More on God and suffering

March 22, 2006 | 7 comments

OK, I’ve decided to make the topic of suffering and God’s will my thought project for the next couple of weeks. I actually have the book that Jennifer recommended, C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, sitting on my bookshelf but just haven’t gotten to it. I think I’ll put down my current reading (On Being Catholic by Thomas Howard) and go back to Lewis for a while.

Part of my motivation is that the comments to my post and Jennifer’s and Ersza’s thoughts on the subject have been wonderful and have kept me thinking about the issue all week. But there’s another reason that I really need to get some sort of resolution on this issue.

My family and I live with my mother (the story behind that is the subject of another post…or entire blog) and on the mantle of her fireplace sits a beautiful black-and-white portrait from the 1940s of her parents and her brother, their firstborn son and at the time their only child. The photo shows my young and beaming grandparents, my grandfather in his military uniform, probably just home for a while during his service in WWII. Their cute little son, Timmy, who looks quite like my own son, is wearing little khaki overalls and a striped shirt and he grins from ear to ear. He looks like he’s probably about two and a half. And every time I walk past that picture I tear up a little bit and am reminded how much I need some resolution on God’s role in human suffering.

A few weeks after that picture was taken, in April 1945, my grandmother, Timmy and her mother were out running errands near their home in Pennsylvania. A trucker ran a stop sign and hit their car. My great-grandmother was killed instantly. My grandmother, then five months pregnant with my mother, was thrown from the car. Timmy was injured but probaly not badly. But then the car caught on fire and Timmy was trapped inside. It took a while for them to get him out. I won’t go into graphic details of his physical state, but he was in gruesomely bad shape by the time they got him out. My grandmother held him on her lap as he screamed in agony on the way to the hospital. Unfortunately for him, he lived another two days before he died from his burns. My grandfather was back at the war so my grandmother was left alone.

For a while I’ve been thinking about asking my mother to take this photo off the mantle so I don’t need to think about that horrible incident every time I walk through the living room. But perhaps it’s good that it’s there. It’s certainly a catalyst for my desire to have a deeper understanding of the problem of suffering.

I realized after writing my last post about this issue that what probably bothers me most about the photo is that it’s a physical reminder that I cannot reconcile such an occurrence with my (currently very immature) spiritual beliefs. And little Timmy’s physical resemblance to my own son makes it really hit home how woefully unprepared I would be to handle such a situation. I don’t know what would happen with my spiritual quest if something like that were to happen to my family right now…but…it probably wouldn’t be good. My grandmother, a Catholic convert when she married, remained a devout Catholic through the rest of her life, so she must have had some sort of insight into the issue. I wish she were still around so I could ask her.

I don’t mean to burden you readers with such a sad story. I share it only because it’s my litmus test for the problem of pain, the example I turn to to test every school of thought on the subject, so any further discussion of my views on the subject would be incomplete without sharing it. Whenever I hear possible explanations for what is and isn’t God’s will, how our suffering fits into his plan, etc. I always turn to this situation and ask if this-or-that theory makes it make sense.

So tonight I plan to print out and re-read Jennifer’s posts, Ersza’s posts and Steve’s comments on the subject and then move on to hear what Lewis has to say. I know that this is probably one of those things that humans can never completely grasp, but I would like to feel like I have a little bit more spiritual depth on the subject, perhaps to one day even be able to walk through the living room and see those smiling faces in the little gold frame and feel like it all ended up OK.


  1. Jennifer


    What a painful history–I’m wondering if the tragedy you recount had anything to do with your mother’s atheism?

    Just look at how the suffering of that dear child is still working in the world that he left behind–it already has significance because of how it impacted you and your mother.

    It is definitely NOT meaningless–the question is, as someone posted on Rachel’s site, where are you going to place your faith.

    Even nihilism and atheism require placing your faith somewhere–for their is no tangible evidence for either of those positions either.

    It comes down to free will and a choice–I find the transformative power of putting my faith in Christ awesome. It literally transforms our deepest fears and our most aching hurts into spiritual gold.

    You can begin to look at your uncle as a martyr for your family–it is not only your choice but your responsibility to make his suffering meaningful and sanctify it.

