Of all the agonized questions posed to me over the years, none is more difficult to answer than the problem of suffering. Here is my attempt at an answer.
According to the Book of Genesis, the world God created was the perfect world of paradise. But with the sin of Adam and Eve, the world fell from its original perfection, and the whole order which God created unraveled. Human history, both at the human and natural levels, has since then experienced suffering, evil and tragedy.
In his saving ministry, Jesus came to reverse the world of Adam and to restore humanity and creation to their original order of blessedness. Jesus did this through his death and resurrection, when he broke the chains of death and opened the way for the ascent of humanity and history toward the new creation.
Humanity and the world live now in the “in between,” between the original paradise and the new creation of God’s Kingdom. Though evil and suffering continue in the world, they no longer have the ultimate word and are not the final chapter of human history. Human life does not end in the grave, and human history is not a tragedy; it has a glorious ending.
Thus, we live today in an imperfect world in which creation is unfinished and incomplete. Suffering is part and parcel of creation groaning toward perfection. If God were to intervene in the processes of nature, he would short-cut the whole course of history, and he has chosen not to do that. This causes many to lose faith. The Christian can only conclude that God has his own good reasons for allowing suffering, and that in time we will fully understand God’s mysterious ways.
If we cannot answer the question of why God allows suffering, we can answer the question of where God is in the face of suffering. People often ask: Why has God abandoned me? Why does he let me and those I love suffer? The truth is that God is with humanity in the midst of suffering. When people suffer, the Son of God suffers. (A number of modern theologians have spoken of “the suffering God.”)
We should not see Christ only in heaven at the right hand of the Father; we should see him in the pains of suffering humanity. The philosopher Blaise Pascal could say that “Christ suffers until the end of the world.” Thus, we should not separate God and human suffering. They belong together and will as long as history continues.
We can never forget that in Jesus Christ, God has taken suffering to himself. Calvary continues through history. But if Calvary leads to the resurrection, then the end of the world will be a glorious one in which all suffering will be overcome.
That is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so crucial to Christians. Christ is not disconnected from human suffering, but is permanently in the midst of it.
When all is said and done, what those who suffer need most is not a theological explanation about the role of God in human suffering. What they need is the solidarity of their fellow men and women. That is why the Christian response to suffering is not the provision of a theory, but the practice of charity, solidarity and the practical alleviation of the pain of those in need. Christians are called to be the face and hands of God in times of suffering.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.