You know you’ve asked this question before. Many have. And I am asking it now, but – well… I’d first like to start with a little thought on the wording of this question. Do “bad things” exist?
To quote GK Chesterton as he paraphrased Saint Thomas Aquinas: “There are no bad things. There are only bad uses of things.” That is to say that God doesn’t create things that are bad or evil. God looked upon all that He created and saw that it was good. We human beings, however, often use the things that God has created quite poorly. The very first human beings did this when they consumed something that wasn’t meant for their consumption. And, yes, because of that freely chosen break from Divine Will, that Original Sin, we have suffered a separation from God and live in a fallen world. There is evil in the world – but the evil isn’t a thing. A mutated gene is a thing. A tumor is a thing. And, if these are things, and there are no evil or bad “things,” then are mutated genes or cancerous tumors “bad”? Sacred Scripture tells us, “We know that God makes everything work for good for those who love God….”
If we truly love God, then we trust God. And if we trust God, then we are able to allow God to make things – even our great difficulties and sorrows – work out for our good. We might not be able to see what that good is, especially in the midst of our tribulations. We are, after all, limited, too small to see the big picture that is God’s Masterpiece. But, loving God and trusting God, we believe in God’s promises. We hope in what we cannot yet see.
That’s the first thought that I leave you to ponder. In the pondering, think of how we can make our own natural sufferings worse.
Here are some theories on why suffering happens to good people, which I gathered from a Bible study website. It’s an evangelical Christian source, not Catholic – still, I think these thoughts keep in line with Catholic teaching or, at least, in line with Catholic understanding of theories on suffering. They are theories that human beings have developed (sometimes through God’s inspiration) about why suffering exists:
Retributive justice – suffering is God’s way of punishing the wicked.
This is an antiquated and, I would say, less than divinely inspired view. The ancients recognized that this theory was problematic when suffering happened to good people. The ancients knew that God was just – so how could a just God allow good and righteous people to suffer? This is the main question in The Book of Job. In that book, the ultimate conclusion is that “some things are beyond human comprehension. Job is to accept his suffering without questioning God’s wisdom or justice.” Barry D Smith
We can learn a lot from Job. But… inquiring minds want to know! And, so, God graciously reveals to human beings reasons why “bad things” happen to good people, as seen in these theories:
Eschatological Understanding – the suffering will be rewarded in Heaven. This can be seen in the Sermon on the Mount. God’s justice may not be seen in this world – but, it will be in the life of the world to come.
Suffering is Remedial – suffering is God’s loving discipline to keep the righteous holy. We can all be improved. A loving father rightly disciplines his children – we should understand how good it is, then, to be disciplined by God. St. Paul writes in a letter to the Hebrews, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” From Wisdom: “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.” Saints Peter and James, in their letters, speak of the faith of good people being tested – being purified – through trials.
Suffering is Expiatory – the righteous take upon the suffering incurred by the wicked for the sake of all. In keeping with retributive justice, the good guys take the rap for the bad guys. This we see in the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah, who could be seen as Israel itself, as God’s Chosen People, but whom we also see directly and personally as Christ. For Catholics, expiatory suffering is something in which we can partake if we unite our sufferings with those of Christ, if we take up our crosses and truly follow him. (A profound Mystery.)
Saint Paul’s Understanding (much like the remedial) – suffering keeps us humble and aware of our dependence on God. I think that St. Paul had a tendency to become conceited. And he knew it. So, whenever he endured a hardship or suffered from some weakness, it reminded him that he is nothing without God. It also showed others that God was making the wonderful things happen – not little Paul. I think this is like when people see me smiling through my suffering and start to wonder how that’s possible… It’s possible because of God’s goodness.
I’m with St. Paul in that I understand that suffering can be a great teacher. One of my friends, Donna Maria, has included as a great teacher in her life her 30 plus strokes. That, you may think, is a very harsh teacher! But… we might go through life untouched by suffering and, so, I daresay, untouched by love. In Psalm 46 the voice of the Lord says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes, it’s only when we are stilled that we become mindful of divinity and open to receiving divine love. If the work of our hands is always successful, and the pleasure received through our bodies is never diminished, then we are in very real danger of becoming self-centered, self absorbed, and oblivious to God. And God is our Source and reason for being! A healthy Fear of the Lord is how wisdom begins – and that “Fear of the Lord” comes in being stilled, in one way or another. It comes in the tremulous awe of knowing that God is God – and we are not.
Anyway, this week’s reflection is meant to be a question – not an answer. Suffering, I’ve been reminded by two friends this week, is, after all, a Mystery. Your thoughts and questions will make this inexhaustible quest fuller!
© 2018 Christina Chase
 Romans 8:28
 Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
 Wisdom 3:5
 1 Peter 1:6-7
 James 1:2-3
I don't call myself a poet — but the beating of my heart is poetry. I don't call myself a theologian — but the light of my mind seeks the Divine. Who I am is a Child of God, a Divine Creation, a person devoted to being fully human, fully alive.