As we begin this holiest of weeks on the Church calendar and ponder Christ’s passion, death and resurrection for our salvation, we are invited once again to reflect on the mystery of suffering. For many this raises questions within us about why a loving and merciful God who has the power to eliminate suffering would allow it. We may also be disturbed hearing these scripture accounts inform us that it was the Father’s will that his beloved only begotten Son be tortured, humiliated, and shamefully murdered. Even if we just consider the evils reported to us daily in the news, we may question why the creation that God called “very good” in Genesis 1:31 is so obviously marred by brokenness, decay, and death?
The pain we experience when we witness and experience these disturbing realities can and does lead some to reject that there even is a God. They just cannot reconcile the idea of a loving and just God with the pain and anguish of suffering in the world and in their own lives. Others continue believing in the existence of God but reason that he must be very distant and removed from the day-to-day experiences of his creatures for suffering to also occur. Still others accept that these conflicting realities coexist and simply avoid the topic to limit the distress it causes them to ponder this mystery. The problem with these solutions is that they often become a barrier and limit the person’s potential for a more intimate relationship with God.
In my desire to grow in my relationship with God I have had to face and ponder these undeniable realities at many times in my life. I have sought and listened for explanations of this mystery and in this article will attempt to convey the lessons and perspectives that have helped me come to an understanding that satisfies my intellect as well as comforts and encourages my soul. It is my hope that it conveys the same to my readers.
For starters, it is my belief that God created me and everything else in the universe. I am confident in this as a Christian but also as a scientist and physician. Though I know that many still debate this concept, I have studied enough of the information from both sides of the debate and found that I agree with those who conclude that an intelligent source is the only reasonable explanation for many of the discoveries that have been made in all areas of science. On the individual level, I think we can all agree that we did not create ourselves. We also recognize that although human beings are needed for another human being to be brought into existence, we are not in control of that event. We all know of couples who are painfully aware of this fact as they struggle to conceive a child while being reassured there is no anatomic reason they have not. As a medical student learning about the microscopic events we now know are required for conception and development of the embryo it quickly became apparent to me that this is indeed a miracle and a wonder that requires divine intervention both to occur and to result in a healthy human being.
Once the miracle of creation of a human being has occurred, the question then becomes why wouldn’t the good and amazing Creator protect that person from harm just as any human parent would strive to do for their child? Why would he allow anything to negatively impact his beloved? I have learned that this answer also comes from the biblical text in Genesis where we learn that the greatest gift God gives us after giving us life is liberty. The creation story describes that he provided all the resources to meet the physical needs of the first man and woman as well as a free will. This is stated clearly in Chapter 2 verse 16 in which he informs the man “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden” followed by his caution in verse 17 against eating “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.”
Having established the gift of free will to humankind, I wondered why God would make creatures who had the option to ignore him or refuse a relationship with him, since this was his greatest desire in creating them. This question was resolved for me in a sermon years ago in which the priest explained that free will is necessary for love to be possible. Without the ability to choose or refuse the other, the relationship would be forced or coerced and not open to love. God gives us the freedom to refuse him, making a relationship with him possible only if we choose it.
My next question was why would a good and loving God give his creatures the ability to choose and create an option that would cause them harm if they chose it (the tree with fruit of the knowledge of good and evil)? Let us consider the connection of free will with the suffering. We know that God alone is perfect. As his created beings we therefore are not God. It therefore follows that we are not perfect. As imperfect creatures we do not have perfect knowledge or judgement. We also do not have perfect strength or character. We will therefore inevitably make choices that imperfectly fulfill our needs and desires. This was demonstrated in the Genesis story right from the beginning. Even when given the answer to the final exam, our first parents didn’t make the right choice! Neither do we, often despite our best efforts and intentions. Perfect choices would produce perfect outcomes and anything less than that will result in some degree of pain, suffering and sorrow. Imperfect people can only make imperfect choices which produce imperfect outcomes. We therefore have to accept that there will be suffering because we are imperfect beings.
How then do we cope with and even limit suffering? The answer is again contained in this biblical text. The point of God’s instruction not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was to recognize and accept that only God is God and we are his creatures. The desire to be God is our fatal flaw, and what resulted in the Original Sin of our first parents. Their inability to recognize their weakness, accept their inability to make choices in their best interest, and be obedient to the instruction of God who knows perfectly what the best choice for us is the reason for their Fall, and for every subsequent fall throughout human history. The lesson, and solution is this: we need to be humble enough to recognize that without God’s guidance and our willingness to be obedient when we hear his voice we will continue to make less than perfect decisions that bring us and others less than perfect outcomes. This is how we sin and create suffering in our own lives and the lives of others.
We therefore celebrate this mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus because he modeled for us perfect obedience and submission to the will of the Father. He remained steadfastly focused on the greatest good of union with the Father accepting the sacrifice this would entail. Jesus stated clearly his choice. “My life is not taken from me but I offer it of my own free will.” (John 10: 18) It is now through the offer of our free will that we can be recipients of the graces he has made available to us to have a deeper relationship and union with him and the Father. We accomplish this by turning to him in the sacrament of Reconciliation and receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in Holy Eucharist. Our sufferings are united to his and his victory is ours through these great sacraments – Alleluia!
Author: Leslie Massoglia, MD, Addiction Specialist with MyCatholicDoctor
Editor: Samantha Wright, Marketing Director with MyCatholicDoctor