On Suffering

My two sisters Linda and Patricia died of spina bifida, a disease that nowadays is treatable. My family being a stoic Irish Catholic one, I did not learn of their existence until I was 5 and found their names in the family Bible. Thus began a lifelong quest to make sense of senseless pain. I have yet to find an answer to the outcry of why.

The why question first of all challenges our image of God. As Annie Dillard says “If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens? Is God completely out of the loop?” (For the Time Being, p.167). Good question. Perhaps it is as George Burns as God says in the film Oh God “I worry about the Big Picture and leave the details to you.”

In his classic book, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that indeed God does not cause certain bad things. They just happen. But God, according to Kushner, is there for comfort. Anne Lamott would agree “God isn’t there to take away our suffering or the pain but to fill it with his or her presence.” (Travelling Mercies, p. 241).

Finally, we have Job. I love the book of Job! He was a good and decent man subjected to all kinds of horrors because of a bet. At the beginning of that book, Satan bets God that Job’s faith will crumble in the face of adversity. God accepts the bet and lets Satan wreak havoc in Job’s life.

Job, however, doesn’t take things lying down. He gets angry. Real angry. He demands that God explain Himself. And God shows up! Granted, God puts Job in his place but never punishes Job for being angry!

My work presents me with a steady flow of good people experiencing bad things. Parents who lost children. Young adults facing terminal illness. Soldiers exposed to horrors no human should ever witness. It’s a long list. As such, if my faith will survive, I need Job’s God, one with whom I can argue. Some of warned me that I shouldn’t question God but, for me, that questioning keeps my faith alive. William Safire, writing about Job, puts it best: “You may or may not find the answer by demanding to know, but you will never find the answer by fearing to ask.” (The First Dissident, p. 88)

Reflection: What is your response to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Further Reading: Harold Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People; Book of Job, The Bible

Further viewing: Oh God! starring George Burns and John Denver