If God is all-powerful, and if God is all-good, why is there suffering in the world? This is an ancient question, more recently deployed as a rejection of God. But perhaps the false assumption is not that there is a God, or that He is all-good and all-powerful, but that suffering is incontrovertibly evil. Of course, there is a relationship between suffering and evil; any privation of good is in some way evil. But is suffering evil, period, end of sentence? Are they identical, or inseparable?
One of the many reasons that the Catholic faith is held up for ridicule in the world, even by people who claim to embrace it, is that it not only makes the bold assertion that suffering is not exclusively evil, but that suffering is part of the best thing that ever happened to the world, and that you and I and every person we meet should actually choose and inflict upon themselves some suffering. On purpose. Madness! Yes, that is why the word “Lent” appears in so many punch lines.
Suffering, including our distance from God and unfamiliarity with His ways, is a result of sin. It first entered our world through the free action of our forbears, Original Sin, and is reinvigorated in every life through human action freely chosen, actual sins.
Suffering, whether by privation of good or active presence of pain or evil, was transformed when God Himself, through the free obedience of His Son, suffered on our behalf even unto death, the ultimate privation of good and accomplishment of evil. By Jesus’ free act, and the victory over death that He accomplished with it, suffering is transformed forever and for all into an act in which human freedom working in love has the power to transform evil into good.
Two weeks ago, I shared Msgr. Pope’s admiring reflection on the passion, that is, the suffering of our patroness, Saint Bernadette Soubirous. I admit that I hesitated to make it all available, thinking that to many who would read it, the overwhelming impression of the life of the saint would have been one not of blessing and holiness, but of punishment and sorrow. How can that be good, and who would desire that?
Imagine, for a moment, that pain and privation gave you not sorrow, but joy. Wouldn’t that change your disposition toward everything? What would you fear and avoid? What would you pursue and embrace? Who would have power over you? See how your life would change – for the better?
That is motivation enough for you and for me to enter into this Lent with anticipation, not trepidation. Whatever penance we freely impose upon ourselves, and unite with the passion that Jesus freely undertook for us, is a step toward joy, and a step away from fear and oppression. In Lent we should regret not the penances that we bear for forty days, but only whatever penance we failed to take up, or failed to carry; only that could be our sorrow.
Bear this in mind as you calculate your program for Lent: do not be stinting in the portion of penance you think you can manage and still “get credit” for it. Rather, embrace something that ordinarily would be too great a burden, but by your union with Christ, will be redeemed into a cause for joy.
The presence of suffering in the world does not disprove the existence or benevolence of God. Rather God Himself, by the saving Passion of His Son, has redeemed the suffering that He did not bring to the world, and made it the place where in freedom we may find union with Him. And that union is perfect joy.