The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a horrifying disaster that unfolded before our eyes on television and the Internet, not only wrenched the hearts of every compassionate person, but also raised for the believer an age-old question: Why do we suffer?
That immense question, or the "problem of evil," has bedeviled theologians, saints, mystics --all believers -- for thousands of years. The question can also be framed as: How could a good God allow suffering? (And I'll speak here of "natural evil," that is, natural disasters and illness; rather than "moral evil," those caused by human decisions.)
First, we have to admit that none of the answers to "Why do we suffer?" can completely satisfy us when faced with real suffering -- our own or that of others. The best answer to "Why do we suffer?" may be "We don't know." Anyone who offers you "the answer" is either a liar or a fool. And has probably never faced real suffering.
Second, we have to admit that belief in God may mean belief in a God whose ways will always remain mysterious. In an article in America magazine, Rabbi Daniel Polish, author of Talking About God, put it succinctly. "I do not believe in a God whose will or motives are crystal clear to me. And as a person of faith, I find myself deeply suspicious of those who claim such insight."
Polish goes on to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "To the pious man knowledge of God is not a thought within his grasp ..." This is the greatest challenge of faith, says Polish, "to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril."
But while there are no definitive answers to the question of suffering, and while we may never fully understand it, there are what you might call "perspectives" offered by the Jewish and Christian traditions.
During my graduate theology studies, for example, I took a course called "Suffering and Salvation," taught by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., a distinguished Catholic New Testament scholar. In that course, later adapted into the book Why Do We Suffer? Father Harrington looked at the traditional explanations presented in Scripture. None is an "answer" for suffering and each may raise as many questions as it answers. Yet, taken together, they can provide, as Harrington says, "resources" for the believer.
So our class read in the Old Testament the psalms of lament, the Book of Job, passages in the Book of Isaiah about the "suffering servant," excerpts from the New Testament about the passion and death of Jesus, as well as meditations on the meaning of the "cross" in St. Paul's writings.
And we studied the main approaches to suffering found in the Bible: Suffering is a punishment for one's sins (or an ancestor's sins). Suffering is a mystery. Suffering is a kind of purification. Suffering enables us to "participate" in the life of Jesus, who himself suffered, and likewise, the Christ who understands suffering can be a companion to us in our pain. Suffering is part of the human condition in an imperfect world. And suffering can enable us to experience God in new and unexpected ways.
A few of these perspectives I have found at best wanting, at worst unhelpful. For example, the notion that suffering is a punishment from God makes no sense in the face of innocent suffering, especially when it comes to terrible illness or a natural disaster -- like the earthquake and tsunami last week. Does anyone really believe that a small child with cancer is being punished for his or her "sins"? Does anyone really believe that God "caused" natural disasters in order to punish innocent Japanese in small fishing villages?
It is a monstrous image of a vengeful and cruel God.
Jesus himself rejects this image of God in the Gospel of John, when he comes upon a man who had been blind since birth (Jn 9:2).
His disciples ask him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
Jesus replies, "It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him." And he heals him.
But some of these traditional biblical and theological resources have been useful in my own life during different periods of suffering and pain.
Perhaps the most helpful was the belief that God can accompany us in our suffering. And that it was okay, and even healthy, to lament these things before God, as many of the psalms do. That it was "mysterious," something I might never understand, like Job's question in the Old Testament, but that I could still continue to be in relationship with God. That I could try (but would sometimes fail) to emulate the patient way that Jesus faced suffering. That Jesus, who had suffered intensely in his life, could be, through my relationship in prayer with him, someone who understood my trials, small though they may be, and who could accompany me in them.
Most of all, that God could somehow be with me through times of pain, and small signs of hope could become apparent when I accepted the reality of suffering. In vulnerability, in poverty of spirit, in brokenness, we are often able to meet God in new and unexpected ways. Perhaps this is because we are more open to God's presence: when our defenses are down, when we have nothing left, we are more open. This is why people who suffer are sometimes seen as becoming more religious or spiritual. They are not becoming more irrational, but more open.
