Why do we suffer?
I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.
If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?
I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints. They told me that suffering–the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional–can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.
But suffering didn’t do that for me–it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.
This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.
Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?
My dislike–no, loathing–of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.
I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache–an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.
Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.
At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.
Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.
And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.
When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.
It became so much easier to carry that cross.
Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.
Not more fun–as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good–something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation–helped make me less bitter and more at peace.
I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?
But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption–even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.
Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.
Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into yours so that I may spend eternity with you.