Can you see the good in suffering?
Most people find little joy in pain, and many people prefer to ignore it as long as possible. None of us, though, can afford to minimize it.
A devoted professor develops Alzheimer's disease, forgetting who he is and most of what he spent his lifetime imparting to others. A young woman who recently passed the bar exam is murdered while riding the train home from work--her unsuspecting husband and toddler are waiting for her. A baby just out of the womb withers from the agonies of withdrawal from narcotics. A whole village finds itself engulfed by war and poverty, its people so hungry and frightened today that they can barely envision or comprehend the future.
The list of mental, physical, and spiritual suffering that touches our lives is long and real.
"A friend of mine, a medical doctor, just died," Father James Gardiner, S.A. says. Gardiner has worked in New York City for nearly a decade with people living with AIDS. "My friend became so ill he was unable to eat, breathe, make decisions--a man whose profession was giving instructions and directives--and that caused him a lot of suffering. His mind eventually went, and he had to rely on others."
Sometimes, especially when suffering strikes us or those we love, we find
ourselves asking why. Who is to blame? Why does God allow such pain? How does this aspect of the human condition reflect God's compassion?
No one can explain it
A questionnaire on suffering, which raised such questions, was sent recently to a sample of U.S. CATHOLIC readers. Many of their responses echo the thinking of current Catholic theologians. After all, there are no professionals, no experts, when it comes to suffering.
The survey results, while not a scientific sampling of all Catholics in the United States, show how some Catholics today understand suffering, how they try to relieve it, and, when necessary, how to endure it in light of their faith.
Every great religion has explored the meaning of suffering. Christians can turn to scripture, tradition, the saints, pastors, theologians, and other Christians for help in times of suffering. As Father James F. Keenan, S.J., associate professor of moral theology at Weston School of Theology, says, "Only the God of the Christian faith became flesh, suffered, and died. That God understands our suffering."
Such beliefs are seconded by Father Robert M. Imbelli, director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. "One of the merits of the biblical witness is that it does not evade suffering," Imbelli says. "We aren't promised a dispensation from suffering, in which all humanity participates. Nor are we asked to pretend that it is not real or afflictive. We are afflicted.
"And," he adds, "there is no guarantee that suffering will ennoble us. The notion that through suffering comes wisdom does not always prove to be the case. Some people are embittered by suffering."
Most readers who responded to the U.S. CATHOLIC survey agree that suffering is part of the human condition from which Christians are not exempt. They reject (80 percent) the notion that "if we have faith, we will not truly suffer."
For most respondents (82 percent), emotional suffering has been harder than physical pain. As examples, readers cited loneliness, clinical depression, watching one's family give up on the values they were raised with, and the inability to do anything to relieve the suffering of others.
"No one can ever say of suffering: 'This is the will of God,'" suggests Keenan. "God doesn't cause cancer, car accidents, or murder. Rather, Jesus is always talking about a father who is trying to lighten our burdens. God already knows how burdensome life is. Jesus' message is that God is among us."
Readers of U.S. CATHOLIC concur. How then do they understand the causes of suffering? With considerable sophistication and nuance. Consider the following responses to two different statements: 77 percent of readers reject the idea that suffering is a form of punishment for our sins (15 percent agree with it); while 59 percent think human sinfulness is the ultimate cause of suffering in the world. In other words, suffering isn't punishment, but human sinfulness causes it.
One can detect within the first response a subtle refusal to blame God--God does not punish us by heaping suffering upon us. Within the second, is a cause-and-effect relationship--sin has consequences, hence, sin or the sinful human race (rather than God) is responsible for suffering.
One third of respondents say they often wonder why God doesn't stop their sufferings or the sufferings of those they love, but more than half (55 percent) don't.
It is hard to know which comes first: readers' trust in God's love for them or their belief that God does not cause human suffering. Either way, they are confident of God's love. Most (84 percent) say they do not doubt God's love even when they see someone in terrible pain for a long time (only 11 percent of readers admit such doubt).
