Dear Father John, I really want to think of God as good but lately I have been struggling with all the suffering I see around me and in my own life. Where is God in all of this?
In our first post in this two part series we reflected on suffering from a number of conceptual angles to try to orient our hearts in the right direction. Now we will discuss a few practical matters.
Our faith is weak, and so the weight of life’s pain and suffering often obscures the light of hope. What can we do to strengthen our faith? What can we do to learn to carry our crosses, and help others carry theirs, with elegance, with love, even with joy? There is a lot we can do. I would just like to mention three things.
Eliminate the Blind Side
First, we have to contemplate frequently Christ on the cross. We need to have crucifixes in our lives – on the bedroom wall, on the desk in the office, on the screen saver, and the smart-phone’s wallpaper… We have to pray the Stations of the Cross more often than just on Good Friday. In other words, we have to prepare ourselves on a regular basis to be soldiers of Christ’s cross.
As a priest, it is agonizing to see people blind-sided by suffering – because it is so unnecessary! We shouldn’t be surprised by suffering. Jesus made it clear, in his words and example, that no one is exempt from suffering. The Church makes it clear, year after year through the liturgical seasons and celebrations, that the cross is central to life in a fallen world and to our growth in holiness. And yet, so many people, in the face of an untimely death, a painful sickness, or some other real tragedy, are still blind-sided. Their initial reaction is surprise and anger at God. But did God promise us that we wouldn’t have to face suffering in life? We must regularly contemplate Christ on the cross, so that we prepare ourselves in times of consolation for the times of desolation that will surely come.
Taking the Initiative
Second, we must consciously, purposefully, and humbly help others carry their crosses. There is no better way to become soldiers of the cross and co-redeemers with Christ than to “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). This is the most potent antidote to the self-absorption and self-centeredness that make us vulnerable to temptation during our own sufferings. Reach out to people in need. Take the initiative to bring light to those who are stuck in darkness. Here is where the Church’s traditional works of mercy come in very handy – just looking over the list can give us new ideas of how we can build up the Kingdom of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens.
Never Walk Alone
Third, we have to keep cultivating our life of prayer. In the end, we can only have mature confidence in God’s Providence if we see all things from God’s perspective. For us fallen human beings, learning to see things from God’s perspective happens only through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And the best way to give those gifts more room to maneuver in our hearts and minds is to give God time, every single day, to infuse his light and wisdom into our souls. That’s what mental prayer – Christian meditation – is all about. If you want some help to go deeper in your mental prayer, we recommend highly this book.
God is not distant from our sufferings. This is the message of Christ’s incarnation: he is with us all the time. This is the message of the Eucharist: he himself wants to be our strength in the midst of life’s troubles. So, remember, discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit! It only comes when we try to save the world all by ourselves – a very bad idea: “The world will give you trouble, but take courage! I have overcome the world!” (John 14:1).
Art for this post on struggling with suffering: Modified detail of Long-suffering, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, published prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.