Dear parish family,
A story is told about a son being cruelly beaten up by his father. Crying out in pain he asks, “Dad, did your father beat you like this? His father replies, “Yes”. The son asks, “And your grandfather, he used to beat your father too?” The father says, “Yes”. The son continues, “And your great grandfather also beat up your grandfather?” “Yes”. Then the boy shakes his head and cries out, “So when will this nonsense stop?”
Brothers and sisters, we know that suffering is a normal part of life. Troubles, afflictions, hardships, illnesses, pain, accidents, disasters, and death have been with us since the beginning of time and will be with us possibly until the end of time. No one can avoid suffering. Not even Jesus, the Son of God, could avoid it. And yet many times we ask, “When will these terrible things stop? When will this suffering cease?” These days, as I watch with horror the suffering of flood victims in Kentucky and Seoul in South Korea, or the terrible plight of the victims of the recent fire in Egypt, I find myself asking the same age-old question: “Why does a good and loving God allow so much pain and suffering in the world?”
Of course, as faith tells us, God is not the cause of any suffering in the world. Suffering in any form is simply a part of creation and human condition. It is a mystery. How can there be only life but no death? How can there be only joy but no sorrow? The Scriptures repeatedly show how God uses suffering for a good purpose. He is teaching us so much through suffering. In this Sunday’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer encourages afflicted Christians to see hardship in life as “discipline from God”. Through discipline, he explains, God does not intend to do any harm to humankind but to help them reveal their best. Unlike the father in the story above who perpetuates the vicious cycle of violence in his family without any purpose, God is like a responsible and loving parent who disciplines his or her child, even at times through some repeated form of punishment. God disciplines us for our own good, so that we may grow.
William Barclay, a Biblical scholar and theologian, says that people may look at suffering or “God’s discipline” in different ways. Others may resignedly accept it as fate. Still, others accept suffering in self-pity, supposing that they are the only people in the world to go through such hardship. And then there are those who see God as vindictive; when something bad happens they ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” This question implies that the whole experience is an unjust punishment from God. These people fail to ask themselves what God is trying to do with them through such an experience. Yet, there are a wise few who accept suffering as coming from a loving father who uses it as expressions of His love and ways of discipline to further strengthen them.
Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans says, “Let us exult in our hardships, understanding that hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance develops a tested character, something that gives us hope, and a hope which will not let us down, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (5: 3-5). Suffering thus can produce benefits that overshadow the suffering itself. It can strengthen us. It can lead us to faith. It can teach us patience and compassion. It can make us more understanding and generous. It can help us appreciate the good in the world. It can remind us of our limitations and dependence on God and one another. It can influence others. It can make us wiser. It can mold us into better persons.
Can you imagine a life without suffering of any kind? Knowing no suffering is like being in a comfort zone where one is wrapped up in oneself and becomes self-centered, self-indulgent and self-seeking. Such an experience must feel so empty. St Jerome says, “The greatest danger of all is when God is no longer angry with us when we sin.” In other words, God leaves us alone because we have become unteachable and irredeemable as Jesus says in this Sunday’s gospel, “You will stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from’” (Luke 13:27).
Dear brothers and sisters, as we continue to grapple with the problem of suffering in life, let us cease to wallow in self-pity, or be resentful and rebellious. Instead, let us courageously and willingly accept the suffering that come our way. Let us strive to enter through the narrow gate. Like Mary and many saintly men and women whom we know, let us accept suffering with an open mind and a positive spirit; with docility, love, joy and hope. And let us alleviate someone’s suffering by offering them prayer, attention, encouragement, and above all, our accompaniment in Christian charity.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham