Suffering – Evidence for Atheism or a Call to Faith?

The Simple Catholic Snapshots:

  • Suffering in the world is unquestionably real.
  • Some reject God altogether because the world contains suffering.
  • Even people of faith struggle to understand.
  • How  can we possibly reconcile suffering in light of God’s loving mercy?
  • Evil and suffering stem from the free will choices of Adam and Eve.
  • Our suffering can be transformative – uniting us with Christ.
  • The mystery remains – Only through faith can we endure. 

The Simple Catholic Truth:

In our current class studying St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we were faced by the implications of Eph 3:13:

13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

We also took a look at Colossians 1:24 where St. Paul suggests a similar dilemma:

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…

How is it possible that Paul’s suffering could benefit others? Even more radical, as stated in Colossians, how could Christ’s suffering be lacking anything? Why does God cause or allow suffering? How can suffering be good? What exactly was Paul trying to tell us?

When faced with the sufferings of life that include senseless killings, indiscriminate disease, and even the act of suicide, many of us struggle for answers that comfort and sooth. But let’s be honest, perfect answers to this age-old mystery really don’t exist. We won’t fully understand until we one day stand face to face with God. Only then will we comprehend the depth and the genius of His plans. For now, I think the best we can expect is to better equip ourselves to endure the inevitable exposure to, or even the personal experience with, suffering in the world.

First, I think is it important to realize that suffering is the result of evil that exists in the world. But evil was not created by God. Evil, in and of itself, is not a created thing. Instead of thinking of evil as the addition of some (bad) thing, it is better thought of as the lack of some thing – namely the goodness of God. Genesis 1 tells us that all of God’s creation, including mankind was good, indeed very good. This goodness was complete to the point that perfect harmony existed between God and creation and within creation itself.
There was no suffering. Genesis 3 also clearly indicates that the suffering in the world began with the fall of Adam and Eve. Therefore, the existence (so to speak) of evil did not come from God but rather began when mankind rejected the will of God.

Second, evil manifests itself in two ways that are often confused or not even recognized. The first type of evil is the direct result of the free will choice of a person.

Moral Evil

Examples of this would be the murder of innocent children, robbery or even bullying. Since this type of evil results from the disordered choices of mankind, we refer to these as Moral Evils.

Another type of evil and perhaps more difficult to reconcile are those evils

Natural Evil

and suffering that result from physical occurrences like earthquakes, tsunamis, disease and random accidents.
We call these Natural Evils.

 

 

Third, Moral Evils are the direct result of mankind’s free choice of action. All choices of mankind are not intrinsically evil, only those choices that stand in opposition to the will of God. We call these particular choices – sin. Also, we must be careful not to extend any conclusions too far beyond these basic facts. In the case of the shooting of an innocent child, it is not God that is evil simply because He allowed the evil action. Similarly, the gun used is not evil – it is simply the instrument of an evil human action.

Free Will

So, in the case of moral evils we see that they are the direct result of the disordered free will choices of fallen mankind.

 

 

 

Fourth, now at this point some (particularly atheists) will claim that God doesn’t exist or perhaps even worse that God is evil for allowing moral evils. Actually when you think about it just the opposite is true.

God created mankind solely out of love. He created mankind in His image so that we could share in that divine nature (2Pet 1:4). In a manner of speaking it was impossible for God to create mankind in His image without including a free will because free will is required for mankind to love as God loves. Some things are logically impossible even for God, much like His inability to create a triangle with four sides. Therefore, mankind was necessarily created with a free will and it is through mankind’s disordered use of this free will that moral evil exists. So in a strange way, God allows moral evil in the world because He loves us.

Fifth, the issue of suffering due to natural evil seems a bit more difficult to address but again the truth is revealed in the Bible. As with the case of moral evil, natural evil came into existence with the fall of Adam and Eve. Keep in mind that at first all of creation was “very good” (Gn 1:31). This is understood to mean that all of creation – the sun and earth, the plants and animals, and mankind’s body and soul were in blissful harmony with the will of God. There were no earthquakes, there were no diseases – death and suffering did not exist. Now fast forward to Genesis 3, we see that as a result of the fall, all of creation experiences disorder. The pain of childbirth for women, the sweat of toiling in the fields for man…even the earth was cursed with thorns and thistles (Gn 3:16-19). Suffering and even death due to natural causes (evil) now exist. So we see that even natural evil is the result of mankind’s sinful use of his free will.

