Real Suffering, Real Solutions

Monday, January 30, 2006
As I am writing this blog, bad news is streaming across the news wires: “Newly elected Hamas leaders refuse to reject violence and terror.” Today not even the innocent are spared: “Roof collapses in Poland. Scores dead. Hundreds injured.” And a bit closer to our living rooms: “ABC anchor Woodruff seriously injured in Iraq.

Suffering is nothing new. Twenty years ago this past weekend, confusion and fury exploded in the hearts of the millions who witnessed the space shuttle Challenger fall in flames. Even its intrepid name would only highlight its ironic fate: plunging the nation into crisis. At the age of 13 I joined the rest of the country — in my own adolescent way — in asking the big question, “Why?” What was to be a ray of hope has now shattered dreams and broken faith.

The double tragedy in the West Virginia mines this month gives us a fresh reminder of the same bitter sentiment. For hours families echoed in their own words the joyous sound of church bells. “Miracles still happen in West Virginia!” Then came the slap in the face. “Sorry, misinformation. They’re dead.” And with the bells now silent, the slap seems to have come from heaven.

Even if these events slip by without probing our existential sensitivities, or if we prefer to turn off the TV and leave the paper on the porch, we know that life has a way of imposing the questions on its own. “Why so much suffering? And then later, the question gets personal. “Why me?”


These inquiries come to me often, both on and off the air. “Father, certainly you’ve got it figured out, right? If God is good and if God is all-powerful, why does this happen? It seems so wrong!”

I’ve found that an understanding smile or embrace often gives a more convincing response to those who suffer than an attempt at a logical explanation, but I’m also convinced that the human heart’s quest to find solutions to its quandaries is a natural sign that answers really do exist. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, and I hope that doesn’t burst any bubbles. But I have found vestiges of truth that at least have helped me. The answers, or the hints to the answers, are on two distinct levels — the natural and the supernatural. When I say “natural” I mean reason. When I say “supernatural” I mean faith.


1) From pain comes gain. It’s a little bit like working out at the gym. If we want to get in shape, it’s got to hurt. And this simple principle is written all over nature — the winter preludes the spring, the night the day, a seed’s decomposition a fresh flower, birth pangs a newborn baby.

2) Suffering makes me more human. My life, after suffering what I have suffered, and also triumphed, is now a better story. Precisely because of pain and suffering, I’m a better person. We all agree that forging character is difficult but “worth it.”

3) We shine when times are bad. In times of crisis, the outpouring of charity and generosity — and not just in a material sense — is a real good that would not otherwise exist (tsunami, Katrina, etc.).

4) Life after death: You may wonder why I consider this part of our natural, logical solution and not one of faith. Let me explain: Sociologists and historians concur that there has never been a civilization that did not believe in the afterlife. Could every civilization be so wrong?

But for all of that, when a loved one dies an agonizing and senseless death, principles like the ones above all fall dreadfully short. And that brings us to faith. I only go to this level on a blog like this, because I know that if I don’t, you’ll fill up my inbox saying that there has to be more.


The traditional Judeo-Christian faith principle (every religion offers some explanation) is that God will somehow bring forth a greater good out of the evil that he permits. Augustine of Hippo — a fourth-century genius and saint — put it like this: “God is so good that he would never permit anything evil to occur, unless he were powerful enough to be able to draw good from every instance of evil.

I put “permit” in bold because it’s helpful to make the distinction between God’s “permissive will” and his “active will.” Stay with me. It sounds complicated, but it’s refreshingly simple. God causes good things (life, for example), but he does not cause evil. He permits it in order to bring out a greater good. This principle of good coming from evil almost sounds logical if we reflect just a moment. We can imagine that safety measures taken at NASA after the Challenger explosion, and by other federal government agencies in the mine tragedies, may save the lives of many others. Polish authorities may require higher standards for roof structures and spare future generations. The list could go on, including not only material blessings (good consequences), but also emotional and spiritual.

Of course, cold calculations of the proportion between good and bad consequences only work to a certain point. When the suffering is my own, or when death is knocking at the door, pure reason comes up short and faith is needed to accept a promise of a greater good when we can’t even imagine what that might be. But the good news for us hard-headed rationalists is that simple faith is not anti-reason. Here’s why: The reasons mentioned above and many others like them, including a personal experience of a loving God, lead us to make a step of faith in a most natural way.


Me too. So much so that I’m working (all too slowly!) on a book about this topic. The more I get into it, the more pressing and passionate the question becomes.

I would appreciate hearing from you. After all, suffering is a personal thing. I am sure that some of you have remarkable stories about pain and triumph in your own lives. If you want to share them, I’d love to hear them. Tell me if you’ve come up with natural or faith-based answers that have helped you and that could help others. Tell me if what I have written makes any sense at all.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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