Please Don’t Give Easy Answers to Suffering’s Mystery
What are the best reasons to reject God’s existence? One of the greatest thinkers of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas, could only conjure up two decent ones. The first is our apparent ability to explain away God through what we now call the physical sciences, and the second is the problem of evil, or suffering. If God existed and was good, why did He create a world with so much pain and suffering? Why continue to allow it? Although atheist authors are proliferating in modern times, there really aren’t any better reasons coming from them.
In the Summa Theologica, the most revered theological text of all time, Aquinas uses a method of discourse called disputatio to define and explain truths. This method first lists a number of “objections” to the truth being defined or proven, then a zinger quote that shows those objections might just be wrong, and then a focused answering (or dismembering) of the objections. In other words, he states the best opposing views in the most articulate and persuasive way, then throws a wrench in that thinking, and then uses that wrench to build out the truth. It’s tempting to want to skip to the answer, but good thinking requires thinking through a whole argument. The Summa is not just brilliant in its articulation of truth, but in its articulation of error too. Today we are often too quick to offer a solution without giving due time to the problem. Aquinas did not make that mistake.
For the “answer,” or the zinger quote to counter the problem of suffering, Aquinas quotes St. Augustine: “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil,” (Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II. Q2. A3). So, the only decent answer to the question of suffering is that God can draw good from it. This does not mean, however, that all of the misery in the world is now easily “grasped” in a way that lets us move on to the next problem. Suffering is one of those things that is so mysterious and powerful in its effect that it disrupts our very vision of life. If it makes up 50% of Aquinas’ possible reasons for the non-existence of God, then we should be, perhaps, more reflective and humble in explaining the “logic” of pain and suffering, especially to those in the midst of it.
This site prides itself on presenting unapologetically the truth of the Catholic Church for and through the eyes of men in the trenches of leading and fathering, but there is a danger in being prideful in our “possession” of the truth. Truth should possess us. Even armed with Aquinas, we must be careful with what we know, remembering St. Paul’s simple words: “Knowledge puffeth up…” (1 Cor. 8:1, Douay). When someone is quick to dismiss or explain the sufferings of others, it is likely an example of an individual who lacks love, experience, or both. “And if any man think he knoweth any thing, he hath not yet known as he ought to now” (v. 8:2).
The way one “ought to know” suffering, it seems, is by entering into it. After all, to know God is to know Jesus Christ, and to know Him is to know His Holy Cross. God did not answer the “problem of suffering” by giving us the answer or work-around, but by diving completely into it, and coming out. Eastern religions like Buddhism “answer” the problem of evil by denying it, saying it doesn’t exist because there is no “dualism” between good and evil, we just experience the oneness of reality in different ways. You only think you are suffering, but in true enlightenment, you would be free from it because you would know it doesn’t really exist. Shallow self-help books propose similar solutions to suffering, but with a heavier focus on positive thinking, a sort of cognitive brutality against what your senses are telling you.
The answer Jesus gives opposes this sharply. Evil and the accompanying suffering it causes is so real that you must deal with it and only on the other side enter into the freedom of the resurrection and redemption. Not only can you not deny it or avoid it, you must pass through it to be saved. In Eastern religions suffering is escaped through enlightenment — realizing the irreality of suffering. In Catholicism enlightenment comes by walking the via crucis, the way of the cross.
When we are face-to-face with intense suffering, it is a mystery so profound it requires silence; it strips us of pretension and, potentially, of pride. But in this encounter new levels of holiness and unity, with God and others, becomes possible. The opposite is true as well: suffering can also turn us away from God. Well-formulated explanations of suffering have been written, but they pale in comparison to approaching the mystery through the story and experience of the one who suffers. Keeping with the tradition of the Book of Job (and the life of Jesus for that matter), we learn best to trust in God in the midst of darkness when we hear stories of others whose trust was tested by the trials they endured, not by those who can explain suffering as an abstract idea. Being close to others helps. Because, it seems, we will follow that road of suffering eventually, there’s unique courage in knowing we as Christians literally cannot suffer alone (see 1 Peter 5:9).
The Cistertians live a rather austere application of the Rule of St. Benedict, and in their tradition of reform they strip away all worldly comforts, embracing, as it were, a life of suffering which is the life of penance and self-denial. Yet even in their zeal for simplicity, which included removing all gold from their chapels and vestments and even removing artwork from their walls, they always maintained the tradition of having a painted crucifix to meditate upon —
and nothing else. Suffering achieves a similar end – stripping away all of our pretensions and sense of control and accomplishment, leaving only one thing before our eyes — the suffering Christ. Only from the pierced side of Christ is the truth, reality, and even the often miserable history of mankind understood in any meaningful way.
So, it does seem that the greatest challenge to God’s goodness and existence is the presence of our pain. Yet the greatest answer — perhaps the recipropocated “challenge” from God to us — is the reality of His suffering on the cross. If the “answer” to evil is that God allows it only so that He can draw more good from it, there is no greater example than the salvation He drew forth from the death of His Son, the unjust torture and execution of the totally Innocent One. “[We] preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). The answer to suffering, then, is not a principle, but a Person. As we kneel through Lent and embrace forms of imposed suffering, we are confident to “get through” to Easter not by our will power, but because we are joining the Suffering Christ, and He is joining us.