Six, even now that we see both moral and natural evil to be the result of the fall of Adam and Eve, some still question why God simply doesn’t stop it all right now. If God was really loving, and eventually He wants us to live in eternal happiness, then why not just end it all now, avoid all the suffering, and get right to the business of eternal happiness? Well, my Catholic faith tells me the answer boils down to something like – “because we aren’t ready yet.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC310) explains that God created a world “in a state of journeying” towards its final perfection. Our place in heaven is not secured until our nature is changed and in God’s mysterious ways he uses suffering as an element of that change. We are on a journey where God’s love penetrates our soul and changes us back into His image. In this imperfect world, in part through the effects of suffering, our nature becomes more supernatural.

But in our state of fallen weakness we continue to question the good that can come from suffering. What on earth can make sense out of a child with cancer? What good from can come from any pain and suffering. But stop just a minute… can you think of any occurrence of despicable evil that ever resulted in an ultimate good.

Yea, I thought you could too.

 

I suppose that is part of the mystery…nothing on earth can explain it, but in faith we hold it to be true. St. Paul tells us:

28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.(Rom 8:28)

We see that God in heaven can make good even from what we on earth can see only as intractable evil.

Finally, we now know that we are fallen people living in a fallen world. Pain and suffering are part of this life. It is natural and unavoidable. We really can’t explain it, but how can we endure it? Again, the answer comes from the gift of faith. St. Paul tells us [highlights added] that whatever suffering we may experience in our lives, that pain pales to the eternal glory and happiness that is our destiny.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18)

and

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)

Despair

For those that do not believe, the trials of life must be unbearable and for these brothers and sisters I feel great pain. In Ephesians and Colossians, St. Paul has revealed to us how, as we suffer and pray with all our brothers and sisters, they are mysteriously drawn to Christ and we are transformed back into His image.

Hope

For members of the Body of Christ, the hope of faith remains and with that hope we embrace the promise of eternal life and the strength to endure any temporary trials.

This is the mystery of created and fallen mankind.

This is the mystery of the Cross.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Suffering – Evidence for Atheism or a Call to Faith?”

  1. Good explanation – Great Message!!
    Sorry I can’t be at your class, Tom but Wednesday nights are my faith sharing nights with my San Antonio group.

    1. Hi Martha,

      Thanks, I benefited from organizing my thoughts on this difficult issue. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Yes, we have the same schedule conflicts with the Wednesday night SCC groups at SMDP. I point out to them that they should consider taking the few short weeks of our classes and jointly attend as a group. That way they would have some new faith topics to share.

      Blessings
      Tom

  2. Hi Tom,
    I am not at your Wednesday night class,but I have the book and am following along at home.
    Thank you for your e-mails.
    I am going to re read your words on suffering.
    As hard as I try, I still have a problem with understanding certain issues- like a child dying of cancer, along with a few other questions.
    At 72, I am still a work in progress!!
    Take good care, and have a good week!

    1. Jackie,
      You and I both still have difficulties understanding natural evil. Like you, a young child with cancer is a most difficult situation to deal with. As I mentioned, at the end of the day we must fall back on our faith and trust in God’s plan. We’ll know the complete truth soon enough.

      I’m glad you are following along as we move through Ephesians. Are you also watching the videos? As good as the book and videos are, significant benefit comes from our in-class discussions. If at all possible, I encourage you to stop by on Wednesday night and join us. Even if you haven’t gone through the questions and/or you prefer to just listen, the classes are really good.

      We are not meeting tomorrow since that is Ash Wednesday but our next class will be Wednesday, March 8th starting at 7:15. Hope to see you there!

      Blessings
      Tom

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