By Russell Shaw
Why did God let that happen?
For centuries that question has been asked about items in the endless catalog of human misery. About the Holocaust, Midwestern tornadoes, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. And about intimate personal tragedies: a teenager killed in an auto crash, an old person dying unwanted and alone, a marriage that collapses amid bitter recriminations.
Why does God permit such things?
Start with the fact that whoever claims to have the definitive answer is either talking through his hat or doesn’t understand the depth and complexity of the problem.
In the Old Testament, God’s response to Job is blunt: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ... Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” Here and now that’s about as much of an answer as we can expect.
In the New Testament, moreover, Jesus, speaking of a man born blind and of people killed when a tower fell, dismisses out of hand the idle speculation of bystanders that these unhappy events were God’s way of punishing somebody’s sins.
All the same, it sheds a glimmer of light on the mystery to realize that the very same question — why does God let that happen? — applies as much to good things as to bad ones. Why does God permit happy marriages? A promotion at work? Satisfaction in a vocation? These happy things are as real as the unhappy ones, and God’s hand is at much in operation in the good as in the bad. Why does he permit them?
About the good things, of course, we suppose we know the answer: God permits them because he wants us to be happy. But that’s too superficial an explanation. God also wants people who suffer to be happy. So why does he allow their suffering?
Fully to understand why God permits anything, good or bad, we’d need to know the whole of his providential plan. But that is something we can’t know until we see God face to face in heaven. Then, presumably, it will become clear how everything fits together in the final fulfillment of God’s will. For now, we can only guess.
But we do have some hints to lend a hand in our efforts to cope. In a 1984 document called Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II, following St. Paul, finds the “Christian meaning” of suffering in participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ. Suffering offers people a way to become co-redeemers with Christ, share in his redemptive activity, expiate their sins, and contribute to the process by which the merits of the redemption are extended to others.
So three cheers for suffering? Not at all. This explanation doesn’t attempt to say why God permits suffering. And it doesn’t pretend that suffering is pleasant. All it does — and it’s a lot — is invest the experience with meaning. For people who grasp it, that can have, in John Paul’s words, “the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy.”
The redemptive value of Jesus’ life doesn’t lie only in suffering. It’s present in his life as a whole. From that perspective, it makes sense to think of the happy things in our lives as participations in the happy moments in Christ’s redemptive life: family affection in the house at Nazareth, productive labor in Joseph’s workshop, get-togethers with the apostles when things were going well. All of it had redemptive value along with the cross. Just as all that happens in our lives, both suffering and joy, can have redemptive value, too.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.