    Perhaps he knows what damage his tragedy has done to faith in your family and he is interceding for your children–he works on you as you pass his picture because he is praying for you and for yours.

    I’m praying for Timothy and for your mother and for you now–I believe the sanctifying power of his suffering has already begun to work its deep, mysterious magic.

  2. Ersza

    What a terrible tragedy! I’m flattered that you find my opinion worthy of consideration. I hope you don’t mind if I caution you to place more authority in primary and secondary sources such as the bible, the catechism, and the writings of saints or respected theologians. My perspective is that only of one Christian who is still trying to figure things out.

    As regards your uncle’s terrible death–that is very hard to understand. Suffering is very much a mystery, and there’s nothing saying that a Christian must understand or master this mystery. We can struggle with it all our lives and let it challenge our faith. Some people get angry with God, and that’s okay, too. It’s all part of being human. Kind of like in a marriage–it’s better to get it out in the open. You might even get an answer. 🙂

  3. SteveG

    I am so loathe writing anything more on suffering as I’ve had seemingly so little of it that I feel like a pretender.

    Sure, we’ve had tragedy in our family as well. I have an uncle (Robert) who was run over by a car playing in front of his house at 6 or 7 years old, and died on the way to the hospital in his mother’s arms.

    I have a cousin (Georgie) who died at 2 in his mothers arms in the middle of the night when he just stopped breathing. So in some sense I’ve seen these things.

    But me? No, I feel like I have had it so easy at every turn that I am ashamed to even call anything in my life ‘suffering’. When I read Jennifer’s (perfect work-PF), or Arwen’s blog, I feel like such a spoiled child. I suppose if you knew everything about me, you’d suggest that it’s not so, that I’ve had my own challenges, but they seem so minor in comparison.

    So take whatever I say with a giant grain of salt.

    As I look at the discussions going on, everything seems to boil down to two issues. *Perspective (our lack of it) and

    We use phrases like ‘It’s all part of God’s plan’, and I’ve seen a couple of people swat at that as Pollyanna. But what I think is implicit in that statement, for us who accept it, is the understanding that God’s perspective on what is going on is so much grander than our own, that even though we can’t see ‘the good’, He can.

    We are like a little child who is given a shot at the doctor’s office. All the child knows from her perspective is the pain, the crying, and the seeming betrayal of parents allowing this to happen. But with our perspective, we see the part that the child can’t grasp. That the pain now is being allowed so that a greater good (or more correctly, preventing a greater evil from occurring) can take place.

    I am not suggesting an explanation to any of the suffering that’s been detailed in these discussions, but would like to ask if we, even in our limited capacity, can conceive of some possible good(s)?

    Is it possible that, as Jennifer (PF) suggested, your uncle, my uncle, and my cousin are in communion with God right now, interceding on our behalf? How do we know that it’s not directly because of such intervention that we ourselves have come to faith?

    Is it possible that God took these people from their families because that was the one moment at which he could ‘save’ them and bring them to him?

    Let me explain that last bit more clearly. As parents and family members we have this prejudice about the potential of those people whom we are closely connected too. We almost reflexively envision these people having grown up to be kind, wonderful people.

    But what if my uncle Robert would have been allowed to live? What if he wasn’t going to be one of the ‘good’ ones? What if he’d have been a rotten SOB who cursed God with every breath and brought evil to the world?

    What if, in his state of innocence, before he could do wrong, God took him 1) because that was the last chance He had, and/or 2) to prevent even greater evils from coming into the world? Wouldn’t it be better for Robert, for the world to have it thus?

    Now, I confess that even writing that as a hypothetical was hard for me. It feels like a betrayal of an uncle I never knew to even suggest the possibility. But if we are to put any meat on the bones of ‘It’s all part of God’s plan’ we have to step outside of our common train of thought.

    If even I in my limited capacity can conceive of such a simplistic version of things where the taking of my uncle is seen as ‘good’, then how much more a limitless God’s true understanding of how this works out.

    It sounds almost trite, but a big part of our difficulty seems to be simply a lack of perspective as we experience life from moment to moment in a linear (and limited) way.

