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Suffering isn't fun. But it's something everyone experiences. Indeed, suffering afflicts the guilty as well as the upright, and even beleaguers innocent children. So if God is all good and all powerful, why does He allow it? Although it may seem perplexing, suffering is reasonable and, when understood in the Christian framework, even good. Ultimately, it points to three distinct facets of God's eternal essence — love, justice and mercy. As such, it should not be categorically scorned.
God loved us into being. He loved us so much that He made us like Himself — as persons with intellect and will. The dignity afforded to this unique mode of being, enabling us to know and love, provides an answer to the specific question of why humans alone among earth's creatures suffer.
Animal lovers may quibble with the foregoing, but let's look at the matter a little closer. We must first distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is an uncomfortable neurological warning response to stimuli, whereas suffering has a psychological component to it. To appreciate this difference, let's make one more distinction, between consciousness and self-consciousness.
Plants and trees are alive but not conscious. Animals are alive and conscious, but not self-conscious. Human beings are not only conscious due to sense and brain activity, but are also aware of themselves as selves. We know ourselves, and we know that we know ourselves. Self-reflection indicates a personal dimension that, along with intellect and will, enables "I" to govern self according to the true and the good. This personal "I" that self-reflects is at the heart of every spiritual soul. So while it's safe to say higher sentient animals feel pain, they don't have the psychological capacity to suffer, as humans do.
Wild animals undoubtedly feel pain due to injury from altercations with other animals, or briefly while being consumed as prey. Domesticated animals are generally protected from these exigencies, but sense pain through owner neglect or abuse. Nevertheless, no animal is able to personally understand and interpret his pain to judge its meaning and value. In other words, an animal feels pain but cannot reflect on the experience to know "I feel pain." Suffering necessitates psychological experience that only personhood affords. Where there is no personal soul there is no self-awareness and no interpretive judgment of the pain.
Furthermore, humans uniquely suffer mental and emotional pain absent any causal relationship to physical stimuli. While animals have fight-or-flight instincts, no animal gets depressed because it hasn't realized its dreams, or heartbroken because the animal it admires doesn't reciprocate its love. Anxiety, depression, anger and sadness all elicit real suffering — singularly in human beings. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: "In the most complex of all creatures, man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is able to foresee his own pain, which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence" (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain [New York: Harper Collins, 1996 ], 2).
So one reason we suffer is due to God's abundance of love in creating us with the unfathomable dignity of being His image, destined to live with Him in love forever. This makes suffering a temporary hindrance well worth enduring. As St. Teresa of Ávila reminds us, "In light of Heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel."
We also suffer because it is just. We deserve it — individually and corporately. While it's easier for Americans to understand that we suffer the consequences of our personal choices, our general biases toward individualism preclude us from enjoying that same clarity on corporate responsibility. Yet suffering the consequences of the sin of the human race is what original sin is all about.
Although human suffering can be traced back to man's rejection of the preternatural gifts offered by God — one of which was freedom from suffering (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 97, art. 2) — experience shows that much of the bad fortune that befalls us is not directly caused by our own doing or by those who are near to us. Christ Himself confirms this in Scripture:
As he went along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1–3).
Human solidarity in the ontological order means that everyone is made to share in the effects of the good works and injustices of others. This kind of suffering leads many to join President John F. Kennedy in proclaiming "life is unfair."
While it's good to seek justice in this life, no one should expect perfect justice to be realized until the Parousia. Physical evil can be inherited genetically, be experienced as an immediate consequence of an abusive action or come in the form of punishment administered by an external authority, as when a judge pronounces jail time for a convicted criminal.
Although life is often unfair, and perfect justice must wait, St. Paul reminds us that "all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Noted psychologist Fr. Benedict Groeschel, speaking of the apparent injustice of suffering that's involved with natural and human disasters, said, "There are times when we cannot see any good. This is when we must believe and trust that God will bring the best out in eternity" (The King, Crucified and Risen [Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2002], 38).
Accordingly, because humanity in Adam rejected God's gifts that upheld original justice (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶376), we all share a woundedness and weakness of nature that will plague us until the resurrection on the Last Day. In the meantime, in a fallen world with fallen people and with a fallen human nature, we suffer.
The suffering that comes our way is not more than we deserve and is certainly not more than we can endure. After all, Scripture assures us that "God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength" (1 Corinthians 10:13). If we understood the unimaginably grave offense that sin is against the sovereign majesty and infinite goodness of God, we would never complain about the corresponding punishments but accept them with grace and humility.
Even if our suffering seems disproportionate to our own transgressions, it doesn't go to waste. In uniting our suffering to Christ on the Cross, we can share in His vicarious satisfaction for sinful humanity. He died for us all, yet St. Paul recognized that as part of Christ's mystical body, uniting his own suffering with Christ could help open people's hearts to accept the salvation Calvary won for them (see Colossians 1:28). In a society like ours that is oriented so much toward individual "rights," this truth dynamic of vicarious satisfaction isn't sufficiently appreciated.
God's allowing us to suffer is also merciful — inasmuch as it can help restore a person to spiritual health. To use an analogy, when a tree grows diagonally from the ground, it needs external help to begin growing straight and tall. If a tree had nerves, this straightening process would be painful. A person conceived and born with original sin is like a crooked tree planted in putrefied soil, cooperating with grace to stand tall. Restoration to living an upright life of virtue requires sacrifice and suffering.
If we are properly disposed, God allows us to transform suffering into penance, which can atone for sin and purify defects. If one sacrifices and suffers with love enough in this life, the accrued atonement and purgation may render Purgatory unnecessary.
Suffering can also help us fulfill Christ's exhortation to His disciples to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Suffering can perfect the sinner whose being has been diminished by sin. Peter Kreeft summarizes this in five words: "Suffering makes you more real" (Making Sense Out of Suffering [Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1986], 76).
In the context of the New Covenant, suffering is akin to rehabilitation for the wounded soul. It can be seen as disciplining the sinner for his own good. According to Scripture, this is a great privilege:
For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Hebrews 12:6–8).
According to Abp. Fulton J. Sheen, a Christian's suffering may be so transformed as to no longer properly be called suffering. "Pain without Christ is suffering; pain with Christ is sacrifice," the good archbishop once proclaimed.
Suffering in itself is an evil ultimately stemming from man's rebellion; hence, we may have recourse to just means to alleviate it. Yet, as it interacts with fallen human nature and unites with Christ crucified, it can become a great blessing.
Human suffering underscores three aspects of God's infinite goodness that we can embrace — love, justice and mercy. Suffering reminds us of God's love because it is a postlapsarian fruit of being made in God's own image. It reminds us of God's justice because it's punishment for sin. And it reminds us of God's mercy because we know that Christ paid our penalty on Calvary, and we can now unite our sufferings to His to restore right relationship with God. In short, it's reasonable that we suffer because we're persons, we deserve it and we can use it for a greater good.