Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Does God Give You More Suffering Than You Can Bear?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Does God Give You More Suffering Than You Can Bear?

Article excerpt

Suffering, as we know, can be physical, psychic, mental, emotional. There are many forms of suffering and it is inescapable. Everyone suffers; it is part of the human condition. Even Jesus was "destined to suffer grievously" (Luke 9:22), and so are we. It is an age-old problem. For 3,000 years people have been writing about it. One third of the 150 psalms are of lament and petition. Late first-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote that many wise men of antiquity thought that heaven was unconcerned for us, letting the good suffer and the wicked prosper. Seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Even the early 19th-century novelist Charlotte Bronte observed, "Why life is so blank, brief and bitter I do not know."

A recent issue of the journal Priests and People calls suffering the most difficult subject of all. But before we can explore whether God gives us more suffering than we can bear, the question comes up of whether God causes suffering in the first place. A few Catholic editors that I talked to thought that God did not cause suffering. "God is too transcendent." One priest said that "God is not a monster."

If we think of suffering as evil (and that's another question!), God could not cause evil. In a 1994 U.S. Catholic survey 51 percent of the respondents agreed that "suffering and death are never part of God's will for us"; 38 percent disagreed.

Scripture, however, records that God does cause suffering. No, not in the Garden of Eden. But because Adam and Eve violated God's will, they were expelled. And we have had suffering ever since. The Old Testament is replete with stories of suffering. Adam and Eve, as we see, brought on their own. In the biblical account, God willed that the ground Adam tilled would be cursed and bring forth thorns and thistles. To Eve, God said, "I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children" (Gen. 3:16). Another punishment for her would be that Adam would be the boss. A great many women do not accept that particular suffering anymore today. But why should all women succeeding Eve suffer pain in childbirth?

Cain, Adam and Eve's son, killed Abel, his brother. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, killed a boy for bruising him (Gen. 4:23). God caused the flood, and innocent children were drowned. As punishment for the golden calf, Moses had the Levites "slay your own kinsmen, your friends and neighbors" (Exod. 32:27-28). About 3,000 were slaughtered.

The Lord opened the earth and the recalcitrant Dathan and Abiram and their "wives and sons and little ones" were swallowed alive. "At their shrieks" the Israelites near them fled, afraid of the same fate. Then "fire from the Lord came forth which consumed two hundred and fifty men" (Num. 16:31-35). God also had a man stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).

The ten plagues were God's idea also, and many innocent people must have suffered. At Bashan, Moses, at God's command, slaughtered every man, woman, and child (Num. 21:35). Some time later, Moses had all Midianite boys and nonvirgin women slain--the army officers could keep the virgins for themselves (Num. 31:17-18). And so it went.

To get back to our title question, was the suffering, caused by God or brought on by the people themselves, more than they could bear? One priest said that he knew of several suicides caused by unbearable suffering, the suffering in his thought caused by God. In scripture, always the basis of our spirituality, we read of four suicides. Ahitophel hanged himself after failing in his plans to betray David (2 Sam. 17:23). Saul after seeing his three sons killed and himself wounded by the Philistines, asked his sword bearer to run him through lest the Philistine "make sport of me." But the frightened armor bearer refused, and Saul then fell on his own sword. And the armor-bearer did likewise. …

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