On Fridays we remember the sufferings of Christ. Thinking of our Lord’s sufferings, let us think of the meaning of human suffering. Suffering is very commonly seen as unjust and without meaning. For instance, many very intelligent philosophers assert that a child born with great disabilities has no meaning in life. Is there any way we can gain a view of the bigger picture? Well, for this it can be helpful to look at a big canvass - some world event of tragic proportions and notice the sequence of events that at times results.
Let us take an example of this on a grand scale. The last week of 2004 was filled with the immense tragedy of the earthquake under the sea that caused such a vast loss of life in Asia. Among other things it provoked a debate in the papers - for instance, in the Sydney Morning Herald - as to the very existence of God. If there is a God, he must be almighty and all-loving. But if God allows such a thing, how could he be loving? Or, if he cannot stop it, how can he be all-powerful? Now of course, we cannot understand why God allowed such a thing to happen, because of the limitations of our minds. God’s reasons are far beyond our capacity.
But before we consider this, let us remember what God has revealed as to the reason why evil entered the world. It did not come from God. St Paul says that sin entered the world through one man and with sin death, and death has spread to the whole human race. So everything that has any connection with death as we know it ultimately, mysteriously, somehow, springs from man’s sin. Somehow the immense and perennial disharmony between man and his world derives from sin, man’s original sin. How this is so, is not revealed to us.
But the point to be noticed is what happened in the aftermath of the tragedy I have just referred to. There was a vast outpouring of funds and charity to help the peoples of Asia. The world came together in a way not often seen. Australia offered one billion dollars, and began a new collaboration with Indonesia. What it means is that this terrible event was the occasion when people had the opportunity to do great good. And they did it. So that is one meaning that evil and suffering are shown to have - it provides the opportunity for great good to be done. Now, what are we to think of all those lives that were lost in the process? If very many people responded so magnificently and as a result grew in their moral stature from their actions, then perhaps God took into account this result when judging the lives of so many who went before him for their judgment so suddenly. Their lives were lost and that resulted in a great surge of selflessness. In a sense they gave their lives, even if not freely, for that great good. God may have rewarded them for this in some way.
Whatever about that speculation, what is undeniable is that suffering is the occasion when good can be done, and indeed, when great good is often done. Evil is the occasion when good, more good than existed before, can subsequently be displayed.
Now if the occurrence of suffering can be the occasion for the doing of good by man, this gives us a key to understanding how God views human suffering, and how it is the occasion for him to draw good out of it. On one occasion our Lord was going along and he saw a man who had been blind from his birth (John 9:1). The disciples of our Lord, knowing that evil has not come from God but in some way from man, asked our Lord, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” They forgot that there was another alternative. The blindness could have been part of the general dislocation of mankind and the world springing not from personal sin, but from original sin. In any case, our Lord answered them, “Neither he nor his parents sinned (in the sense that the sins of neither were responsible for the blindness). He was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” So the blindness and suffering of this man would be the occasion in which God would act and bring about good. That was the meaning that our Lord chose to put on the problem of why this man was born blind. God permitted it because he had a plan to bring more good out of the bad situation.
On another occasion a close friend of our Lord’s, Lazarus the brother of Martha and Mary, fell gravely ill to the point of death. The sisters sent word to him to come. Our Lord delayed, saying that “This sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.” Jesus knew that in the meantime Lazarus had died. He went to Bethany where Lazarus was buried, and told them to take the stone away. He said to Martha, “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” And Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The evil of Lazarus’s death was the occasion of God’s glory being manifested.
This pattern is shown par excellence in the suffering and death of our Lord himself. Our Lord went before the leaders of the people, the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, the scribes, the pharisees, the Sadducees, in order to bear witness to the truth about himself. He was condemned to death, scourged, crowned with thorns, beaten, dragged to Calvary and there crucified. The end of his life was an ignominious death, full of undeserved suffering accepted out of obedience to the salvific plan of his Father. Nothing justified that death. It was a monstrous and unique crime the like of which will never be seen again, for this Jesus who was condemned and crucified was the Son of God, God himself. But out of it, mysteriously, God drew the redemption of the world. Good was drawn by God out of the evil which was perpetrated by sinners. The evil was borne by the all-holy and innocent one, and out of it came immeasurable good, the salvation of the world, and the sanctification of whosoever chooses to take the means Christ has left to the Church for personal sanctification. As St Paul says, God brings all things come together for good for the sake of those who love him.
We then ought understand that suffering has now been transformed from being simply the consequences and punishment of sin to being the springboard and occasion of immense good, provided the suffering is united with that of Christ.
Why did God even allow the world to continue, so profoundly affected as it was by man’s sin, and alienated its all-good Creator? Why did God not just start again? We do not know - presumably it was due to God’s undying respect for man’s free decisions, with all their consequences. But what we do know is that God is continually working to bring immense good out of the evil that ultimately comes from man. Gazing on the life and figure of Christ can help us appreciate this. When, therefore, we experience evils in our lives, and when vast sections of mankind experience evil, we can be sure that God is working to bring good out of that evil. But we in our turn ought be trying to do God’s will and collaborating with God in bringing good out of evil.
And let us remember that God has brought about a coup. The suffering which seeking of God’s will entails will be productive of unheard-of good. God works mightily with us in the midst of our sufferings. So much is this so that we are encouraged to accept and even embrace some difficulties and sufferings in union with Jesus who accepted and embraced his cross. Our Lord was crushed in his fulfilment of the will of the Father. But he willingly accepted this suffering as being essential to the divine plan, and from his death his heavenly Father brought forth the redemption of the world. If we unite ourselves to our Lord, the difficulties inherent in a life of union with and imitation of him will bear much fruit, fruit that will last. How so? It will happen by the power of God, bringing good from what appears to be evil and difficulty.Let us resolve to appreciate the meaning of our Lord’s words, that if anyone wishes to be his disciple, he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow in our Lord’s footsteps