The tragedy of the question of suffering reveals itself when a child or a mother suffers from a disease. Does God have something to do with the suffering, that arises in our lives?
Do you, Sir, remember the ironic comment we lately read together under the last entry on my blog, . . . can’t we ask Providence not to send suffering to small children?
At the beginning of the Bible we have a symbolic image: we see, how Satan, father of lies, goes to Eve and asks her: is it true that God forbids you to eat from any of the trees of the garden? Eve makes an elementary mistake, she enters into a dialogue with evil. Wanting to defend God, she says: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden’”. She adds from herself – this is characteristic of contact with evil – “nor shall you touch it”. In this image, God actually says nothing about touching. It is she who wants to emerge with some credibility. Well, it’s such an innocent inaccuracy, isn’t it? To this Satan symbolically says: “You will not die”, which means: “Don’t trust God, God is nasty old man who sits in the clouds and hates you. He is an old man jealous of his own power and divinity. And if you take the fruit, you will be like Him. You definitely won’t die, God lies because He does not want what is good for you.” If we accept this then all our faith is for nothing. If, however, we accept God as a close, loved one, then in illness we can see a certain logic: if the Lord blessed me and my family when I was young, attractive and well-off, there is no reason for me to assume that He will turn His face away from me later. Because it is God who is faithful, it is we who are often unfaithful.
But how to explain the suffering of the innocent?
Of course, there are a variety of medical conditions affecting children.
Someone will say, that God could prevent everyone of these illnesses. I still have the image before my eyes of Pope Benedict, who talked with children on the internet. One question, asked by a Japanese girl, referred to the tsunami they had there which killed over twelve thousand people. “Holy Father” – she asked – “why?” and this great, wise theologian with immense sincerity and helplessness replied: “I don’t know”. We priests who think we should have answers to all the questions of the world, say: “It’s a mystery” or “In the next life it will be clear”. Better to learn humility from Benedict XVI.
If we begin to blame God for everything that is wrong in our lives, accuse with a wagging finger and curse, then what will prevent us losing our faith? God is not outside our matrix, He is in it, He is in us, He is intensely close to everyone. At the level of emotions – as director of a hospice – I experience the intensity of my patients, on the level of emotion I understand their rage. It is a rage such that someone is going to get it, and since God is not seen, it’s easier to let Him have it. Him, or ultimately His ground staff, that’s me.
What do these circular words mean, that God is close, and therefore also close in suffering?
Some say that in suffering we have to unite our suffering to the suffering of Jesus. For me this not convincing, and even seems illogical, though I don’t prevent anyone trying to use their suffering for the glory of salvation. Others in the queue for total foolishness say that whoever God loves, they are sent crosses. This is arrant nonsense.
My conviction is that physical suffering has zero or minimal ethical value. Since it was God who gave us minds, so that thanks to these minds we develop medicine, so as to fight the evil of physical suffering.
These words in a way reverse the narrative found in the Church.
When I talk about this, people have resented it. It dismays me, when I hear words of guidance from priests in the Church to women, that remaining in a morbid marriage with a drunk, who beats her and destroys her psychologically, is a praiseworthy martyrdom: “Carry your cross”. This a very sinister approach to matters. Marriage is immensely valuable and is indissoluble. But when it becomes a threat to life, this same life is of greater value and to preserve it you have to defend yourself or escape the threat. To save yourself is an obligation! And if some confessor does not understand this then they should go on a theology course again.
Christianity is not a religion of sufferers. God saved the world through His own suffering. He, the great God in a human body, took on Himself all the suffering of the world. But really: God did not need our pain to save the world. We know well that one drop of the blood of Christ would have been enough to save the world. The world is already redeemed and saved!
How can we grasp this practically? When, let’s say, you were fired unjustifiably from work, then in that injustice Christ will be with you. When you are diagnosed with a serious illness, or even a fatal illness, then Christ does not leave you, but is with you constantly.
This sounds a bit abstract, let’s speak specifically. How is God with you now, Father?
I speak on the level of logic, and not emotion. Think for yourself. You are His beloved child and His brother, for whom He gave everything. Do you think that when something bad happens, that He will be far away? On the emotional level we are mad at the disease, the doctors, fate. You have to grab hold of the reins and say to yourself: “Stop, stop panicking. If you have faith, don’t let yourself be pushed into the abyss of despair, which can be destructive, but take the ladder step by step
and from this low emerge, so as to maintain your self-worth, dignity and faith.”
After all, Jesus must have been broken knowing His own fate, even more than me, when I learned of this disease and its recurrence. I’ll tell you quite simply: alone I would not have been able to bear the news that I’ll die in a few months. I think, that Christ – I’m speaking as I imagine it – cried, was upset, suffered. God is a loving God, entering into our misfortunes, helping us to carry them.
It’s the same, when we fall morally. As we stumble in life and fall face down in the mud, then Christ sets us upright out of it, lifts us from the entangled mass. He is beside us – though not in the mud – thinking up a rescue plan. I just heard that Fr. W. B. of my diocese is leaving the priestly ministry. Jesus knows the context of the whole matter. It’s not for us to judge what is happening in this man. Of course, abandoning your vocation, whether priesthood or marriage (except in extreme cases, of which I mentioned), is an objective moral fault. But as long as we live we can still accept and receive salvation.
You have asked about my religiosity, and I have answered from my own perspective, but you can’t think it will be the same for everyone. In this way I have tried to explain these complicated things.
A person abandons the priesthood, and God thinks how to help him? How does that connect with the formation, which everyone, especially children in RE, hear that God is a just judge, who rewards for good and punishes for wrong?
These two views do not entirely stand in opposition to each other. That Christ is so close and wants to save us, does not release us from the responsibility and obligation to seek God. God is so gentle, that He never forces Himself into our lives in a literal way, God’s finger never displaces us. When something bad happens, don’t we say: “Get me out of this, God”. Don’t we pray: “Do this or do that”. I encourage you to try different words: “Make me capable, Holy Spirit, come and open the gifts I have received: wisdom, prudence, fortitude, so that I can deal with this with Your help.”
God rewards goodness, and punishes evil, He is a just judge. This is all true. It is also true that mercy is always before justice.
I am a little afraid, and the rest of us should be afraid of Divine judgement. I imagine that when we stand on the other side, in the total truth about ourselves, we will appear as pure conscience, as a person, not as a human, because the human disintegrates; at the moment of brain decay we no longer have human action, but we do have the ongoing action of the person.