The Big and Small of Suffering
A primary reason people struggle with placing faith in God is due to, “all of the meaningless suffering in the world.” The question arises easily in our minds, “How can a God who is supposedly so loving and merciful allow such terrible evil, suffering and pain in the world?” This is not a matter of doubt on their part, necessarily, because any honest believer has themselves (if they will admit it) struggled with this very question, perhaps daily, as they make their way through this life. One difficulty for those who hope to explain the “why” of suffering must first contend with many layers of very real, very deep, and very reasonable scars this world has left on the hearts of their listeners. After all, why should they, “listen to you” because YOU have not likely suffered as they have nor have you shared the same experiences. So, “who are you” to explain such things. Many will end up concluding that God, “must not love” because he has allowed such things to happen and therefore is at very least absent or at worst a cruel master. What is it all for?
Though it would take volumes to explain the meaning of suffering to some souls, I would offer the possibility that it doesn't have to take volumes but, perhaps, only a few simple glimpses to “renew our view” of suffering, life and what it all might mean for us. Okay, down to it then.
One need not look far and recognize acts of senseless evil. Our most recent examples would be the atrocities currently taking place in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, North Korea (the list goes on) to see that people, good people, many peace-loving Christian people being surrounded, gunned down, mutilated, dismembered, tortured, beheaded (this list could also go on). We could reason, quite easily in fact, that God must not really be concerned...doesn’t he seem to be standing aloof? Holy Scripture in many places presents to us the notion that God will deliver us from our enemies:
“This was the oath that he swore to our father Abraham: so set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” (from the Canticle of Zechariah, Gospel of St. Luke Ch. 1)
These words don’t seem true at first. Did God make a promise or not? Here is the first layer of our misunderstanding...
- We don’t see the “Big Picture.”Being human beings, tied to this earth and the things of this world our eyes aren’t always easily turned toward God’s view of things. We believe that what we see on the surface of things is what must be happening in total. We trust our own view, understanding and apprehension of things to be quite reasonable and solid. I would offer that this view of reality is, very much, an unstable view. We tend to place too much stock and value in our own way of seeing things. This is understandable, of course, because we are only really granted one small view of the universe and all that it contains. We assume that our view is the right view because we lack all other views upon immediate glance...it takes a certain turning of our gaze to see even the smallest matters from the point-of-view of another person. Consider for a moment only taking your view for what it truly is...one view. How could that change your view?
Our family recently passed through Tucson, Arizona and paid a visit to the Flandrau Planetarium on the University of Arizona campus. Here’s a picture.
I had been wanting for our family to visit the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson but due to time constraints we could not do both. I have fond memories of visiting this place with my dad many years ago. It is so beautiful and certainly is more my preference. That said, since I’ve recently been re-reading a book called, “The Gift of Faith” by Tadeusz Dajczer (which I highly recommend: Click to view The Gift of Faith) it has encouraged me to, simply put, see the things that come my way as the whisperings of God. To see circumstances and difficulties through the, “eyes of faith” which encouraged me to give up my preference to visit the Mission. See below.
This was not an easy thing for me to surrender but I asked the Lord to help me. What he showed me at the planetarium was exactly what I had needed to hear. This is something to take with you, Our Lord speaks to us through all circumstances in life.
As we were taking in the presentation at the planetarium they were projecting images of space, constellations and planets etc we moved from a close up view of Saturn to a much wider view of the universe. We were transported from our own solar system to a view that made our “gigantic” system look small. We kept backing out away, away, away until we were looking at a view from outside our Milky Way galaxy. Earth was shown as a speck of nothing from this view. We backed out further until we were looking at our galaxy alongside other galaxies...ours looked like nothing. Our widest view that we were able to see was a view of the “known universe” as they presenter so aptly put it. Our galaxy was no longer visible among the many other galaxies of which ours is only the tiniest speck. This is similar to the image shown.
I asked why there were blank areas of the image and the presenter explained that these were areas were are still unable to view because our own “arms” of the Milky Way block our ability to see beyond in certain directions. It then struck me just how infinitesimally small we truly are and it also struck me that the God who created this whole universe is so very far above and beyond me that words cannot begin to express the half of it. My mind immediately recalled a wonderful verse of Scripture:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:8-9
I then recalled…
"The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world."Psalm 19:1-4
This was a fantastic reminder for me as I have been struggling a bit with immense stresses at work and at home lately and I realized just how small my view of things must be as we can’t even see beyond the next horizon. I am not able to even see tomorrow and I am barely able to get a clear glimpse of my own small view of yesterday! I would offer the simple notion that in order to see the, “bigger picture” we must first realize just how truly small we are.
When, therefore, the question of our view of suffering is brought into focus in light of our relative, “smallness” in comparison to God’s, “bigness” (put in very simple and desperately lacking theological terminology) we can at very least begin to see ourselves as finite...as Christians we understand God to be infinite. It is reasonable to then understand that our view can’t possibly be adequate in light of the fact that there will always be more that we don’t understand (even about ourselves) than can be understood about precisely “why” things might be the way they are. It is reasonable to believe that God has a plan that currently extends beyond our tiny reach. This is one reason, for me personally, why I am able to understand God as “Father” and myself as his “very small child.” This does not yet get at why God “would allow” anything but it does certainly clear the way for this understanding to be formed within us.
