I came across this article going through “old stuff” to throw out, published in 1968 in Our Sunday Visitor.  (Is that still around?)  Thought I would have already put it on my blog but apparently not.  Back then you had to go to a place with a copying machine in order to make copies.  I’m glad I did.


The fact of suffering is inescapable. We have but to look around and see the woman who can bear no children or the woman who cannot bear the children she has,  the man without a woman, the man with a woman, the victims of earthquakes or earaches, of indigestion on the one hand or starvation on the other.  Examples can be multiplied indefinitely.  If we have not personally had much to suffer we may well ponder the fact that we are not long for this world and that no one gets out of it alive.  I gives us food for thought.

But suffering does not present for the atheist the problem that it does for the Christian.  Oh, the atheist suffers all right, as intensely as anyone else.   He casts about for ways to avoid suffering, to alleviate suffering, or to endure it.  He can look for the silver lining if he wishes, opine that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, or philosophize that that’s the way the cookie crumbles.  But that;s about all the philosophizing he can do.  His lot is quiet desperation, quiet resignation, or not-so-quiet rebellion, depending on his mood.

It is only the person who believes there is a rational order in the universe who is entitled to ask the reason for suffering.  What purpose does it serve? It is only the person who believes that God is, and that God is good, who has to ponder why that good God permits the innocent to suffer and the evil to prosper.  The “why” of suffering has been a stumbling-block of Christians for ages.

The thalidomide baby . . . why?  The boy-soldier in Vietnam . . . why? Why do they suffer for someone else’s stupidity or cupidity?  Atheist and Christian alike can blame a drug for as the immediate cause of the thalidomide baby’s deformity.  But what about the final cause?  Where does this hapless creature fit into the Creator’s scheme of things?

“If God is good,” the cynics ask, “why does he permit suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent?  “Is that the way a loving father acts?” If we pause to think about it, we realize that, in fact, it often is.  The small child does not now understand why the attractive insect he is about to grasp is snatched away from him.  He cannot comprehend why the answer is “No!” when he pleads for something he is better off without. He does not know why he is made to do things he does not want to do and is punished for doing things he wants to do.  Someday, when he is more mature, he will understand why his parents treated him the way they did.  For the present he must accept his frustrations, pain, and denials because someone who loves him knows they are necessary for his growth and happiness.

The wisest of men is but a baby when it comes to fathoming the designs of a God who can “write straight with crooked lines”and has ordered all things to the good.  It is immediately apparent that there is no direct proportion between sin and suffering, at least in this life.  Rather, if there is any proportion at all, it seems to be inverse.

St.Teresa is reported to have chided God, telling Him it was no wonder He had so few friends, he treated those he did have so badly.  When the blind man in the Bible asked Christ who had sinned, the man or his parents, so that he was born blind, Christ gave the answer:  It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.  There, in a nutshell, we have it.  Suffering is permitted so that the works of God may be made manifest.

From all eternity God has foreseen that the operation of natural laws and man’s freedom of choice would result in suffering.  The laws of nature are going to result in disaster when two cars hit head-on or the climatic conditions are right for a tornado.  Man’s freedom of choice is going to result in his occasionally behaving in such a manner as to grieve his fellow man.

There is no evil, however, no matter how great, that does not fit into God’s overall plan and from which He cannot draw good.  The suffering of others presents an opportunity for us to love and to serve.  Our own suffering should be looked upon as a test, not a punishment.  It will help if we can  believe with St. Teresa that from the viewpoint of eternity out life on earth will seem as but one night in a bad inn.

Suffering can bring about an opening of the heart, an awareness of the trials of others and a compassion for them.  It can soften and mellow.  It can disclose hidden strengths as well as weaknesses, reveal depths of courage and wells of kindness.  In the wake of seeing how poorly we suffer, how petty and demanding we can be, we learn tolerance for the complaints and imperfections of others.

Suffering reveals us to others and others to us.  It can bring us to our knees –we who stood so straight and self-sufficient find that we need others and God.  When the trial has passed the person might say, “It was necessary that I should suffer in order that I might learn this.”  Though he would not want to go through his ordeal again, now that it is over he considers it a valuable experience.

