What is God’s Will Regarding Suffering?

AnswersCatholicAdviceForYourSpiritualQuestionsEditor’s Note:  The following post comes from a new book by Fr. Bartunek published by Franciscan Media: Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions. The questions and answers in this new book are some of Father John’s best. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.

With special endorsements by:

  • Dan Burke: “These questions can launch the soul into an engagement with God that it would have otherwise never known.”
  • Jeff Cavins: “Solid answers for enquiring hearts.”



The spiritual life is, in its most basic elements, nothing less than a following of Christ, an imitation of him. And his very food–the thing he hungered for that nourished and strengthened him–was “to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). The phrase “God’s will” can cause confusion, however, unless we identify two broad subcategories: God’s will can be either indicative or permissive.

God’s Indicative Will

God can indicate that he wants us to do certain things–this is his indicative will. In this category we find the Ten Commandments, the commandments of the New Testament (such as, “Love one another as I have loved you” [John 15:12], “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” [Matthew 28:19]), the commandments and teachings of the Church (such as fasting on Good Friday), the responsibilities of our state in life, and specific inspirations of the Holy Spirit (for instance, when [Saint] Teresa of Calcutta was inspired to start a new religious order to serve the poorest of the poor).

The field of God’s indicative will is vast. It touches all the normal activities and relationships of every day, which are woven into the tapestry of moral integrity and faithfulness to our life’s calling, plus the endless possibilities of the works of mercy, thus obeying the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

Yet God’s will not only consists in what we do, but also in how we do it, which opens up the whole arena of growth in Christian virtue. We can wash the dishes (responsibilities of our state in life) with resentment and self-pity or with love, care, and supernatural joy. We can attend Sunday Mass apathetically and reluctantly or with conviction, faith, and attention. We can drive to work seething at the traffic jams or we can exercise patience. More often than not, when we ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” God’s indicative will is crystal clear.

God’s Permissive Will

But the phrase “God’s will” also touches another category of life experience: suffering. Suffering, of one type or another, is our constant companion as we journey through this fallen world. God has revealed that suffering was not part of his original plan, but rather was the offspring of original sin, which ripped apart the harmony of God’s creation. His indicative will to our first parents in the Garden of Eden was “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (see Genesis 2:17). They disobeyed. Human nature fell; creation fell; evil attained a certain predominance in the human condition, giving rise to “the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death” (CCC 403).

Here is where the distinction between God’s indicative and permissive will comes in. God did not desire or command Adam and Eve to rebel against his plan, but he did permit them to do so. Likewise, throughout human history, God does not will evil to happen (and its consequence, suffering), but he does permit it. He certainly didn’t explicitly will the Holocaust, for example, but on the other hand, he permitted it.

The question of why God permits some evil and the suffering that comes from it, even the suffering of innocents, is an extremely hard question to answer. Only the Christian faith as a whole gives a satisfactory response to it, a response that can only penetrate our hearts and minds through prayer, study, and the help of God’s grace (see CCC 309). St. Augustine’s short answer is worth mentioning. He wrote that if God permits evil to affect us, it is only because he knows that he can use it to bring about a greater good. We may not see that good right away; we may not see it at all during our earthly journey, in fact, but Christ’s resurrection is the promise that God’s omnipotence and wisdom are never trumped by the apparent triumphs of evil and suffering.

How Long Is Too Long?

You can know the will of God in your life through the commandments and the responsibilities of your calling (God’s indicative will) and through the circumstances outside of your control that God allows (God’s permissive will). Physical suffering is typically a circumstance that’s out of your control; it would most likely fit into the category of God’s permissive will.

Pray Freely, Accept God’s Answer, and Live with Mystery

First, praying to be delivered from suffering is fine. It is one of the fruitful responses to suffering, because through that prayer we exercise our faith, hope, and love for God, along with the precious virtues of humility and perseverance. Jesus prayed for deliverance in Gethsemane. St. Paul prayed to be delivered from the thorn in his flesh (see 2 Corinthians 12:7). But this prayer of petition should always be offered with a condition: “Lord, let me be healed of this affliction, if it be your will.” We have to trust that if his answer to our prayer is no or not yet, that answer flows from his infinite love and wisdom, even if we don’t particularly like it.

Second, as long as God has not healed you, either through a miracle or through the natural, prudent steps that you have taken (medical attention, for example), we know that he is still permitting your suffering. In that sense, it is his permissive will for you to continue bearing this cross. So, for now, this is part of God’s will for you. I say “part” because God’s indicative will still applies. Even in the midst of our sufferings, we must strive to remember that by following the commandments and fulfilling the responsibilities of our state in life, we are glorifying God, building his kingdom, and following Christ. We should try to avoid letting our crosses blind us to the integral picture of our Christian discipleship (which includes continued participation in the sacraments, prayer, and loving others as God has loved us).

Third, on a very practical note, it is not always easy to know when to stop praying for a particular petition. In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to always “pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), and even tells us a couple of parables to illustrate the point (see Luke 11 and 18). He also promises: “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7). And yet, St. Paul had the experience of asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed–repeatedly–and God did not give him what he asked for. There is a mystery here. St. Augustine explains that God sometimes refrains from giving us the specific thing we ask for because he wants to give us something better; he wants to respond to a deeper desire from which the specific petition flows.

Learning from St. Paul and a Practical Tip

St. Paul kept asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, until he received this answer from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). With that answer, Paul no longer felt a need to ask for healing.

As long as you feel in your heart the desire to be healed of your affliction, continue to bring your petition to the Lord. But in order to avoid becoming obsessed with or confused by the painful situation and God’s mysterious response, perhaps it would be helpful to make your petition in the form of an established devotion. For example, you can make the Nine First Fridays devotion for this intention. Or you could do a novena to St. Pio of Pietrelcina or to Our Lady of Good Remedy during the first nine days of every month. By circumscribing your petition for healing within an established devotion of some kind, you can be at peace that you are doing your part (persevering and not losing heart), while not letting your struggle disturb or dominate all the other aspects of your Christian discipleship.


To learn more about Father John’s book Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questionsor to purchase a copy, click here.

The book is available at Amazon at this link.

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