Similarly, only a quarter of the respondents say they get angry at God for allowing people to go through so much pain. Such refusals to blame God seem more significant when coupled with this statistic: well over half (61 percent) think that God could stop any suffering but often chooses not to.
Similarly, with the statement, "God can't stop our suffering from natural causes such as disease, aging, or the effects of natural disasters," 49 percent disagree. They think God can stop it (36 percent agree with the statement, and 15 percent said "other"). Clearly, readers could blame God since they believe God could stop human misery but choose not to. They also observe (88 percent) that sometimes God relieves suffering in response to prayer.
For readers, it as Gardiner says, "You buy into Christianity by an act of faith. You have to accept it and put a little something toward it--even though faith is a gift."
Suffering does have a purpose in Imbelli's view. He says, "The church's task is to alleviate suffering as much as it can, but when it cannot be alleviated, the substance of faith calls us, with Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus, to the transformation of suffering."
What's the use?
Nearly all the respondents--97 percent, the largest single response in the entire survey--think it is possible for some good to come out of suffering. According to Father Raymond Studzinsky, O.S.B., associate professor of religion and psychology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., "The whole message of Christianity is not that the tragic is denied but that the tragic is overcome."
"The Bible itself is a story about human suffering," says Gardiner. "But often we don't get it because we read it for direct answers: Lonely? Read verse so and so. But the Bible is a story that should help us understand suffering is at the core of human experience."
For encouragement, Imbelli suggests biblical passages that speak of hope and patient endurance, for example, Heb. 2:14-18, where we're reminded that Jesus shares our flesh and blood; and Heb. 5:7-10, where we're told that Jesus first asks the father to keep him from suffering, then consents to it, and finally is perfected by it. He also cites Paul's vision in Rom. 8:25 that all of creation is undergoing the suffering of new birth through Christ.
"Suffering wouldn't make any sense, if there weren't Easter," says Father James A. Wiseman, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk and associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America. He notes Paul's words in 1 Corinthians that if the dead are not raised, then we are the most foolish of people and are still in our sins. "Just as Christ was raised to glory through suffering," Wiseman says, "so for his followers suffering will never be the last word."
When asked to name the "most helpful thing someone did for them during a time of great personal suffering," readers said almost with one voice: "Be with me," "Listen to me," "Pray for me," "show concern and support," and "Don't pass judgment."
That is also what experienced pastors advise as the best counseling procedure: be present. I asked three theologians what they would say to the parents of a child who died in a car wreck. Gardiner responds, "Why fo you have to say anything--anything in words? The Word became flesh. Maybe all you have to do is be there. You may have to say, 'I can't see God's hand in this, either; I'm with you.' You suffer along with the other--that's the root meaning of patience. Scripture says 'in patience you shall save your souls.'"
Imbelli advises "being with and embracing" at first. When it is time to move to further steps, he says, "perhaps you could present biblical texts, with minimal commentary, being receptive to what the texts say to the parents. Maybe encourage them to write out their own struggle and stay close to the Lord in the Eucharist."
Studzinsky agrees, "You would certainly meet the parents in their pain, help them to see God as not causing this, and help them to take the experience and transform it into a promise of life. You struggle with them in their efforts to find meaning."
For Gardiner, "some of the ways we have are the only ways to deal with suffering--through ritual. And sometimes that includes words, sometimes silence, sometimes gestures."
We're not alone
How does Christianity make sense of suffering? "Through Jesus being the Christ," Keenan says. "We believe that there is one God who became flesh and fully took on human suffering, including the fear of death and its suffering. Jesus did it to accompany us through life. He gives meaning to our suffering in the sense that we are not alone in it, but it has not been taken away from us." 85 percent of readers said as much when they agreed that Christ's suffering atoned for their sins.
Studzinsky says, "What you see in Jesus is the struggle to find meaning in suffering because it is not very clear. There is a mystery to suffering. It's not a thing one chooses--it's something one surrenders to and accepts. Jesus did not jump ahead to the final outcome of victory--it was a mystery for him as well."
