I’ve read many articles lately about suffering. It’s probably the cold, dark January weather that makes people dwell on the nature of suffering. Perhaps it’s the ending of Christmas celebrations that depress us a bit. Or maybe it’s that we’re going into year three of Covid craziness. Suffering is confusing. Why does suffering exist? Couldn’t God have created a universe where no one suffers?
I break down suffering into two broad categories. There’s the suffering brought about by nature often referred to as Acts of God. Think earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons. Or illnesses like cancer or Covid. Perhaps it’s more mental like depression or severe anxiety. I discussed this type of suffering in a previous article. We essentially attach ourselves so deeply to earthly comforts and the status quo that we suffer when something unexpected occurs.
Suffering By Our Actions
The second type of suffering is that brought about by decisions that either we or other people make. This type of suffering is essentially cause and effect such as:
- Over eat = get sick
- Don’t get enough sleep = feel tired
- Get punched in the face = ouch!
- Drive recklessly = crash
- Insults and taunts = hurt feelings and sadness
Why did God give us free will knowing that such freedom would lead to self-inflicted suffering? Sometimes it feels like our lives would be better without so much freedom. How nice would it be if we couldn’t do anything that would hurt ourselves or others? But God didn’t do that. In His infinite wisdom, God made free will an essential part of His plan although He knew that it would lead to some suffering. He preferred a world with free will and some degree of suffering to one with no suffering and no free will at all. God’s perfect plan involves us to live in an imperfect world.
God desires us to be free above all else. He wants us to use that freedom and intellect to understand what is right and wrong. God set up the world so that we can see what is right and freely choose that course of action. God does not desire us to be slaves with no choice but to obey Him. Historically, it’s often the weak kings and leaders that resort to totalitarianism to keep people in line. But that is not what God desires. Good kings set up a kingdom where people will want to follow them. God, being King of the Universe, wants us to choose to honor and follow Him without coercion.
Unfortunately, we too often ignore what is good and use our free will to do the opposite. And that is where suffering creeps into our lives. We don’t follow our God-given intellect and commit sin. Suffering is the result of us choosing sin over following God.
Fortunately, our freedom swings both ways. We may choose to turn away from God but we can choose to return to Him, first through the Sacrament of Confession and then through the other sacraments. That is the beauty of free will — when we choose to honor God after choosing sin, He will always welcome us back. He doesn’t reject our choice to follow him nor does He hold a grudge.
Suffering in the Rosary
Let’s look at our 2022 featured Rosary mystery — The Crowning of Thorns. We have a choice to make every day — how will we honor God? Will we use our free will to make good decisions that bring us into closer communion with Him? Or will we dishonor Him through sin causing suffering? Jesus physically suffered when the Roman soldiers dishonored him by placing a crown of thorns on his head. We cause suffering when we dishonor Jesus by not seeing him in our brothers and sisters.
We need to choose our actions wisely. Much of the suffering in this world comes from peoples’ choices. With so much suffering at the hands of so many, it seems futile to think we can reduce it. I know I’ve said this story before, but when a fellow monk asked St. Francis what he could do to make the world more peaceful, St. Francis asked him to close the door softly. Basically, St. Francis was teaching that it’s the small choices and actions we make every day that affect our world. A world with less suffering starts with us choosing to honor God in all that we say and do.
Adam and Eve
Some of you astute Biblical scholars may ask what about the case of Adam and Eve? God designed a paradise for them. Wasn’t His design to have humans live with no suffering? I would argue that a world without suffering was the intent, not the design. For Adam and Eve to truly have free will, there would need to be a choice to make. Without choices, could one really claim to have free will? Furthermore, God created a world outside of the Garden of Eden; a world of hardship and toil. I think that God’s design included free will and consequences for not honoring His commandments as Adam and Eve unfortunately demonstrated. He didn’t desire Adam and Eve to suffer no more than he desires us to suffer. But like physics, our actions have reactions. Sin brings forth suffering. Virtue brings forth grace.