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A Helpful Reminder on the Problem of Suffering

January 18, 2017

There are many questions related to the problem of suffering and of evil: Why does God permit evil? Why does He not intervene? Why does He delay? Is God really good if He permits such things? Is He really omnipotent?

I have covered some of them in the past (e.g., HERE and HERE).

The answers we can propose address some but not all aspects of the problem of evil. Suffering and evil are not meaningless, as the cross of our Lord shows, but we must humbly and reverently acknowledge that there will remain mysterious aspects.

One of our chief problems is that we often rush to call something “bad,” “unfortunate,” or “evil,” without recognizing that there are some aspects of it that bring blessings. For example, one cause of suffering and tragedy in our world is the fiery center of our planet. We live on a thin crust of cooled rock that floats on top of a cauldron of melted rock or magma; this causes suffering but also brings blessings. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and occasional climatic shifts are among the effects of living above a molten sea; they can bring suffering and loss of life. And yet without these realities life would not be possible here. Volcanic explosions produce important gases for our atmosphere, essential for life. They also produce valuable nutrients to the surrounding soil. Even more, the movement of the molten mantle beneath us is essential in developing the magnetic field that surrounds Earth and helps to deflect the harmful effects of solar winds.

So the burden of volcanic activity also brings blessings. Fearful as eruptions and earthquakes can be, we probably wouldn’t be here without them. One might still ask, “Could not God have come up with a less deadly way of dispensing blessings?” Arguably He did: in offering us the paradise of Eden, where we would be protected. But as we know, Adam and Eve sought a “better deal.” Ever since, we’ve been living in a “Paradise Lost.”

In this “Paradise Lost,” we must learn to look for blessings in strange packages; we should not assume that things or events that cause suffering are wholly lacking in value or bereft of any good at all. God may close one door as a way to open others. He permits affliction in order to bestow other blessings. We do well to avoid hasty conclusions when pondering the problem of evil.

This leads me to a memorable story from the tradition of the Eastern Desert Fathers. I am indebted to Bishop Robert Barron for reminding me of the story via his book, Vibrant Paradoxes (p. 233). I recount the story here in slightly greater detail than did the good Bishop, but I would recommend you read his thoughtful commentary. The story teaches on the often ambiguous qualities of events and problems:

There was a man who was a farmer, and one day the wind blew the gate of his field open and his valued and only horse escaped, and was not to be found. His friends came to commiserate with him at this loss, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, the horse returned with a wild stallion and a mare. And his friends came to rejoice with him in his good fortune, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, his son was breaking in the new horses and was cast from the back of the wild stallion and suffered a broken arm and leg. And the farmer’s friends came and commiserated with him at the injuries of his son, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, troops of the emperor came to the area to draft and compel the young men of the village in the army. But the farmer’s son was exempted due to his injuries. And the farmer’s friends came to rejoice with him that his son was not taken away, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Yes, in so many events of life we lack the comprehensive view to sit in judgment on their full meaning. Blessings are not always as they seem; neither are burdens. Sometimes the best we can do is to say, “We’ll see.”

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Comments (6)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Msgr.,

    All well and good as far as it goes. But it’s not nearly enough. What shall we make, for example, of the Catholic family whose house caught fire, and 6 of the 9 children died in the blaze?
    So much for Psalm 91?
    I wonder where the guardian angels were…

    🙁

    • Mom5 says:

      Perhaps those children went to heaven and if they had lived longer they might not have. I like to think-perhaps I am wrong- that God has us die when we are most likely to get to heaven.
      I have found that the “we will see ” outlook is very apt in my life. I often contemplate that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways and that His ways are not man’s ways. I have to believe that once Mary’s Immaculate Heart triumphs and satan’s reign is over that somehow someway the world will be all the better for the battle. Thank you the article-it is consoling and inspiring.

  2. Bill Martz says:

    As the parable shows, God’s vision sees infinitely beyond our horizons. The guardian angels were all right there, and so was God. Enter through the narrow gate to get the answers.

  3. Jay Z says:

    The guardian angels escorted those precious children home.

    We must be thankful to God for all things, even suffering and devastation. When I am struggling with this (which seems to be too often), I think of Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom who were in a “work camp” during WWII. Betsie even thanked God for the horrible fleas in their living barracks. Corrie couldn’t quite be thankful for the fleas, but they later found out the fleas kept the guards out of the barracks while they held bible studies. If they had been caught they would have been punished, probably killed for having the bible. So in the end the fleas saved them.

    Something else I think of is an incident many years ago when I was complaining about a medical problem – “Why me?” I’d say, and a much older friend, God rest his soul, replied “God wants to know why not you?”

    Who am I to question God?

  4. mike says:

    Sorry Jennifer,
    We don’t get to decide the good and ill in life. That is where Faith and Trust comes in. Like the Psalmist says- Though He slay me, yet will I trust him.Did God want this family to be killed? I think not as God tells us- Though a mother forget her child, I will not forget you. But He has given us Free Will and that means no interfering.
    Was it tragic that the family members lives were snuffed out? Yes! But God is not the Master Fireman checking on all houses. Everything will work out for the best, that is where Faith and Trust comes in.

  5. Lisa says:

    I used to ask myself the “why” question of tragedy a lot, especially through a horribly abusive marriage. But over the years I’ve come to say to Jesus, “I’ll take that up with you later” and then I never have to, because in the meanwhile He usually reveals His reasoning, and later never comes. Even if His reasoning is never revealed in this life, then I just get through on faith and I figure that when I finally do see Him I’ll be so happy I’ll forget what I was going to ask Him. Or maybe I won’t. But who am I to ask? His daughter! I ask my Father tons of questions! Sometimes though, instead of listening for His answer I wander away and forget we were in the middle of a conversation. I’m working on this though because if we stay close to Him, very, very close, we will never forget that we are not alone in our trials and sufferings.