When Praying Doesn’t Stop the Pain
It is not just a tough question, it is the tough question. The problem of suffering. The problem of pain. The problem of evil. We are used to thinking of it in an abstract way, but when real suffering hits your actual life, the Catechism’s answers about God bringing good out of evil can only do so much.
I had to think about it this week when a reader raised the question with me. I started by telling her I understand why the traditional answers leave her flat.
I’ve been there.
When my mother was dying of ALS, she asked me — through a machine, because she couldn’t speak, or eat, or care for herself, or keep saliva from dripping out of her mouth — “Why does God allow this?” Every platitude about God bringing good out of suffering felt inadequate to me, so I just stared back with tears in my eyes, unable to speak.
At around the same time, the Catholic group I had devoted my adult life to turned out to be founded by a pedophile who used my group to enrich himself and perpetuate a double life. Not everything, but a great deal of what I thought was my vocation turned out to be based on the lies of a self-serving monster.
Those things meant I had to change my whole life, and prayer wasn’t a quick fix for any of it.
That’s why I answered my daughter the way I did this week when she experienced suffering on a (much) smaller scale. After she sacrificed enormously to go on a mission trip to India this Spring Break, the trip was cancelled by the coronavirus and rerouted to a domestic trip.
“But that means God will bless this trip in a special way, right?” she asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “But, honestly, sometimes you discover it just means that you are being given the first in a string of disappointments. Sometimes suffering is followed by worse suffering.”
So, how to understand what we suffer? I have a four-part answer.
First, the worst suffering I have seen has always been sweetened by love.
My mother smiled constantly even as she was dying, inspiring everyone. Our second-youngest child was born the same week we learned the truth about the priest we admired and the child brought enormous love into our house.
I’m reading the Little House books to my kids — here is this family struggling to survive with nothing in the bitter cold in a poorly insulated house and suffering malaria and loss, and no Christmas gifts, but it’s not a sad story, at all; it’s a joyous story about love.
Even, and sometimes especially, when we suffer, love makes life beautiful.
Second, this life is not all there is.
This life is not even a drop in the ocean of everything life is. That doesn’t mean this life doesn’t matter, but it does mean that our perspective can be off.
I love how the quiet, serious Pope Benedict XVI put it: “Eternal life,” he said, “ is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love … plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”
Heaven is also God’s mansion, a new heaven and earth, and an encounter with Love Himself, and our true home.
Third, in Jesus Christ, love and suffering become one.
Jesus was the “suffering servant” his whole life long. He weeps when Lazarus dies, shed tears over Jerusalem, suffers faithlessness and betrayal, sweats blood and prays that the cup of the Passion might pass him — and then embraces God’s will even when it means torture and death.
In Christ, love and suffering are one, and that creates our ultimate sweetness and our final path to eternal life where “every tear will be wiped away.”
Fourth: If you don’t believe me, ask Jesus.
I’m not sure if that is all stated in the best possible way, and maybe it just sounds like more platitudes.
But if Jesus is who our faith says he is — and he is — then you have one certain recourse. Ask him. Say, “Lord, help me understand why it’s okay that this is happening.”
I asked him over and over again during the darkest days and I got my answer: Love is foundational, pain is temporary, and our deepest desires for peace and joy are there because God will fulfill them.
This appeared at Aleteia.