Our culture today has a bad habit of seeing suffering as punishment. The general consensus of suffering follows along these lines: We suffer because God is punishing us. God oppresses us because we have sinned against him. We experience suffering because God thinks we deserve it.
There is a danger in explaining suffering in this way. First of all more than just the guilty suffer. A definition of suffering as punishment does not explain why the innocent suffer. Secondly, if God punishes and causes harm to his people who he supposedly love, it tends towards a disconnect between loving Father and abusive guardian. Finally, suffering may be punishment, but it extends far beyond it. To confine suffering to punishment slights the beauty of what suffering truly means.
The Proper View of Suffering
The question of why we suffer and how we should suffer is a topic which needs more than a simple blog post to explain. Nevertheless, I will attempt to give a quick explanation of the proper view of suffering. First, lets start of with a wrong view of suffering.
Many of us who suffer feel God treats us unfairly. We believe that God betrays us and abandons us to suffer in our human weakness. We blame God for our sufferings and challenge him. We ask him why he makes us suffer. Why do I deserve this? Why are you doing this to me? This way of looking at suffering gets us nowhere. Like Job we began to get fed up with our suffering. Job wishes at one point that he were never born saying, “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? (Job 3:11).
Pope John Paul II comments on Job’s position saying, “Job must look upon suffering with new eyes and realize that it must be accepted as a mystery beyond human understanding.”This is the proper view of suffering: Suffering is a mystery.
Suffering as a Mystery
A mystery draws you in and inspires you to reflect in a deeper way. Mysteries change our perspective on life. Suffering is a mystery because we in our human understanding cannot grasp it’s meaning completely. In faith we can learn more about suffering, and by asking ‘Why?’ we are led into deeper contemplation of suffering.
Suffering is used to discipline, to convert, to rebuild goodness, to express Divine Mercy, and to overcome evil that lies dormant in us. I think the best way to explain this notion of suffering is through an analogy.
Think of an experience as a young child when your parents refused to let you have something that you wanted. Or perhaps a time where your parents took away something you had. Maybe they took away play time in exchange for timeout, or maybe they didn’t let you have candy before dinner. You may have cried and through a tantrum, but young children rarely hold grudges and the next second i’m sure you had forgotten all about it. In these early years children completely trust their parents and don’t question their authority. Parents set guidelines for their children to protect and instruct them in life.
Now think of an experience during your teenage years when your parents refused to let you have something that you wanted. Or perhaps a time where your parents took away something you had. Maybe they wouldn’t give you money to pay for movies, or maybe they grounded you for underage drinking. In this circumstance the majority of teenagers rebel from the authority of their parents. When a parent sets a guideline, it is now seen as a punishment. From the eyes of the son or daughter, the parents are oppressing them and causing them to suffer. In their minds they are missing out on some perceived good, so they suffer because of it. They ask, why are you punishing me? Why do I deserve this?
Even a child who hasn’t done anything wrong can still ‘suffer’ on account of their parents. It might be a difference of opinion, or a misunderstanding. In our culture today people have an awful habit of being repulsed by authority. We grew up in a wold where we can ‘do what we want’ and no one can tell us otherwise. It’s a very individualist society and we do not like to be punished. We see punishment as bad, evil, awful and suffering.
However, when a parent sets a guidelines they do not view them as punishments. Even when they do ‘punish’ it’s never because they want their children to suffer but it’s because they know what is best for their child. A child doesn’t see the big picture of life yet, and a parent tries to illuminate their path.
God As The Perfect Father
To translate this relationship of ‘Parent and Child’ to ‘God and Human’ is easy. God is Our Father. “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). This Father knows even more than an earthy father does. His wisdom exceeds out imaginations. God sees the entire universe and all reality in one instance, so of course he knows better than us.
He wants us to come to him when we suffer and ask ‘Why?” just as a teenager asks his mom ‘Why?’. Simply by asking ‘why am I suffering’ shows that you truly do trust God and you believe he has the answers. If your parent punished you and you turned around and walked out on them, claiming that they do not know anything and they are being unfair and you run away, your parents would be devastated. It was not their intention to punish you so you would walk away. Instead they truly care and want you to open up to them. God wants the same from us. As children of God we should be open with him about our feelings of confusion or despair.
When we ask God to answer our questions we assume that he is there, truly present to give us the answers. Suffering may seem unbearable, but like any good parent, God knows what his children can handle and would never as too much from us. We need to view suffering through the eyes of God. This is what God wants for us, to participate in his Love and see that suffering for love of him creates in us a new heart.
We must trust that God sees more than we do and that our suffering serves a greater purpose. Perhaps it is to form our wills to conform more with the will fo God. Perhaps it is so that we are made stronger for events to come. Perhaps it is God asking us to come closer to him and dwell in his own suffering.