Pope John Paul II once said that the answer to the “why” of suffering depends on the ability to comprehend the sublimity of divine love. Unfortunately for most of us, it is beyond our ability to comprehend the wonder and perfection of God’s love. Left to my own means, I could not comprehend it; the “why” of suffering would remain unanswered.
Nearly 30 years of chronic and incurable disease have often raised the question “Why?” During my early years with aggressive multiple sclerosis, physical, emotional, and spiritual pain scorched like a fire and occupied most of my attention. Internal panic and anguish completely distracted me from being internally still and listening with my heart and not my head, as disease attacked my body. The “why” of my suffering was not actually a question—it was part pleading prayer and part desperate demand that seemed to fall into a deaf universe.
The universe may have seemed deaf but the Creator of it is not. God is not some distant, disinterested cosmic entity. He is near, intimate, and listening, beckoning humanity to His sublime love.
My natural self-absorbed and prideful state prevents me from receiving God’s perfect love or returning a perfect love to Him. It has simply not been within me to receive or give either. As long as I remained as I was, God’s love would have remained incomprehensible to me. As long as I was guilty of self-idolatry there was no room for His gigantic love or true worship of Him.
While it is true that God accepts us as we are, it is also true that He does not want us to remain imperfect and spiritually wretched that we are in our natural state. In his wonderfully insightful book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis put it this way: “To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: Because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable.”
As years of infirmity have passed, my own anguish has revealed new dimensions of the reality that God truly and intimately loves me and wants me to intimately love Him in return. He could not leave me in my natural state. The purifying fire of affliction was/is needed to shatter my ego and illusion of self-sufficiency that blinded me from all but the most basic and superficial spiritual truths. I needed to relinquish ownership of my physical, emotional, and spiritual pain to Christ.
I needed to surrender, surrender, and surrender again my life to God’s will. When I did this Christ allowed me to unite my suffering and defeat with His suffering and victory over sin and death. As Pope John Paul told us in his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, Christ’s suffering, and death, and Resurrection, can save us from the ultimate suffering which is the loss of eternal life. At the cross, Christ achieved our redemption through His suffering.
If I accept that God is a good God of love (and I do) then I must conclude that my pain is necessary. God would not permit it if it is unnecessary. I think I am finally getting an inkling of why my suffering is necessary. My ego and self-idolatry had to be broken in order for the possibility of self-transcendence. The vehicle for that transcendence toward perfection in Christ is suffering.
A 1996 EWTN commentary about Pope John Paul’s Salvifici Doloris stated, “In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.” Later the commentary states: “Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.” In doing so, each sufferer is invited to share in the redemptive suffering of Christ.
The Apostle Paul commented on this in his own life: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2.20)
This is done by uniting our suffering with Christ’s suffering through personal surrender to Him and offering our pain as a sacrifice to further Christ’s witness, content with whatever that might mean here on earth. In heaven I shall finally comprehend the sublimity of God’s divine love.
Mark Pickup has lived with aggressive multiple sclerosis for over 28 years. Although electric wheelchair dependent, Mark has spoken across the United States and Canada promoting the sanctity, dignity, and equality of all human life. He has addressed politicians and legislative committees (both Canadian and American), university forums, hospital medical staffs, religious and denominational leaders, community groups, and organizations about the critical importance of protecting all human life from conception to natural death. Mark is also a widely published writer on bioethical and Christian issues. He writes a column for Canada’s Western Catholic Reporter newspaper. Mark is the recipient of numerous awards including the Monsignor Bill Irwin Award for Ethical Excellence, the William Kurelek Award for fostering respect and appreciation for the dignity of human life (Canada), and a Governor General’s Medal for Community Service.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at http://markpickup.org/2013/05/the-why-of-suffering.html.