simply making a statement of faith in Christ’s power.

– But it is also possible that Martha was indirectly chiding Jesus for not arriving sooner. In her mind, Lazarus died because of Christ’s absence, since if Christ had been present, Christ would have done what Martha thought should be done.

– The third option: Christ, being God, stayed away on purpose, because He had a higher purpose, did not enter her mind.

This is the same objection we find in “the new atheism.” Obviously there cannot be a good God, argues the atheist, because if God existed, He would not allow such meaningless, pointless evil and suffering to occur. The common hidden assumption is that if we cannot see for ourselves any justifying reason, then either there cannot be any such reason, or it is not reasonable to believe that there is such a reason.

It follows from atheism that suffering, tragedy, and loss are ultimately meaningless and pointless, and hence to be avoided at all costs unless some outweighing good can be anticipated. “Without the vision of faith one has a sense of the uselessness of suffering. (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, n. 27).

In the midst of suffering, there is the additional despair of believing that there is no higher meaning or purpose for this suffering, nothing redemptive about it. And that is precisely why in the atheistic philosophy, if we find ourselves or others suffering without the foreseeable possibility of coming to a quality of life that outweighs this suffering, it is better to end that life, all other things being equal. This is not stoicism, which sought to endure suffering. In this philosophy, suffering is the greatest evil. But in Christianity, sin is the greatest evil.

This is why atheism tends to lead toward euthanasia, the selective killing of the aged, the terminally ill, infants born with Down Syndrome, and others judged to be incapable of attaining a quality of life that outweighs their suffering so far as we can tell. But that is not the Christian understanding of suffering.

  1. The Origin of Evil and Suffering

As with most theological questions, we need to go back to the beginning. Jesus does this when asked about divorce. (Cf. Matthew 19:4ff, and Mark 10:6).

The Apostle Paul says that death came into the world through sin. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned …” (Romans 5:12). So, according to the Church, what was man’s original condition? “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Everything that God made, was very good. God made all things such that they were in harmony, as the Catechism explains (CCC 373-376).

Notice the fourfold harmony:

  • the harmony of friendship between man and God,
  • the harmony within man himself (his various appetites and reason, even between his soul and body), The “mastery” over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason. (CCC 377),
  • the harmony between man and woman (or social between human persons), and
  • the harmony between man and the rest of creation.

By the original justice God gave to our first parents, they were able to remain in these ordered harmonies. The lower powers of their soul were held subject to their reason, without any disorder whatsoever. Even their bodies were entirely subject to their soul, without any bodily defect. The four preternatural gifts had by our first parents were: infused knowledge, immortality, impassibility, and integrity (human appetites being completely submitted to the human intellect).

How did the loss of immortality result from sin? Aquinas explains in Summa Theologica II-I Q.85 a.6: By the gift of original justice the body was not made intrinsically incorruptible, but by this gift the body was made incorruptible-by-relation to the soul.

So what happened?

Man sinned, and by doing so forfeited the four-fold harmony by which he was protected from suffering and death. “This entire harmony of original justice, foreseen for man in God’s plan,” says the Catechism, was “lost by the sin of our first parents.” (CCC 379). What we now see around us is not the original perfection and harmony of God’s creation, but a fallen world. It is still a good world — that is how we are able to recognize the resulting disharmony, against the background of the goodness and natural order of creation — but there is now disharmony in our world, a disharmony that God did not put here.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is quite different from that of the atheists with regard to the origin of suffering. For the materialist atheists, nature is ultimately impersonal, indifferent and apathetic; suffering just is. We do not like suffering, but ultimately, suffering is neither evil or good, because ultimately there is no good or evil; there is just matter and energy and the fundamental laws of physics. Some suffering is the result of the actions of other people, but much suffering is simply gratuitous, pointless, and outside the bounds of human control.

For Christians, by contrast, the Creator of all things is a perfectly good, perfectly just and perfectly loving Father. Suffering and death, and all the evils we experience in this life, have their origin in human sin against God our Father. From a Christian point of view, the finger that the atheist points at God, blaming Him for all the suffering we experience, or using our suffering as an argument against God’s existence, is man blaming God, for what man freely did in disobedience to God.

Ultimately there are three options.

(1) There is no God; there is no ultimately reason for suffering and death.

(2) God is evil, in which case there again is ultimately no good reason for suffering and death.

(3) God is good and loving, and thus has a good reason for allowing us to suffer and die.

See the next post The Meaning of Suffering #2

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