If God is good, why does God permit suffering? This question presents a primary stumbling block to faith. It is a question that each and every person will most assuredly confront at some point or other, as suffering in its various forms finds us all. Of course, there is no easy answer to this question as we are ultimately dealing with great mystery. Even Christ was not spared the hurts of living in a fallen world. Perhaps, this is why it has often been said the final word before the mystery of God is “muein,” an ancient Greek word meaning “to close the mouth.”
THE SHADOW SIDE OF FREEDOM
In order for us to be fulfilled, we must live in harmony with that for which we are made. The Catholic Church teaches us that God freely created us out of love for eternal life in communion with God. In other words, we are made for Love, for God is Love, and, therefore, we can only live a full life if we live into this Love.
The story of the Garden of Eden depicts just such a time. As beings made by Love for Love, our first parents enjoyed an existence absent from suffering. They shared completely in the overflowing abundance of God’s love for humanity and the world.
However, our first parents were also susceptible to the birth of a disordered understanding of self because beings made for love must also possess a free will. Without free will, love, which gives itself away freely, is simply not possible.
Consequently, the state of communion that our first parents enjoyed in the garden required their ongoing choice. They had to choose and say, “Yes!” to this communion out of their own love for God. Naturally, this meant that they could also say, “No!” It was just this possibility that the serpent in the story seized upon. Of course, we know all too well that the serpent convinced our first parents to disobey God.
Because of their “No!” to communion with God, communion was ruptured. The woman and man suddenly felt like they were separated from God, a consciousness that reflected a lack of right relationship with God. Far from a fuller enjoyment of life, they moved from a state of abundance to an existence where suffering became all too real. This deformed understanding of self, or separateness from God, continues to plague us all, influencing our own choices for communion.
THE TENSION OF FINITUDE
Life also truly thrives when it is in balance. However, this balance is achieved and maintained only by means of any number of fragile tensions. When these tensions are broken or lost, balance is lost and life succumbs to any manner of disorder and death.
For example, consider that our planet orbits a star. Any variation in gravitational forces could change the shape of this orbit or affect the earth’s distance from the sun. Either of these would have dire consequences for life on earth. What’s more, we are told by scientists that cosmic rays constantly bombard the earth from beyond our solar system. Again, these rays would spell the end of life on the planet. We are spared from this outcome only by the solar winds of the sun, which shield our solar system from these rays like the protective arms of a mother. At the same time, though, these same solar winds can kill us, too. Fortunately, our atmosphere protects us from these winds.
There are also innumerable natural processes, each with its own function in maintaining balance in nature. However, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and the like can visit untold suffering on human beings. So while God’s respect for human freedom can provide a reason for why God permits some suffering, what can explain God designing such a world?
Communion with God the Father is possible when we are “of the same mind, same love, united in heart, and thinking one thing” (Phil 2:2) with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have already said this means living in the Love that is God, a Love characterized by “kenosis,” or “self-emptying.”
St. Paul refers to Divine Love as “agape.” “Agape” is a proactive searching out for opportunities to love rather than a mere passive reacting to particular situations with love. Jesus Christ makes it even clearer for us. Throughout the Gospels, we find that whenever someone asks Jesus what love is, they immediately get a task.
What is love? Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit the prisoner. What is love? Forgive your brother seven times seventy times. What is love? Go and sell all that you have and come follow me. What is love? Pray for your enemies. What is love? Lay down your life for your friend.
In other words, love requires us to act for “agape” is pure action. Love also requires us to deny our very self. Love is other-centered by its very nature. Love is self-giving and self-sacrificing. And God has loved us first.
From the loving act of creation to the Incarnation to Pentecost, God is revealed as a Love that seeks expression in the good of the other. And God, fully in the Three Persons of the Trinity, faithfully continues to love us first through a continual self-emptying.
Now we too are invited to do the same: to imitate God’s self-giving love. It is a call that is renewed each time we face natural disasters. The suffering of others invites us to solidarity, which gives birth to our own “kenosis.” Our own suffering also invites us to “kenosis” as we can imitate Christ in “offering up” our suffering for the redemption of others.
Doug Culp is the CAO and secretary for pastoral life for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. He holds an MA in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.