Why is there suffering in the world?
Suffering makes many people quarrel with God. How does the Catholic Church explain this? An overview of important passages from the Bible and the Catechism.
It is not only since the Holocaust, in which millions of the Jewish population were annihilated but rather from time immemorial that people have asked themselves: “Why does God allow suffering?” This question is called the theodicy-question. This word is derived from the Old Greek words theós = God and díkē = justice and signifies the point where God’s omnipotence seems to clash with God’s grace. The philosopher Epikur (341-270 before Christ) supposedly said: “Either God wants to do away with suffering and cannot do it: Then God is weak, which cannot be. Or he can but will not do it: Then God is full of spite, which cannot be either. Or he cannot do it and does not want to do it: Then he is weak and full of spite, so he cannot be God.”
What does the Bible say?
Sacred Scripture connects the question of theodicy mainly with the figure of Job. Only with the Book of Job does the conviction emerge that illness and suffering are a punishment for falling away from God, while the righteous will receive blessings, happiness and wealth. It is true that a life according to God’s commandments can result in a good, often happy life, but it is wrong to automatically interpret the onset of misfortune as God’s punishment. The biblical Job (“In the land of Uz* there was a blameless and upright man named Job, who feared God and avoided evil.” Job 1:1) has to endure all the different kinds of suffering a person can experience. His wife even urges him to curse this God who allows such things to happen. But Job does not let his wife, nor the false consolations and his friends‘ attempts to explain everything, dissuade him from his faith: “You speak as foolish women do. We accept good things from God; should we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10) The question of suffering is not solved theoretically in the book of Job, but biographically and historically, by the appearance of a God who is there in the midst of the drama of human existence as a compassionate God: “But the LORD said: I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering” (Ex 3:7). This faith is also proclaimed in the Epistle of James: ” Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of the perseverance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, because “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). Through Jesus we can know for sure: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17-18). God on the cross is the only image that can withstand the image of the innocent suffering of the world. “The cross is indeed the place where God’s perfect compassion for our world becomes visible” (Pope Benedict XVI).
A short YOUCAT-Catechesis
Why does suffering exist in the world?
There are people who claim to have an answer to the question of suffering in this world. I have never believed them. No book in this world (even including the Bible) can give me an answer to this question. “Evil in the world,”, says the YOUCAT 51, “is an obscure and painful mystery. “One day our eyes will be opened, and maybe our mouth as well, but in wonder. We will be able to ask God himself, “Why did you let all this happen? Why all these tears of the lost, all this suffering of innocent children? Could you not have at least stopped that?” Suffering also made even Jesus become insecure for a moment. Shortly before his betrayal, he sweated blood, and in great anguish addressed questions towards seemingly silent heaven. His father did not stop his crucifixion — and Jesus did not shy away from horrible suffering.
No Answer, but a Solution
The heavenly father has not given us an answer, but a solution. To put it another way, he has given us a redeemer. YOUCAT 101 says: “Christ, our Redeemer, chose the Cross so as to bear the guilt of the world and to suffer the pain of the world. So he brought the world back home to God by his perfect love.” What is the meaning of dying out of love? And what use is it if one more person dies in the midst of millions of others dying?
The Christian faith is based upon two assumptions. We find the first assumption in YOUCAT 51: “One thing, though, we know for sure: God is 100 percent good. He can never be the originator of something evil.” God would not be God if he — as some practitioners of Eastern religion or some esotericists say — is at the same time good and evil. Such a God could only be despised. If God is not the orginator of our plight, then who is?
Looking for the Guilty
“God does not want men to suffer and die”, says the YOUCAT 66. This is the second great assumption. The blood and tears of humanity often originate in human and natural causes. It is not only those monstrous tyrants, who sent whole nations into Concentration Camps or who let 30 million farmers die of hunger. No, it is also us “little people” who cause suffering and contribute daily to the plight of this world. Sometimes we do this in more remarkable ways, like when a small shop owner refuses to serve Jews at the counter, or in more common situations, like when we act harmfully and competitively towards our colleagues.