Suffering strips us of illusions, revises our standards of value, and often results in the replacement of old values with an entirely new set.  To quote Veuillot, “Certain things cannot be seen except with eyes that have wept.”

I believe it was Bishop Fulton Sheen who said that on the way to sanctity suffering is first endured, then accepted, then embraced.  Christians are enjoined to take up their cross and follow Christ.

Is suffering, then, a good and even a necessary thing–an unavoidable means to our eternal happiness?  If so, perhaps we would be doing others a favor by being the occasion of their suffering.  Instinctively we know that is not so.  There is plenty of suffering to go around without our deliberately doling out unnecessary pain.  We not only shrink from suffering ourselves but feel an urge to alleviate suffering in others when we are confronted  by it.

We have not been told to make each other suffer,  rather love one another.  We recognize suffering for what it is, an evil.  We feel it is right that we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, visit prisoners, and otherwise comfort the afflicted.

It was also Bishop Sheen who made the statement that the world is full of half-crucified souls.  These are the people who start out willing enough to accept God’s will but find the going rough and end up saying, “Thy will be done, O Lord, — but not now, and not like this.”  “My cross is not the right kind, it rubs in the wrong places; it makes me irritable and humiliates me.  I could bear another cross with much more dignity and courage.”  Or, “My cross is not the right size.  Really, it is much too small.  I could do with a good big, satisfying burden, but these multitudinous splinters!  They drive me to distraction. Their very pettiness makes me impossible.  Let me do the thing once and grandly–not, O Lord, a lifetime of niggardly trials upon trials, day after day.”  Or, my cross is too big, more than I can bear, it is a crushing soul-searing weight.  It overwhelms me, it is too much for anyone to accept.”

Then we remember that Christ voluntarily gave up His life on the cross, suffering intense spiritual anguish,  (“My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me”)  as well as physical torture.  He has shown us the way.  “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me….”  Then, “Not my will but Thy will be done.”

We are invited to take up our crosses and follow Christ, to become other Christs, to share in His redemptive work.  Through Christ, united with Christ, the evil that is suffering has value.  This is what the saints recognized when  they desired to suffer.   To be Christ-like means to be willing to suffer for mankind.  “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.”  It is love that transforms the evil that is suffering into a redeeming force.  Accepted for love of God or fellow-man, suffering can become a thing of value.

It is human to shrink from suffering.  Even Christ did.  We need not go out of our way looking for a burden to bear.  It will come our way, sooner or later.  And when it does, if we look closely at our cross we will see that it is custom-made with our name on it.  It is designed to rub where it will hurt.  If it did not pain, if we could get used to it, it would cease to be across and it would not do the job.

The cross that is ours is master-minded exclusively for us to gradually wear away at our egocentricity, to abrade our pride, to make us not what we think we ought to be but what God thinks we ought to be.   We have but to submit to the process, to trust and “wait upon the Lord.”  With Mary we can say , “Be it done unto me….”  With Job, “Though He slay me, still will I trust in Him.”   And when we have surrendered  our will to God’s will, we find that God will not be outdone in generosity.  We receive more than we gave.  We have emptied ourselves only to be fulfilled.

Many years ago at retreat house near Chicago I chanced upon a few lines of poetry penned in the guest book by a previous visitor.  The lines were from Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven and were written above the signature of a man who made his retreat as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. They read:

“Ah must, Designer Infinite,

Ah must, Tho char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?”

With Thompson the writer seemed to lament the apparent truth that an instrument  that God could use for His work must first undergo fire.  In a similar metaphor another poet compared God to a sculptor and complains, “My God, Thy chisel hurts.”  The poet had put himself into God’s hands to be made into a thing of beauty but winces when His chisel chips away at the ugliness in which he is enmeshed.

For the atheist there can be no purpose in suffering.  It is simply an evil to be avoided if possible. For the Christian it is also an evil but when  this evil befalls us we can believe, and even sometimes see, that evil is only permitted by God because it cannot triumph.  God’s work WILL be done.