    I made this same comment on Jennifer’s (PF) blog, but we have to be extremely careful about the danger of diminishing God because of our own limitations in understanding and perspective.

    Why use the word trust instead of faith. The reason is because I think that many people think that when we say faith, we mean ‘blind’ faith. They think that we close our eyes and despite the tragedy which occurs, we keep a stupid grin on our face and blithely plow forward muttering ‘It’s all in God’s hands.’

    But my understanding is that accepting God’s will that suffering will work out for the best in the end is built on a trust that God has ‘earned’ (for lack of a better term).

    I once got into and extended discussion in a forum with a young man who accused people of faith of exactly that, and used Abraham as the pinnacle example of blind faith. Here is my response to him in two posts written almost 2 years ago (beware, it was a REALLY contentious discussion)…


    …And I think this equally applies to us. Do we ‘trust’ God. Do we have a faith (not blind) that builds on what God has done for us (even in the act of simply creating us) to put trust in him even when we can’t see a satisfactory resolution.

    And OUR trust can be built upon something even greater than what Abraham had. We have an immeasurable pledge God has given us upon which everything rests. The pledge of His very self, that held nothing back, that suffered to humble himself and experience the worst of what life has to offer. A pledge and a promise that says yes, suffering is real. But it is a pledge that also says that past the suffering, if we will trust, there is new life…the resurrection, boundless love and the beginning of the reconciliation of all creation.

    It really sucks sometimes that we won’t get to see the ‘new life’ that comes from the suffering in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come to pass. If Jesus is who we believe, we have every reason to TRUST and hope that if we are but willing to struggle through, we will see the glory of that new life.

    The new life and love springing even from the children lost, and the seeming tragedies we see all around us. And in some cases, if you keep your eyes open, you run across folks like Jennifer (PF), and James , and your grandmother, who give us breathtaking glimpses of it even here.

  4. Colleen

    Jen: I cannot add to what has been said here but I did want you to know that I have read your story and am deeply saddened by what happened and the pain it brought to all of you. There is so much suffering in the world! I am certain that it is not meaningless. Your questions, your own spiritual journey are so important– I continue to pray for you.

  5. Melora

    What a heartbreaking story. In your place, I’m not sure I could bear to leave up that picture.
    Like many others, I’ve struggled to understand the problem of pain and a loving God. I haven’t found satisfactory answers in C.S. Lewis’s writing to this, although his Mere Christianity is what brought me to Christianity in the first place. I don’t know whether it is because he never had biological children of his own, but from his writing, I’ve never gotten the sense that he understood the intensity of a parent’s love for their child. Richard Hauser wrote a book called “Finding God in Troubled Times,” which I found helpful. Even he, though, when it came to extreme suffering, concluded that there are some things that are simply beyond understanding (and, to me, this is easier to accept than arguments that a loving God willed horrendous suffering as a part of His plan).
    I hope you find some peace in working through this problem. I come back to it periodically.

  6. Anonymous

    You've probably worked out your thoughts surrounding this question by now but I thought I'd share another perspective. I read a book on Christian thought that proposed that 90% of suffering (or thereabouts) was the result of others sin. There is the possibility that God could step in, on each and every occasion and prevent or reduce or repair, however, if God stepped in at every turn, at every sin, at every ill-thought act, then there would be no consequences, no reason to turn our love to Him either. There would be no responsibility, it would be meaningless. The author proposed that suffering was basically the product of free will. Things like floods are often caused by extensive environmental damage, starvation because we have the resources to feed everyone but won't distribute them fairly…the list goes on. That view works for me. I can understand that like children, we must go through our own journey and not have everything repaired immediately, physically, by God, because otherwise our choices would be meaningless and our devotion hollow (haha, if I believe in God:) But funniest thing, there is a Christian couple, not of the Catholic church but another local one, who door knock, just wanting to help bring people to Christ rather than their specific church. And I haven't seen them in MONTHS. Many months. Until yesterday. And I was in. And could talk to them, I had a not too busy day. Whadda you know??) Ann (I emailed you a couple of times).

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