We are free to destroy our fellow human beings and our surrounding environment. A black fog of sin has encroached upon and silently poisoned all that exists. Even natural catastrophes like tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics somehow in a deeper sense seem to mysteriously mirror the atrocities which human beings inflict upon each other as if it were nothing. People ask themselves: How on earth did we manage to spoil and destroy all the good, true, and beautiful things that we find in creation? It is easily imaginable that the creator of all things may now struggle to recognize his own creation.
“God does not want men to suffer and die. God’s original idea for man was paradise: life forever and peace between God and man and their environment, between man and woman,” says YOUCAT 66. How did we lose paradise? Well, God did not create us as puppets; He made us in his own image, and therefore gifted us with an ability that only God and we humans have: a nearly boundless capacity to choose and act freely. What a risk! This kind of freedom can turn you into a murderer. But God’s plan for us with regards to our freedom is different: “God would like us to decide in favor of our happiness; we should choose God freely, love him above all things, do good and avoid evil insofar as we are able.” (YOUCAT 285) Is the world a failed experiment by God? Would it not be better if God would send the great flood one more time so that this corrupt humanity would drown alongside his suffering earth once and for all?
God is not like that. “God is love” (1 Jhn. 4:8). The YOUCAT 33 says, “Faith holds fast to this promise, although the experience of suffering and evil in the world may make people wonder whether God is really loving.” God is doing something incredible: He does not destroy us. At the same time, he is not carelessly looking away. He allows the full force of human tragedy to touch his heart — a heart full of mercy. He sent what he loves the most — his son — into our realm of death. This is supposed to tell us that where people suffer, God suffers as well. Sometimes we say, “he is suffering like an animal.” No, here we see someone suffering like God. Even more: God does not suffer like a human being, but as a human being, so as to tell us how he feels in his most inner being. He is suffering in order to prove to us his unconditional, perfect love — a love without boundaries, a love that gives its life for the other. He suffers so that no one can say, “I know of a place you do not know, God: my sufferings!”
God does not merely perform some kind of demonstration (“Hey, look, I am innocent, and I am also suffering because of your suffering”). In his universal compassion, the creator of the world forged a path back to paradise, a bridge over the abyss of death. Christians have very good reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is the only way, the only bridge to life. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” says Acts 4:12.
Jesus – the Bridge to Life
Jesus takes all that upon himself which for every human being, and even for God, is almost too horrible to watch. We are the ones who should atone, especially for the crimes we commit. Yet he atones in a different way. We are the ones who should pay the bill, especially for our omissions. He pays all the bills. We are actually the ones who should suffer, especially for those things which we brought upon ourselves. But it is He who carries all the suffering of sin upon the cross. We are the ones who should die as a penalty. He dies for us in the most horrible manner, a way invented to torture criminals to death in ancient times, so that we might have a path back to paradise.
And then the miracle happens: He, who took upon himself all the plight of sin and endured all those sufferings until the end, does not remain dead. The father takes him out of the realm of death. Christ lives, and he shows himself to the witnesses of his resurrection as a living, touchable person. The resurrection was not an isolated event in history. The resurrection of Jesus is our “life insurance”. It is the bridge that leads us out of transience and futility. How? It would be beyond the scope of this article to explain it here. But this much can be said: “Because death is now no longer the end of everything, joy and hope came into the world. Now that death “no longer has dominion” (Rom 6:9) over Jesus, it has no more power over us, either, who belong to Jesus.” (YOUCAT 108). Christians have the wonderful assurance that, when all suffering comes to an end, the sun of Easter will rise.
With the Sun at your Back …
With the Sun at your back, you can understand why some people can even say, “Thank you, God, for putting a few obstacles in my life. They made me stop and think and brought me back to the way of life!” In any case, it is true what St. Francis de Sales realized: “Heavy as the mountains would be the suffering you bear alone. But it is a yoke, where the Lord helps you to carry it, and he carries you and your suffering.”
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