The Short and Long of Suffering
It is normal to avoid the unpleasant thoughts that can arise when we think about our own death. We know it’s going to happen, we don’t often have the chance to know when and we don’t always know how. The great spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out." This might seem morbid to some because the thought of death is something so sad, tragic and perhaps even terrifying. Perhaps worse is fearing the manner of death we might encounter. As a teenager I can recall occasionally discussing the question, “What do you think the worst way to die might be?” Teen boys can come up with the most horrific imaginings, normally as a sort of contest, to see who has the most imaginatively terrible death-method. Teens can more easily jest this way and we might say this is because, “they believe they are immortal,” and death, “can’t catch them.” I would suggest that, in part, they are very correct and this attitude, with adjustments should be our mindset throughout life...which brings us to our second misunderstanding.
- We fear the wrong form of “death.”
Similar to misunderstanding 1 above we are deeply convinced that what we see is more important than what we do not see. Therefore we will go to great lengths to prolong our physical-life...our “temporal” existence. We avoid this food or that habit. Just as we attempt to adhere to this exercise regimen or get enough sleep. We live in what can be obviously recognized as a “health-obsessed” culture. This is in part due to the fact that we are first obsessed with our physical appearance~ different subject for a different day there. Of course, being healthy, we know is a good thing and taking care of your body is responsible...put down the Oreos...and step away from the Diet Coke...and recognize that your body will break down at some point no matter how healthy you try to be...it will surely fail. Our cultural tide pulls us along toward the goal of “wellness,” and this isn’t a bad thing entirely. To put a very different spin on this way of thinking consider the words of Jesus Christ who clearly informs us of the type of death to fear.
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!”Luke 12:4-5
Jesus also said,
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”Matthew 6:19-21
And Jesus says again later in the same chapter,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Matthew 6:31-33
Jesus shows us the proper perspective to hold toward life and death. There are many other examples of his teaching on these subjects, however, the essential thing for us to recognize, through eyes of faith, is that the Lord is primarily concerned with our souls and not our bodies. He said these things, in part, to establish a clear hierarchy of understanding in our minds. Our, “heavenly Father knows that you need them all,” yes, and we can trust Our Father for such things. Yet, we must conclude that our earthly lives are not, “what life is all about.”
People of faith are called to adjust their paradigm about life and death. When we find ourselves asking, “Why did this happen to me?” we can recall that this life, as one of my favorite Saints puts it:
“The world's thy ship and not thy home.” St. Thérèse de Lisieux
We are called to develop the view that our physical life is temporary temporal and the life of our souls is eternal. How then can this impact our view toward this life and toward suffering? This brings me to a third point.
- This life is given for us to prepare for the next.
This world is our ship and not the shore. This life is a journey and not the destination. This is something the Saints of old clearly understood.
From St. Paul the Apostle
“For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith…”Philippians 1:19-25
We know this, from the depth of our souls, that we are made for, “something more.” We know that we are not merely destined for a trying life with a dismal end. In our hearts we have a longing for something, always above and beyond ourselves. It is very easy to become depressed if you were to wrongly think that this life is all there is to life. How sad would that narrative be? “First your born, then you age, you go to work, you get married, you have kids, you work more, you retire then you die.” The joy experienced by a person of faith offers so much more as St. Paul informed us in his letter to the Roman Church.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”Romans 8:18-21
We are called to sufferings that we might experience true glory. We are called toward liberty and not decay! It becomes very clear that this life is given for the sake of the next life in Christ. We are given this life precisely for the sake of the next. Our true meaning and purpose and their purpose of everything in all of creation is for the sake of us to recognize and learn to rely on Our Father who has called us what we truly are...children of God...called to his kingdom.
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”Romans 8:28
And more, and what might be the crowning verses of all of St. Paul’s letters…
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:31-39
This understanding of suffering and even death, that is has a clear purpose and a glorious end, truly brings a great deal of peace to the soul. Also this understanding serves to set realistic expectations for all of life. We can know, as people of faith, that all the “bad” we encounter in life...all of the sufferings, sadness and pain are meant specifically to help us walk the path of Christ more closely. He came and experienced OUR suffering that he might lead us through our own suffering, that he might show us a more glorious resurrection. When we are tempted to say, “Why God? Why have you done this to me?” We can know that is because he is working “all things for good…” He is not so much punishing us as he is seeking to help us to seek first his kingdom! We desperately need to encounter these sufferings, in short, that we would not be convinced that this world is our home. He has called us to overcome and not just so we can prove our own toughness. He has called us to overcome, by his grace (through faith), the present trials so that we might more greatly conform to Jesus Christ. Is suffering meaningless? I pray that I may always answer, “of course it is.” Likewise that we may always be able to say, “My Lord and my God, my life is in your hands.”
With Mary we can say...
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”Luke 1:38
And with Jesus Christ we can say…
“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!"
He came that we might have life...both here and in the hereafter. Jesus said,
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”John 10:10
It is one thing to write something like this and yet another thing altogether to truly, deeply, live this way. I am simply not able to do this. It is only by calling on the Lord himself, and by his mercy and by his grace that anyone could even begin to view (and live) life according to his glorious plan.
Lord, grant us the grace to live by faith.
So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.2 Corinthians 5:6-8