A number of years ago, while I was still in the thick of raising children, I became depressed and anxious as a number of serious problems assaulted our family.
Even though I had a supportive husband, healthy children, and many other blessings, the depression grew worse until I dreaded facing each new day. I decided to make a more conscientious effort to enjoy various moments throughout the day and to choose to be more grateful. It was difficult! One time in particular, I was hanging clothes on the line on a beautiful summer's morning, and I said to myself, “I am going to enjoy hanging out these clothes!” With a deep breath and a spirit of determination, I lifted a pair of wet jeans from the laundry basket and energetically shook them out. As I did so, a dime flew out of one of the pockets and sharply flicked me on the cheek, surprising me into tears. You can imagine my state of mind at that point.
It would be years before the Lord delivered me from the oppression I suffered during that season in my life. God tested me, certainly, but then he delivered me.
Why might our loving and all-powerful God chastise and test us through allowing us to suffer? We can never fully understand this mystery, but there are observations we can make about suffering which give us a glimpse into why God allows it:
- When we experience suffering, it can help us understand what is important in life. Trials and hardships highlight the fact that we are overly focused on the things of this world and are not giving enough attention to the essentials. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
- Suffering shows us that we are not God. We need a savior. Suffering humbles us, which is the starting point to a real relationship with God. Suffering causes us to grapple with God and that kind of honest grappling deepens our faith.
- Suffering helps us develop virtues like courage and self-discipline. There are certain kinds of personal growth we cannot experience but through trial. Ask a soldier who has just been through boot camp!
- Suffering helps us to be in relationship with others. When we see other's suffer, it stirs our compassion. When we reach out to others by listening to them, praying with them, and helping them meet their practical needs, we form meaningful bonds with them while bringing them hope and consolation.
- As Catholics, we have always believed that our suffering can do good for others when we mystically unite our suffering to Christ's on the cross. We believe that if we take up our cross daily and imitate Christ that our suffering can have redemptive value. As St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church." Paul loved the people he was serving so much that he offered his sufferings to God for their salvation and well-being.
God takes a risk when he allows us to suffer. He knows the trials we experience may become a cause for us to reject him and to doubt his goodness, but God also knows exactly what human beings, created as free agents, need in order to become mature kings and queens in his eternal kingdom.
One exercise we can do when we are suffering is to spend some time gazing at a crucifix. I have heard Joni Eareckson Tada, a evangelical ministry leader and quadriplegic, say that God permits what he hates, to accomplish what he loves. Do we think it pleased God to send his only begotten son to take on human nature so that he could suffer torture and death? Jesus' profound suffering and death helps us to understand that suffering and sacrifice is somehow deeply connected to love. I sometimes find it difficult to pray when I am suffering either mental or physical pain, but merely gazing at a crucifix and thinking about what Jesus freely chose to do for us is good medicine.
As I was praying the Stations of the Cross during this Lenten season, the following words from the book of Job penetrated into my consciousness, "Happy is the man whom God chastises! / Do not reject the punishment of the almighty. / For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands give healing." This has always been the way that God has interacted with his children in order to help them grow, mature, and become more like Christ.
This "wounding" and "healing" was illustrated to me again recently by another, more light-hearted story from my own experience:
I had started making an effort to participate in the daily Mass on the radio every morning. One morning, though I wanted nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep, I lunged across my bed to grab a phone-charging cord, so I could listen to the Mass on my phone. (Yes, I was still laying in bed...did I mention I have a long way to go before reaching sanctity?)
As I snatched the cord, somehow it whipped up and the end of it whacked me in the middle of the forehead. It hurt more than one would expect! I immediately thought of the old dime story. I could almost hear a demon snickering as he punished me for making an effort to do good, but I knew his old tricks and ignored the assault. A minute later, my husband, who was completely unaware of my "injury," walked into the room and blessed me with holy water in the exact same spot that I had been hit with the cord. Now who was snickering? "The Lord wounds, but he binds up...he smites but his hands give healing."
We do not fully understand why God allows the enemy to harass us, or why he has ordained suffering to be an inescapable part of our lives, but we do know that we come from a long line of believers who have struggled in sadness and pain, also on the brink of despair. We must, like Job, persevere, trusting that God is with us, sustaining us. He is a good and loving Father who has a purpose for our suffering and who will bring us the healing we need in his own time, in his wisdom.
Some material referenced from https://www.crediblecatholic.com/ppt/7E-P7-A/