Readers also spoke of suffering in terms of mystery, acceptance, and lack of control. Seventy-five percent said they often "offer up" their suffering to God; 93 percent said they talk to God during times of suffering. Most (75 percent) felt their lives would be better if they would accept their own sufferings.
In a question about enduring suffering, they mentioned praying at a chapel for perpetual adoration, sharing their experiences with family and friends, finding inspiration in persons who have suffered "with a positive attitude and their faith intact."
Studzinsky says, "One must abandon oneself to God's providence and believe that because God is in charge, everything will be well." Many U.S. CATHOLIC readers say they do.
1. God wants me to learn a lesson from my
2. God suffers with me when I suffer.
3. I've experienced some pain and sadness, but
I haven't really suffered.
4. I often wonder why God doesn't stop my
suffering or the suffering of those I love.
5. Pain brings me closer to God.
6. If we have faith, we will not truly suffer.
7. I often offer my suffering up to God.
8. I get angry at God for allowing people to go
through so much pain.
9. When I see someone in terrible pain for a
long time, it sometimes makes me doubt
10. God can't stop our suffering from natural
causes, such as disease, aging, or the effects of
11. God could stop any suffering but often
chooses not to.
12. Suffering is a form of punishment for our
13. God sometimes relieves suffering in response
14. The only appropriate prayer in times of
suffering is, "Thy will be done."
15. God sends specific forms of suffering to
specific people for a reason.
16. Suffering affects people randomly and
17. I've become a better person because of the
times I've suffered.
18. Emotional suffering has been harder for me
to bear than physical pain.
19. Suffering and death are the enemies of God.
20. Human sinfulness is the ultimate cause of
suffering in the world.
21. I offer up my suffering to benefit others.
22. Suffering and pain and death are never part
of God's will for us.
23. It's possible for some good to come out of
24. Suffering will finally make sense on
25. Personal suffering means that we are
favored in the eyes of God.
26. Suffering is an outcome of poor choices I
have made in my life.
27. As a society, we can eradicate worldwide
28. We never receive more suffering than we
29. I talk to God during times of suffering.
30. My sins add to Christ's suffering.
31. It was Christ's suffering that atoned for my
32. My life would be better if I would accept my
AN EXAMPLE OF SUFFERING IS:
A young mother of four children suffering from AIDS, who is trying to arrange for the care of her children after her death.
Sister Marian Dahlke Chicago, Ill.
My daughter who has cancer. She is the victim of a brain tumor. She has survived for over 13 years with a terminal cancer. Her suffering is impossible to describe. At times she is in incredible pain. Her mother and I give God thanks for her life.
Robert W. Stroh Churchville, Va.
Having a will apart from God's; suffering physically because of pain or suffering spiritually because of injustice; lacking love for myself and my brothers and sisters of the universe, not realizing that we are one in, with, and through God.
Susan M. Warner Barber Cincinnati, Ohio
Having a close friend, who was a good Catholic, murdered for no reason. Watching others who are close to me, such as family members and parishioners, suffer with such illnesses as cancer and kidney failure.
Father Edward M. Kachurka Ozone Park, N.Y.
Being betrayed by someone very close to you.
Malcolm J. Houts Fontana, Calif.
Having no one to turn to, no sources of comfort. Being closed off from the loving power of God.
Cuong Nguyen San Diego, Calif.
Divorce after 32 years of marriage.
P.C. LePage Phoenix, Ariz.
Living through the diagnosis, treatment, and process of a chronic and terminal disease. Watching someone you love go through a painful terminal illness.
Jennifer Ryan Columbus, Ohio
Knowing your husband is in love with another woman and realizing the attraction began because of your own failure in loving. Seeing your children drift away from the church.
Name withheld Scottsdale, Ariz.
I MAKE SENSE OF SUFFERING IN THE FOLLOWING WAYS:
Stepping back and getting a perspective on things. I pray and try to really understand what kind of growth I can find within a painful and suffering situation. Suffering can remind me to be grateful for the things that I do have and help me to be more compassionate to others, as well as strengthen my relationship and understanding of God.