This is not the "why" of suffering, nor does it "explain" suffering; but it can sometimes be part of the overall experience.
But my suffering is small. When I worked in East Africa as a young Jesuit, I met refugees who had seen their brothers and sisters murdered before their eyes. Also during my Jesuit training, I knew a woman in Boston who had been confined to a hospital bed for over 20 years. And recently a close friend's young wife was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor, and, after returning from the hospital, when I wept at home for the two of them, I saw in an instant how little I had ever suffered compared to them, and to others. My suffering is very small.
And compared to the immense suffering of those in Japan today, whatever suffering I have experienced is infinitesimal.
Moreover, my suffering is not yours. Nor are my own perspectives on suffering meant to be yours. Just as every believer must find a personal path to God, so must he or she find personal perspective on suffering. And while the collective wisdom of the community is a great resource, the platitudes and bromides offered by otherwise well-meaning believers as quick-fix answers are often unhelpful.
Sometimes those easy answers short-circuit the process of deeper individual reflection.
Believers are rightly suspicious of easy answers to suffering. My mother once told me of an elderly nun who was living at a retirement home with my 90-year-old grandmother. One day the woman's religious superior came to visit. The elderly nun began to speak about how much pain she was enduring. "Think of Jesus on the Cross," said her superior.
The elderly nun replied, "Jesus was only on the Cross for three hours." Easy answers usually do more harm than good.
Richard Leonard, an Australian Jesuit priest, wrote about his experience with such facile answers in his recent book, Where the Hell is God?
Richard's family has been touched with great suffering. His father died of a massive stroke at the age of 36, leaving his mother to care for Richard, then two, and his siblings. At dawn on Richard's 25th birthday, his Jesuit superior woke him to summon him to the phone for an urgent call from his mother. His sister Tracey, a nurse working at a healthcare facility for aboriginal people, had been involved in a terrible car accident. When Richard and his mother reached the hospital their worst fears were confirmed: Tracey was a quadriplegic.
Through tears, Richard's mother began to ask him questions about suffering that put his faith to the test. Richard called it "the most painful and important theological discussion I will ever have in my life." "Where the hell is God?" his mother asked.
Richard's answer to his mother was, in essence, that God was with them in their suffering. "I think God is devastated," said Richard. "Like the God who groans with loss in Isaiah, and like Jesus who weeps at his best friend's tomb, God was not standing outside our pain, but was a companion within it, holding us in his arms, sharing our grief and pain."
Besides the idea that suffering can sometimes open us up to new ways of experiencing God, this is the theological insight that I find most helpful in times of pain: the image of the God who has suffered, the God who shares our grief, the God who understands. Much in the same way that you instinctively turn to a friend who has already gone through the same trial you are facing, you can more easily turn to Jesus in prayer, who suffered. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses," as St. Paul's the Letter to the Hebrews says.
Richard takes a dim view of those who offer glib answers in the face of suffering. "Some of the most appalling and frightening letters," he writes, came from "some of the best Christians I knew." Tracey must have done something to offend God, some said. Others suggested that her suffering was a "glorious building block ... for her mansion [in heaven] when she dies." Others wrote that his family is truly "blessed," because "God only sends crosses to those who can bear them." Or, more simply, that it is all a "mystery" that simply needed to be accepted, almost unthinkingly.
My friend rejected these answers in favor of a hard look at the reality of suffering, one that only comes with the long struggle to have an "intelligent discussion about the complexities of where and how the Divine presence fits into our fragile and human world."
When we are suffering, our friends will want to help us make sense of our pain, and they will often offer answers like the ones Richard described. Some answers may work for us. Others may leave us cold or even be offensive.
But, in the end, every believer must come to grapple with suffering for ourselves. And while our religious traditions also provide us with important resources, ultimately, we must find an approach that enables us to confront pain and loss honestly with God.
Suffering is indeed a "mystery" for most believers, but it is not something that we should ignore, but one that we should engage with all our mind, heart and soul.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest. This essay is adapted from his book 'The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything'.