The Purposes of Suffering
While the atheist thinks his suffering is ultimately meaningless and pointless, the Christian believes that no suffering is ultimately meaningless or pointless. Why? Because we believe that a loving God is providentially orchestrating all things, in a way that upholds our freedom.
For that reason we believe that when God allows us to suffer, He is doing so to protect us from a greater evil, or to lift us to a far greater and outweighing good. God always has a good purpose in allowing suffering, even when that purpose is inscrutable to us.
We always have a choice in our suffering, whether to trust God as our loving Father, and receive the good gift that He is giving us, or to rail against God in distrust and anger, as though we know better than He does what is ultimately good for us.
What purpose or purposes does God have in allowing suffering?
We are made for eternal Life with God. It is eternal life. Eternal life does not mean mere perpetual existence; that in itself would be entirely unsatisfying. Eternal life means to participate in the very Life of the Eternal Triune God. It is the immediate [unmediated] knowledge of God, the intuitive face-to-face vision of the divine essence. (Cf. Benedictus Deus [“On the Beatific Vision of God”], Pope Benedict XII, 1336).
So what is the purpose of this present life?
The purpose of our present life is the very same purpose for which Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden. This present life is for us a period of testing, to determine where we shall be for eternity, either with God or separated from God.
So what does that have to do with suffering?
All the suffering that God allows us to experience in this life, is ultimately medicinal, i.e. for our good in some respect, even when we do not see that we need any treatment. God, our Father, is like a loving parent who agrees to subject his child to a regimen of chemotherapy to cure a cancer, though the child does not see the need for the chemotherapy, because the child does not see the cancer or its danger.
The comment by the person who said of the plane crash, “God would have kept them from crashing” is like the child who says to his parent, “If you loved me you wouldn’t be putting me through this chemotherapy.” The parent is thinking, “If only you could see the danger of this cancer, you would understand that I am subjecting you to this painful treatment only because I love you, and want you to live.” And this too, is the heart of our heavenly Father, when He allows us to endure the sufferings of this life.
What is the great cancer, the one infinitely worse than physical cancer?
According to the Church, the great cancer is sin, and it leads to hell, i.e. eternal separation from God.
So, here let us consider some of the reasons God allows us to suffer.
(1) To awaken us to reality
- Sometimes God allows suffering in order to awaken us to the fact of our sin, our impending death and judgment, our emptiness apart from God, or to help us repent and turn to God. Consider the prodigal son.
- Pain is the loudspeaker of God in our lives. I am here – He says.
- Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him (CCC 1500-1501). God sometimes allows suffering into our lives to provoke us to search for Him, and to realise that this present life is not our final end, but a temporary test in which our eternal destiny is determined.
(2) To test us
- The Catechism teaches: “Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. It was merciful of God to allow us to die, so that we might be resurrected, rather than live forever in a sinful condition.
- We see this in the example of Job.
- The test of Job is an example of a test among the larger test that is this present life. These tests are opportunities for us to choose whom we will serve. They demonstrate whether we truly love God, or whether we only have a ‘friendship of utility’ with God.
(3) To discipline us, to teach us humility and trust, and to work righteousness into us
- “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Cor 11:32)
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
- Commenting on this Aquinas says, “All the saints who have pleased God have gone through many tribulations by which they were made the sons of God.” (Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews).
- As sons of God, through our union with Christ the Son, we expect to be disciplined by God our Father.
- In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognise the divine mercy in this call to repentance. (Salvifici Doloris, 12).
- Jesus is less concerned about the deaths, and far more concerned about preparing for death. That is because Jesus recognises that the second death (i.e. eternal separation from God) is infinitely worse than physical death.
(4) To give us an opportunity to love God, to give God glory, to merit glory, and to participate in His work of redemption
While the atheist sees suffering as evidence that God does not exist, the Christian sees suffering as a great gift from God. It is a gift of mercy by which we are being led to repentance and eternal life. (“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4))
It is also a gift by which we know that God is working some great good in us. In addition, it is another sort of divine gift, an opportunity to give something great to God, just as Christ did in accepting His sufferings. Finally, for a Catholic, suffering is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s sufferings, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings.
- Here is more turning of suffering on its head: In Colossians, St. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. (Col 1:24)
- “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God”(Acts 14:22)
- “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
- “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)
(Commenting on this passage in Romans 5, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, It is a sign of the ardent hope which we have on account of Christ that we glory not only because of [our] hope of the glory to come, but we glory even regarding the evils which we suffer for it. And so Paul says that we not only glory (that is, in our hope of glory), but we glory even in our tribulations, by which we attain to glory.)
The early Christian martyrs all had the same attitude. Why did the early Christians rejoice in their suffering?
Suffering for Christ, in this present life, is a great honour, when seen from the divine perspective. And this is the Catholic perspective, that when we suffer, our suffering is an opportunity both to grow in our faith and love for God, but also to honour and glorify God, by loving Him in the midst of our sufferings, and so storing up an incomparable reward in the life to come.
In Romans 8, St. Paul writes: Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:17-18).
This is the gospel; it is a gospel of suffering.
- “If any man would come after me… let him take up his cross daily.” (Luke 9:23)
- Elsewhere Jesus says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”(Revelation 2:10). Only when we take up our cross can we begin to understand the meaning of redemptive suffering. We cannot see its meaning in the stance of resistance or distrust. And this is why the atheist cannot see it. Only from the stance of humble trust does the possibility of its meaning come into our field of vision.
For a Catholic, suffering is even an opportunity for merit.
- “The term ‘merit’ refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it” (Catechism, 2006).[Guilt is, in consequence, the responsibility that we contract before God on sinning, making ourselves meritorious of punishment]
- Man does not have, by himself, merit before God for his good works (see Catechism, 2007). Nevertheless, “filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us ‘coheirs’ with Christ and worthy of obtaining the promised inheritance of eternal life” (Catechism, 2009).[See Council of Trent: DS 1546]
- “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace” (Catechism, 2008).[When a Christian acts rightly, “the fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (ibid.).]
In this way, by embracing the cross of suffering given to us in this life, those in a state of grace may merit an eternal reward. In 2 Thessalonians St. Paul says, “We ourselves boast of you… for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thess 1:4-5).
Notice that by being steadfast in faith, in the midst of their persecutions and afflictions, the Thessalonian believers were being made worthy of the Kingdom of God. Pope John Paul II says of this passage, “Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is, at the same time, to suffer for the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before his judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this Kingdom. Through their sufferings, in a certain sense they repay the infinite price of the Passion and death of Christ, which became the price of our Redemption (Salvifici Doloris, 21).