Mary Grace Valentinsson Davis, Calif.
Looking at the suffering of other people who have greater crosses to bear than I do. Deriving inspiration from people I know who have endured great suffering with a positive attitude and their faith intact.
Father David Bruning Bascom, Ohio
Talking it out with God and realizing that God is still with me and that the outcome may be better for me.
Ancilla Domini East St. Louis, Ill.
By accepting what I can't change and by having the courage to change what I can to alleviate my suffering.
Father Richard Troutman Yuma, Ariz.
I am able to make sense of suffering by the belief that God does not will my suffering but my health.
Brendan Helbing Shawnee, Okla.
I really try to remember that there is a time for everything: a time for day, a time for night, a time for joy, a time for sorrow, a time for suffering, a time for rejoicing. This is God's biblical message for us.
Margaret Gurney San Diego, Calif.
Looking over my shoulder at events in my past and clearly seeing two things: events frequently did not turn out as badly as I feared they would, at times even leading to new opportunities; and that Jesus clearly was there to help.
James R. Smith Cherokee, Iowa
In my best moments, it awakens me to realities about myself that have been hidden from me because I would have to suffer to become aware of them.
Martin A. Berg Oak Park, Ill.
I usually recognize that it is my own fault, so I am spared the misery of finding fault with anyone or anything.
Harry L. Candaux San Diego, Calif.
I never deny it. I attempt to enter into it like I would any other experience. If it is too hard to handle alone, I look to someone to lean on.
Andrew Gerard Shannon St. Petersburg, Fla.
By offering my pain to God and learning to appreciate the gifts I have. I take pleasure in little things that are really big things: the roof over my head, food on the table, my health, my children's health, my job, my friends, my church, my community, and my country.
Sonia H. Alonso San Antonio, Tex.
By realizing that there are some things that are beyond our control. Parents, siblings, and children may die or abandon you, but God will always be there. God will send us help if we really need it. Also, there are some things we just can't understand. If we pray for wisdom and compassion for others, perhaps God will allow us to understand why there must be suffering.
Sheila Byrne Coleman Kenai, Ala.
THE MOST HELPFUL THING SOMEONE DID FOR ME DURING A TIME OF GREAT PERSONAL
To acknowledge that I was suffering.
R. K. Erdmann Chicago, Ill.
To be present for me and not offer solutions but companionship as I move through the suffering.
Father Ron Wasikowski Albion, Nebr.
Gave me permission to get angry at God and stressed the idea that there was a personal, almost friendship-like, relationship between God and me.
Lorie Liss Stevens Point, Wis.
Told me that what I cannot handle myself, give to God. And that when I do suffer, offer it as a reparation for the sinfulness of the world.
Patricia Cinea Bolton, Conn.
Offered a cheerful diversion, such as a surprise visit or phone call, helped with the kids, or gave me some little treat like a candy bar or flowers. It's the unexpected gifts that can really help us through tough times.
Judi Yugar Lily Lake, Ill.
Sat me down in a chair in the sun and fixed me a cup of coffee and let me cry.
Patricia Trakselis Riverside, Ill.
Simply being present--not rationalizing, not quoting scriptures. Also, by praying with me, and not so much for me.
Bill Martin Cedar Lake, Ind.
Reminded me that suffering is one form of expressing our humanity in its fullest. After all, Jesus suffered--he doubted, he hurt--but he taught us that only by going through it could we go beyond it and experience resurrection.
Anthony C. Fragale Orlando, Fla.
To listen deeply and compassionately to my pain and reassure me that God was to be known more completely through the experience.
Peg Regan Paterson, N.J.
Just being there and accepting me as I was, not passing judgment.
Sharon Sasser Ellicott City, Md.
FOR ME, THE WAY TO ENDURE SUFFERING IS:
To refocus my energy on more positive endeavors. To talk with people who have endured a similar experience and look at scripture as a source of relief.
Linda Gullo Crystal Lake, Ill.
By understanding that it is part of the human condition, that there are no guarantees of equitable treatment in life, and that no matter how bitter my pain, someone is suffering more.
