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Should suffering shake our faith?

I don’t think that anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully could ever conclude that belief in a loving God is somehow incompatible with suffering.

(Image: Gadiel Lazcano/Unsplash.com)

Premier Christian Radio in the UK just sponsored a survey that investigated how the COVID crisis has affected religious beliefs and attitudes. There were three major findings—namely, that 67% of those who characterize themselves as “religious” found their belief in God challenged, that almost a quarter of all those questioned said that the pandemic made them more fearful of death, and that around a third of those surveyed said that their prayer life had been affected by the crisis.

Justin Brierley, who hosts the popular program Unbelievable?, commented that he was especially impressed by the substantial number of those who, due to COVID, have experienced difficulty believing in a loving God. I should like to focus on this finding as well.

Of course, in one sense, I understand the problem. An altogether standard objection to belief in God is human suffering, especially when it is visited upon the innocent. The apologist for atheism or naturalism quite readily asks the believer, “How could you possibly assert the existence of a loving God given the Holocaust, school shootings, tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands of people, pandemics, etc.?” But I must confess that, in another sense, I find this argument from evil utterly unconvincing, and I say this precisely as a Catholic bishop—that is, as someone who holds and teaches the doctrine of God that comes from the Bible. For I don’t think that anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully could ever conclude that belief in a loving God is somehow incompatible with suffering.

There is no question that God loves Noah, and yet he puts Noah through the unspeakably trying ordeal of a flood that wipes out almost all of life on the earth. It is without doubt that God loves Abraham, and yet he asks that patriarch to sacrifice, with his own hand, his beloved son Isaac. More than almost anyone else in the biblical tradition, God loves Moses, and yet he prevents the great liberator from entering into the Promised Land. David is a man after the Lord’s own heart, the sweet singer of the house of Israel, and yet God punishes David for his adultery and his conspiracy to murder. Jeremiah is specially chosen by God to speak the divine word, and yet the prophet ends up rejected and sent into exile. The people Israel is God’s uniquely chosen race, his royal priesthood, and yet God permits Israel to be enslaved, exiled, and brutalized by her enemies. And bringing this dynamic to full expression, God delivers his only-begotten Son to be tortured to death on a cross.

Once again, the point, anomalous indeed to both believers and nonbelievers today, is that the biblical authors saw no contradiction whatsoever between affirming the existence of a loving God and the fact of human suffering, even unmerited human suffering. Rather, they appreciated it as, mysteriously enough, ingredient in the plan of God, and they proposed various schemata for understanding this.

For instance, sometimes, they speculated, suffering is visited upon us as punishment for sin. Other times, it might be a means by which God effects a spiritual purification in his people. Still other times, it might be the only way that, given the conditions of a finite universe, God could bring about certain goods. But they also acknowledged that, more often than not, we just don’t know how suffering fits into God’s designs, and this is precisely because our finite and historically conditioned minds could not, even in principle, comprehend the intentions and purposes of an infinite mind, which is concerned with the whole of space and time. Practically the entire burden of the book of Job is to show this. When Job protests against what he takes to be the massive injustice of his sufferings, God responds with a lengthy speech, in fact his longest oration in the Bible, reminding Job of how much of God’s purposes his humble human servant does not know: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . .”

Once again, whether they half-understood the purpose of human suffering or understood it not at all, no biblical author was tempted to say that said evil is incompatible with the existence of a loving God. To be sure, they lamented and complained, but the recipient of the lamentation and complaint was none other than the God who, they firmly believed, loved them. I don’t for a moment doubt that many feel today that suffering poses an insurmountable obstacle to belief in God, but I remain convinced that this feeling is a function of the fact that religious leaders have been rather inept at teaching the biblical doctrine of God. For if human suffering undermines your belief in God, then, quite simply, you were not believing in the God presented by the Bible.

