We have to begin at the beginning, way back in the Garden of Eden. The book of Genesis, as we heard proclaimed at the Easter Vigil, begins with the story of creation. This is in fact, also the beginning of salvation history. The one common theme that we see in the story of creation is that “God saw how good it was”. So what does that tell us? God made everything, the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, and ultimately man himself, and it was all “Good”. Good as we know, is the opposite of evil. God’s creation was good. So what happened? As we all know so well, man fell. By their disobedience, Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. They were created “good”, but freely chose evil when they disobeyed God. And ever since then, man has been learning this very tough lesson – sin causes bad things to happen.
With sin came pain, suffering, and death. So we can clear up one common misunderstanding right away. That is, God does not cause evil. But God created mankind in a state of freedom. We are free to choose God or to reject Him. Therefore, by our freedom, we choose to sin. That choice, which is nothing less than turning away from God, naturally has negative consequences. Were it not for sin, we’d all still be in the garden. But as it is, we have to live with the consequences of our fallen nature. In this life, we will experience pain and suffering and ultimately death. There is simply no escaping it. So what are we to do then? What is our recourse concerning this inevitability?
Lucky for us, our God is an amazing God. He specializes in bringing good out of bad. The ultimate example of this is as close as the nearest crucifix. This lent, many of us participated in the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. We walked with Jesus and witnessed His sufferings that culminated with His crucifixion and His death. What could be worse? God Himself, the second person of the blessed trinity, took flesh and became man. And how did man repay Him? We killed Him. Deicide. Man killed God. That is the absolute worst evil that could ever possibly occur. Yet, what did God do? Out of that, He brought about the best possible thing that could ever happen – Redemption. Because of Christ’s death, man could now be redeemed. Our sins could be forgiven, and we could once again be united to God. Just a quick aside, notice how I said that the best example of how God brings good out of evil was as close as the nearest crucifix, not the nearest cross. One of the many unfortunate results of the split in Christianity is that many non-catholic traditions abandoned the use of the crucifix. For no other reason than because it was “too Catholic”. Instead they have only an empty cross (and unfortunately in many of the new mega church type settings, even the cross has been removed). An empty cross is void of meaning. It is simply an instrument of torture and death that was used at the time. But with Christ on the cross, we are reminded of just what our savior did for us. We are able to visualize His incredible love for us as we gaze upon the crucifix. And wrapped up in that crucifix is the answer to the age old question.
Why does God allow pain and suffering in the world - To bring about a greater good. We may not always know what that greater good is. In some cases we may never know this side of heaven. But can be assured that somehow and some way, God allows it in order to bring about a greater good. In Colossians 1:24, Saint Paul says something quite curious. He says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” In this verse, we see the root of the Church’s teaching on redemptive suffering. What was lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Was His suffering not sufficient enough, that Paul had to add his sufferings to that of Christ so that the Colossians could be saved? Of course not. Christ’s suffering was complete and sufficient for the salvation of all of mankind. But what it is lacking, as Paul tells us, is our suffering. God, in His infinite kindness and mercy, through Christ’s suffering and death has made salvation possible for all of mankind. And He allows us then, to unite our sufferings to that of Jesus, so that we may offer that suffering to the Father, just as Jesus did, for the salvation of our souls, that of others, and that of the holy souls in purgatory. In other words, our sufferings are not wasted if we offer them to God. He can take them and transform them into forces of redemption. So then, God gives us something to do with our suffering. As the church teaches, we are able to make meaning out of what can seem so meaningless. We know that to take up our cross is to suffer with Him, so that we might rise with Him. Saint Teresa of Avila once said, “God gives the biggest share of His cross to His best friends.” This doesn’t mean that we are to go out seeking pain and suffering. But when it inevitably comes our way, we can offer it up so that God can take it and use it for good.
Now I realize that all of this is so much easier to talk about in an academic sort of way than it is to apply in our own lives, especially when we are going through tough times. And I pray that I not be put to the test. But as you gaze upon a crucifix, and really begin to contemplate the meaning of suffering, reflect on another of Saint Paul’s teachings – God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12.9-10). That is the paradox of the crucifix and of our own lives. It is when we are weak that we are strong. When Christ looked His weakest, hanging lifeless on the cross, it was then that He was at the height of His power for He was accomplishing the salvation of the world. So too with us, thanks be to God. He is risen, indeed He is risen! Happy Easter!