John W. Whelan, Jr. Evanston, Ill.
I choose to work through, grow, and go toward God and not just endure suffering.
Alice Harrington Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
To look toward the future and believe that life will change and my situation will improve.
Anne Johnson Pulaski, Wis.
To walk through it with the help of a friend.
Mary C. Daniel New Orleans, La.
To take time for God and myself--quiet time and reflective time.
Barbara Ceranski Marathon, Wis.
Personally and privately. I consider my pain and suffering as a private encounter between me and my Lord. Then, I try to present to the outside world the very best positive outlook I can manage.
Mary L. Landry Biloxi, Miss.
WHAT CHRISTIANITY TEACHES ME ABOUT SUFFERING IS:
That God doesn't cause suffering, but he is with you in your suffering, giving you the grace that you need.
Patricia Broadbridge Winnetka, Ill.
That sin is the cause, and Christ is always there to help you endure.
Jackie Kempka West Allis, Wis.
That great faith--our Catholic faith--helps us in our suffering and keeps us from despairing enough to take our own lives.
Isabella Hillebrand Detroit, Mich.
That it is redemptive and meaningful. And with community, prayer, and God's love, we can survive and learn to love more fully.
Mary Krawczyk Holland, Mich.
Christianity is faith that God will not give me more than I can handle, and faith that God isn't punishing me by sending this cross to bear. But the worst kind of suffering is not the physical or mental but spiritual. Without my spiritual life intact, I could never deal with the emotional or physical suffering.
Khris Baumann Weidman, Mich.
That Jesus, fully human, suffered and has become for me the paradigm (if a person can be a paradigm) of how to suffer: he prayed, wept, and he even ranted and raved.
Father Richard Grek, C.R. Woodstock, Ill.
God permits it for a reason. Usually it is a result of natural law or of a violation of natural law. We should look at it and do what we can to alleviate unnecessary suffering. We can't prevent aging, but we can provide better care. Perhaps we can't prevent all poverty, but we can try to make people feel we care about them. One teacher or person can change a child's life and prevent a life of suffering. Take time to care.
Liz Calloway Bradenton, Fla.
No one, not even Jesus, escapes suffering. Suffering does not mean being cursed or punished by God. Although suffering is not willed by God, with God's help we can bring new life out of the death suffering brings.
Sister Mary T. Didier Dubuque, Iowa
God allows man to suffer. He gives us free will, which often is the cause of our suffering. That sin brought suffering to mankind just as it brought death. Therefore, it is through the will of man, not the will of God, that suffering occurs.
Harry A. Sweeney Ventnor, N.J.
That God asked Jesus to suffer for our sins that we might enjoy everlasting life. Our suffering will never be as great as Jesus', and he will always give us the necessary strength to endure. We may be called to minister to others by our example in times of suffering.
Helen Bausch Mayetta, Kans.
That we should avoid unwholesome suffering and unnecessary pain and have a reasonable attitude toward suffering. We should not allow it to degenerate into hardness of heart or lack of feeling.
Name withheld Riverside, N.J.
That it is as necessary as joy and laughter. It brings growth, witness to Christ's suffering, and courage to be disciples of Jesus.
Cheryl L. Bassett Jackson, Mich.
Suffering results from the devil's influence. God is not the author of the suffering and evil in our lives.
Linda Davis Rowlett, Tex.
Jesus suffered and died for us; we can't expect to get through life without suffering ourselves for Him and others.
Patricia Gerke Aurora, Ind.
To cope with it is a part of Christian sacrifice, love, and understanding.
James F. Ward Lake Forest, Ill.
Our desire to be God rather than to serve God has created the evil that causes the suffering.
Tom Johnston Columbus, Ohio
I cannot blame God for my suffering. He is aware and sustaining. I am living in an imperfect world. I am gifted and blessed in many ways. I have to see the indirect blessing in suffering.
Mary Gallatin Shreveport, La.
I believe that suffering is as mysterious as the gift of God's grace--neither are completely fathomable. As we accept God's grace as a gift, so we can accept our suffering as a gift and use it as a doorway to God's grace.
