On a regular basis, as a priest, I encounter a lot of people who suffer. Good people who try to live their lives in accord with the will of God, and also apparently not so good people who have no real care for God. It doesn’t matter though, they are still suffering. With the ebb and flow of the life of a priest, I try (usually imperfectly) to help offering support and prayers and whatever I can. Recently however, I have encountered more than a few people in a short period of time whose suffering is so great that it is pretty much off the charts. So severe the sufferings that once again, the age old question arises, “Why God? Why do you allow this?” We have all wondered from time to time why God allows His people to endure tough, and sometimes tragic times. When sickness or other trials strike, it is pretty natural for those affected and those around them to ask the question, "Why?" If God is all knowing, kind and merciful, how is it that at times He allows His people to suffer with seemingly insurmountable, even devastating, situations?
While we can give some answer to the question of why God allows suffering, it won’t end the suffering itself. That’s difficult. In addition, I think that within the question of “Why God?” is also an implicit request to God to end the suffering. Having perhaps, an answer to the question, but still also the suffering, can make it all the more difficult to shoulder the burden of the trial. We normally respond to this age old question by stating that whatever God allows in our life, he allows, not necessarily for our earthy well-being, but for our eternal salvation and also the salvation of others.
Last week’s Gospel of the man born blind perhaps gives us some additional insight as to why God allows such trials. "As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'" (John 9:1-3). The Gospel tells us that sometimes God allows people to endure much, “so that the works of God might be displayed.” What does that mean? Most often for the sufferer, it doesn’t mean relief from the suffering. God may or may not choose to heal a person from his or her suffering despite their own fervent prayers for healing and intercessory prayers of others. While Jesus did heal the blind man in the Gospel, that was sec-ondary to what he was really trying to do, cure the Pharisees of their spiritual blindness and from the suffering that was caused by their spiritual blindness.
Trials - pain, serious illness, disability, abject poverty and failure, family trauma are things that, for the believer, and often and not for the unbeliever, to cause one to call out to God. So why would it take suffering for us to turn to God? Who knows? It is easy to give God glory and praise when times are good and all is well. But how aware are we really of God’s presence in our lives when things are going so well that we don’t even “need” God? Yet, what a profound grace and a life-giving witness it is to give God glory during trials and adversity. Is it possible then that a person's faith, wit-nessed by others, may be the true reason that God does not heal them fully as they have requested? For others to watch someone struggling with suffering, who is concurrently grateful to God, is a divine experience. It is a blessing to both the person affected and to those around that person as well. For it calls the sufferer to continue to place his or her trust in God, despite the suffering (this is an act of faith) as well as calling forth a compassionate response from those encountering the sufferer (this is an act of love).
In the midst of Lent, it’s important to recall that it was the painful cross of Jesus that brought us to the glory eternal life. Despite the pain of suffering, and I know it doesn’t feel this way, but does our faith not suggest that it is a grace and an honor to share in the sufferings of Christ? All this is easily said by me as I sit comfortably at my desk typing this out. I pray that should some serious suffering come my way, and even in those little daily sufferings, that I may remem-ber that all of God’s actions on my behalf have the end as my eternal salvation, even if the means that are necessary to get there are far from easy.
God bless you,
Father Joseph Byerley