I want to be clear that none of the above is meant to make light of the awful experience of suffering or cavalierly to dismiss the intellectual tensions that it produces. But it is indeed my intention to invite people into a deeper encounter with the mystery of God. Like Jacob who wrestled all night with the angel, we must not give up on God but rather struggle with him. Our suffering shouldn’t lead us to dismiss the divine love, but rather to appreciate it as stranger than we ever imagined. It is perfectly understandable that, like Job, we might shout our protest against God, but then, like that great spiritual hero, we must be willing to hear the Voice that answers us from the whirlwind.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 200 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

11 Comments

  1. A vital issue affecting us during this crisis, and by its nature in the economy of salvation during life. “Anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully could ever conclude that belief in a loving God is somehow incompatible with suffering. A means by which God effects a spiritual purification in his people”. Of the purposes cited by Bishop Barron, this latter, our purification is prominent. Not simply regarding reparation and penance, moreso that love itself is purified through suffering. Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb 5:8). That alludes to the utter humility of the Son of Man submitting to God’s will, paradoxically suffering torment and shame. And in doing so realizing the gifts of grace by which we can be saved. Each now called to participate with Christ expressing in our own measure that love.

    • Not to disagree that since the Fall suffering is a common and inescapable part of the human experience, but wouldn’t it be possible – in theory, at least – to perfectly love and as such, work out our salvation, without suffering? Yes, Jesus instructed us to pick up our crosses in order to become His disciples (I’ve often wondered what His disciples made of “picking up their crosses” before His passion), but there are also a multitude of Scripture passages in which Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will was explicitly cited as evidence of His love: Heb 10:7, John 12:49, 14:31, Matt 12:50, 21:4, etc. Jesus himself asked whether or not the cup of suffering could pass by, “…yet not my will but thine be done.” Would Jesus’ love for the Father been questioned had He not suffered?

      I realize that this is not an either/or but a both/and, and I’m certainly not questioning the need or the value of suffering from a spiritual or supernatural perspective (even the suffering of the innocent) – just throwing out as a thought experiment.

      • An attractive thought Walter. Although the grievous nature of sin to an infinitely good God required grievous reparation. The shedding of blood is the common denominator in the Bible from the Passover sprinkling of blood on doorway lintels to the priest offering the chalice of Christ’s blood to the Father. In the divine economy of salvation Christ demonstrates love is stronger than death. It’s not then the shedding of blood of men even the martyrs rather that of the Son. The Father so loved the world that he sent us his only Son. That shedding of precious blood by the Word made flesh is an act of irresistible love that virtually compels the Father to forgive sins. So then this supreme act of love by the Son of Man surpasses anything that we men can. Although by our participation in Christ’s suffering to which we’re all called our offer is made efficacious. This expression of love, manifest by our participation requires the infusion of grace by which we share in the fire that is Christ’s love for the Father. A divine fire of love that we in effect are able to return as our love of God. For our God is a consuming Fire (Moses in Deuteronomy 4:24).

        • Thank you, Father. I guess if love is defined by the degree of self-giving, then Christ set the bar in Jn 15:13. And as you say, uniting it with His ultimate sacrifice gives our suffering it’s meaning, it’s purpose. Time to reread Frankl … God bless!

  2. I have read the Book of Job, Bishop Barron and am better for it.
    Nevertheless, I don’t trust the lukewarm gruel you and your colleagues hand out. Not by a long shot.

    • “…we just don’t know how suffering fits into God’s designs,…”

      Jesus suffered.
      People suffer.
      Jesus surely understood God’s designs.
      Many suffering people understand and are grateful for a suffering savior.

  3. Thank you Bishop Barron for your insightful treatment of how to rectify the coexistence of both a loving God and the resultant suffering because of a sinful, fallen world. I will re-read your words because they provide the tools necessary to manage that dichotomy.
    On a different note, meiron, your quote of Bishop Barron’s religious leaders being inept is topical. “IN A NUTSHELL” is spot on.

  4. “Should suffering shake our faith?”

    No, suffering shouldn’t shake our faith.

    Among other things, suffering is probably a very essential part to attaining spiritual perfection. A problem is that it is difficult to maintain enough mortification by oneself in order to die to oneself. This is because humans need some pleasure, and pleasure cancels pain.

    A good book is “Why Must I Suffer?” by Fr. F. J. Remler. (Originally published in 1923)

  5. perhaps a real problem is a verb: sends, i.e., God “sends” suffering, which is after all a purposeful absence of the good… surely, the better understanding is the God “allows” or “permits” suffering… too often there seems to be a tone-deaf insensitivity to the actual suffering, which, if God is “sending” it should then be accepted gleefully and we should aske for even more… this would appear to be a rather tough evangelistic sell…

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