Father Edward Harasim Chicago, Ill.
Suffering is a forceful reminder of my mortality. It shatters the complacency of my self-centered universe. Suffering punctures my pretensions at playing God and insists that I face my limitations. Suffering is a shocking realization of my rightful, dependent place in God's scheme of things. Suffering is the frustration of my grand schemes. Suffering is humiliation.
Mark Quinn Chicago, Ill.
The worst thing a person can do to someone who is suffering is say, "I know exactly how you feel." No two people suffer alike, regardless of the situation. It is much better to say, "I'm sorry, and I am here for you if you need me."
Michael Aubrey Wills Mt. Vernon, Ohio
I had a cousin who left the convent after 11 years. She had all the necessary dispensations because she had a valid reason for leaving. However, she never forgave herself and thought God never did, either. Her life was beset by numerous and severe trials--all of which she thought were sent by God to punish her. In her last illness, she refused any medication to lessen the pain of breast cancer. This was to make up for her sins. I do not think God punishes us in this manner. He expects us to seek appropriate help and not to suffer because "it is God's will."
Jean Baack Sacramento, Calif.
The modern world is so afraid to suffer. Taking drugs to cure the suffering only leads to another type of suffering caused by the remedy. Our young people aren't taught about the value of suffering. I have worked in a CCD program and at a home for underprivileged children and have seen the behavior caused by parents not at home to teach their children.
Josephine Zahn Manda, N.D.
When I am suffering or see others suffer, I often struggle with confusion and anger. Why does it have to be this way? Make it stop! It has taken me a long time to just accept suffering. I can't really understand it. I can't change it. I know God loves me and will always be with me. I know he will use the suffering for good, as he always has. This sounds simple, but I don't find it easy.
Elaine Costales St. Louis, Mo.
I think there is a great need in the church to teach our young about the value of suffering, sacrifice, self-control, and giving up wanting our way in everything. There are suicides and drugs because of so much frustration and because youth aren't being taught the correct alternatives. There needs to be a balance so neither extreme of excessive penance or excessive permissiveness is stressed. Instead, the right perspective of the above values should be shown and told in practical everyday examples for everyday living.
Name withheld Baton Rouge, La.
My only daughter lived for three days. I literally prayed every hour of her life. We have three living sons. Looking back 30 years I see that my husband and I couldn't have managed more children. God really does know best.
Lila Brehm Atascadera, Calif. I don't get angry at God, but sometimes I wonder why innocent people suffer.
Joe Braschler Amarillo, Tex.
Suffering is walking through the doors of truth and by truth we may be set free into an openended system of awareness. The resurrected Jesus is man fully restored as he was before the Fall. We are not to ask for suffering but to accept that which comes to us. Unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ and give it to him for the salvation of souls.
Barry Simonpietri Richmond, Va.
After hospital chaplaining, parish work, and teaching for the past 30 years, I've learned that both good and bad things happen to people; that sometimes the best thing I can do for those who suffer is to be present and let them vent; and that some people deal with suffering well and some don't.
Father Leopold Keffler, O.F.M. Indianapolis, Ind.
Some of the most difficult suffering that I've been through is having a problem that no one seems to be able to understand--and those I love seem not to be compassionate. Loneliness in suffering makes it all the more painful to endure.
Barb Zimmerman Belvidere, Ill.
Going through suffering leads to strength and integrity. Going around suffering leads to weakness and compromise.
Steve Bulfer Fresno, Calif.
When I was younger, I did tend to blame God or become angry with God, asking "why" about every bad thing that happened. As I've gone through experiences in my life and met other people with varied outlooks, I've come to a new understanding of this difficult topic.
Kathy Donnermeyer Ft. Thomas, Ky.
My mother always said, "Who the Lord loves he seeks." I do not know what she was quoting, but I think she wanted to say that we were especially close to God when we had to suffer.
John H. Binzer Erlanger, Ky.
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|Title Annotation:||A Reader Survey|
|Author:||Smith, Karen Sue|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
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