Suffering is very real and very personal. There are no simple answers. Suffering is complex and challenging. We often want simple and easy answers. But there are none when it comes to suffering. In what follows, I will try to provide some starting points for further thought and prayer, but please forgive me if anything I say comes across as if I am not taking seriously any real-life suffering you may be experiencing. My hope is that will not be the case, and that amid the suffering of this world each of us will find strength, comfort, and meaning in our faith and be willing to do the difficult work of prayer and seeking answers.
In order to understand the question of suffering, we need to look at three things:
· Sin and its consequences
· Can suffering have meaning?
· The Good News: The power of faith and the possibility of healing
Sin and its consequences: Christian revelations teaches us that what God values above all is relationship. But for relationship to be meaningful, it must be freely chosen; for it to be freely chosen, there must be the possibility of it being rejected; and wherever there is the possibility of rejecting relationship, there is also the possibility of pain and suffering.
The truth is that God never intended us to suffer and die. But our first parents, Adam and Eve chose to disobey and brought death and suffering into the world. And before we go blaming Adam and Eve, we have to face the fact that we too choose to sin and act selfishly and we perpetuate the effects of sin in our world. I think that our pride often gets into the way of our being willing to admit the truth. God created us in freedom, in love, and we freely chose to reject His laws. This reminds us of one of the first steps for us as Christians, that we must come to a point where we admit we are sinners and we are responsible – we must stop blaming and pointing fingers. We, not God, not anybody else is responsible for my choices. The truth is, once we admit our sinfulness, there is a type of healing that takes place in us. As Jesus taught, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
Can suffering have meaning?: There is a modern heresy in many evangelical churches today, called “the prosperity Gospel.” These churches claim that authentically turning our lives over to Jesus immediately results in abundant health and financial prosperity. The idea seems to be that faithful Christians should never be poor or experience sickness.
First of all, this contradicts the Gospel. Jesus taught, “If you want to be a disciple of mine, you must pick up your cross every day and follow me.” He also challenged one of His potential disciples, the rich young man: “You are lacking one thing, Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and come follow Me.” (Mark 10:21)
We don’t go and look for suffering, but suffering and the cross are simply a part of discipleship. The truth is, Jesus’ passion and death also gave meaning to suffering. Suffering and death were not part of God’s original plan for the world. They came along as fallout from the sin of Adam. Nevertheless, Jesus never promised to rid the world of suffering. But he did show us that suffering can be embraced and offered back to God the Father as a kind of atonement for sins and for others.
St. Augustine said that God “would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil” (“On Faith, Hope, and Love,” iii, 11). Maybe the best example of this was how God took the suffering of Good Friday and brought forth the Resurrection of Easter Sunday. God the Father’s sending of his only Son to suffer and die for our redemption shows his deep love for us. That alone should remind us (and maybe even those without a strong faith) of God’s love for mankind.
The Good News: The power of faith and the possibility of healing: First, and foremost, I want to say that for believers, everyone of us will be healed. Whenever I anoint someone with the Sacrament of the Sick, I always say:
“Lord, help us to remember that the ultimate healing we will experience is to be with You forever in heaven.” Even for those who are healed in this life, that doesn’t remove all suffering and the other challenges of life. Miracles and miraculous healing are signs, not ends in themselves. They are signs of God’s love and Him revealing Himself to us.
Having said that, miraculous healing is wonderful and is to be welcomed. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, writes that “Healing is an essential dimension of the apostolic mission and of Christian faith in general. It can even be said that Christianity is a ‘therapeutic religion, a religion of healing.’”
Let us remember, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. But he would die again one day. All of Jesus’ healings are signs. They are signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world, and they are signs that God does want us to be whole and know that He loves us. So why isn’t everyone healed? First, everyone can experience healing. It’s just that the healing God wants for us may not be the healing that we think we should experience. In my ministry over the years, many times people need to experience spiritual and inner healing first. Some people have lived very dark lives. Some have been traumatized by life through no fault of their own. So sometimes God needs to allow us to invite Him inside of us so that we can be healed emotionally and spiritually.
The truth is, this world is very broken, and sometimes our brokenness causes us to turn from God and become bitter and cynical. How many times I’ve seen addicted people who have become so manipulative and obsessed with the need for control. Some people give into their rebellious and sinful nature. Remember faith is a decision, to be free means that we can freely choose to reject God.
In the end, only God knows, in His wisdom, His plan for our lives. But we must choose and invite Him into our hearts. No one can do that for us.
Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada struggled with this issue for a long time. As she recounts in her book, she sought physical healing of her quadriplegia. She prayed and fully believed that God would heal her. In her words, “I certainly believed. I was calling up my girlfriends saying, ‘Next time you see me I’m going to be running up your sidewalk. God’s going to heal me’” Yet Joni is still in a wheelchair today, 45 years after the accident that left her paralyzed. God did not physically heal her. Yet, her perspective is one of great faith: “God may remove your suffering, and that will be great cause for praise. But if not, He will use it, He will use anything and everything that stands in the way of His fellowship with you. So let God mold you and make you, transform you from glory to glory. That’s the deeper healing” God will not be put into a box.
The question we need to ask in any given situation is, what does God want? Does He desire to heal the individual in this life, or does He have another plan to show His glory through weakness? Someday, all sickness and death will be eradicated. Until then, there is a greater healing, the cleansing of sinful hearts, that God performs every day.
On the image of Divine Mercy are the words: “Jesus, I trust in You.” I want to ask all of us this question. Do we really trust Him? Can we love Him whether we’re healed in the way we think God should heal us? Or is God calling us to be like Joni Tada? One thing is sure, God is sovereign and supremely wise.
Our next Holy Spirit Encounter is Friday, June 7th at 7:00 pm. in our church. I would like to invite all of you to come and be open to whatever God has in store for you.