The Problem of Suffering and Evil

The Pieta

After the recent shooting rampage in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I saw countless social networking posts raising the question of how a good God could allow such evil to happen. The same question has been asked many times, in reference to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, cases of domestic violence, wars… whenever society is shocked by some form of evil or hardship, people ask themselves why God allows this. No doubt, many individuals ask this question even more often in the silence of their hearts, when they experience personal tragedy, such as the death of a loved one, even by natural causes, or a difficulty in their own life.

If God is truly all-good, and all-knowing, then how could evil exist? This is the question so often asked, yet the answer is rarely accepted…

The Importance of Freedom in the Question of Suffering

God is all-good, and his is all-knowing. And yet, he does allow suffering? Why? Because, in his goodness, he has granted human beings, and the angels, the gift of freedom. This is necessary for us to be in his image – he has given us an intellect, heart and free will. God wanted us free to love. He wants us to love him by choice, not by force. He wants us to freely choose him. He gave us an intellect so we could know him, a heart so we could love him, and a free will so we could choose him. When God created us free, he did so with the desire that all creatures freely choose him. But, by necessity, having the freedom to choose God also meant having the freedom not to choose God. God, then, did not create evil. He did not create a “good” option and a “bad” option. He created all of us to follow him and love him. In theory, all people could have used their freedom rightly and chosen God. However, when first some angels and later man choose to use their freedom to go against God, they brought evil into being. They defined their own path – one against God, by rejecting God and his love. They unleashed a void upon the world, and that void – the absence, or rejection of all things good and true, tries to compete against and expel love and goodness. This is the reality of evil we face. The ability to choose evil instead of good is a result of our free will. The disordered tendency that makes evil seem more attractive than good, and the disordered tendencies of nature that result in natural disasters, disease, physical pain, etc., is the result of inheritance. Inheritance, even seen physically through genetics, passes on both the good and the bad or defective. We are happy enough to inherit good looks, a quick intelligence and other desirable qualities. But, without a doubt, we also inherit various defects and less desirable qualities. Thus, we inherited both the good from our first parents (the image and likeness of God, the promise of salvation and eternal happiness, etc.), but also the bad (tendency toward sin and a disordered world with evil unleashed upon it). As a result, God did not desire evil, create evil, or will evil. He did, however, bestow the gift of freedom upon his creatures, knowing that this gift was a double edged sword, giving his creatures the power to love, but also the power to hate. When freedom was first misused by the angels and then by the first human beings, God could react in one of two ways: revoke the gift he had given his creatures in order to prevent them from using it against him, or respect their use of their freedom even when they use it against him. Had God revoked the gift of freedom to prevent suffering and evil, man would have lost the ability to repent, to love and to freely choose goodness. Because the ultimate purpose of the creation of man is love, God has protected man’s freedom to love him and each other at all cost, even at the cost of permitting man to abuse this gift, and seeing innocent people become victims of such abuse.

The Real Question: Not “Why,” but “How”

I believe that the reality of freedom and, consequently, man’s ability to choose against God and embrace the absence of goodness and love sufficiently explains the presence of evil and suffering in the world. But this answer rarely satisfies us… perhaps because we are asking the wrong question. Is it possible that, when we say we don’t understand “why” God allows suffering, we aren’t so much addressing a matter of reason and understanding as a matter of the heart? Are we really struggling, deep down, not with a misunderstanding of suffering and evil, but with the question of HOW to accept it? Suffering and evil hurt us and lie largely outside of our control; no matter what we do, we cannot get rid of suffering and evil. Because we can’t control it, it’s easy to point fingers at others – at the perpetrators of the crime or, more abstractly, at God. Discussions centered on the sinfulness and hatred of those that perpetrate violence, or the question of a good God allowing evil keep the topic distanced from ourselves, placing responsibility either on the perpetrator who committed the act, or on God, who permitted it in order to respect the freedom of the perpetrator. Hence, we are never satisfied, because while we keep the discussion outside of ourselves, the struggle we face is inside of ourselves. We experience the results of suffering and evil PERSONALLY. Even if we don’t commit horrible crimes, we all get tempted, and we all sometimes go against our conscience and better judgment; we all thus participate, to a greater or lesser degree, in the reality of suffering and evil. As long as we prolong the disconnect between our experience on the personal level, and our discussion of evil and suffering as realities outside of ourselves, we will never find the reconciliation, understanding and acceptance we seek.

Instead of continuing to ask others why a good God allows suffering, I think we should begin asking ourselves two important questions to help us accept the reality of suffering and evil that, in one form or another will always be part of our life on this earth.

  1. When I experience pain and suffering, whether just or unjust, how can I work through it in order to crowd out evil with love, rather than allowing love to be crowded out with bitterness?
  2. What can I do to mitigate suffering and evil as much as possible?

Both of these questions are based on a philosophy of love, and the assumption that only love can triumph over suffering. If evil is the result of an abuse of freedom, the absence of God and, therefore, of love, then it has no positive essence and can only exist when there is a void. If love fills the void, evil will be crowded out. None of us have the ability to get rid of evil because we cannot control the free will of our fellow man; we can, however, work on filling the world with more and more love so there is less and less room for evil, thus decreasing its presence and its power over us.

Learning How to Handle Suffering

Suffering is the pain we feel as a result of some evil – the absence of a good – that we experience, whether physical, moral, psychological, or a combination thereof. Our experience of suffering is unique; two people standing next to each other and experiencing the same tragedy feel it differently. As a result, each one of us needs to find a personal way of working through our suffering, accepting it, releasing the natural feelings of anger and bitterness we feel, treasuring in our hearts any dimension of the experience that we want to hold onto because it somehow reminds us of a greater good, and finding a way to, over time, release the thoughts and feelings that ensnare us in bitterness, anger or self-pity. Even when an evil is perpetrated by someone outside of ourselves, each one of us plays an essential role in determining how powerful that evil is. If we allow it to take root in our hearts, remove our inner peace and crowd out love and trust, we give impetus to the evil. If, on the contrary, we are able to follow the example of our savior, who faced the greatest evil with an even greater amount of love, faith and trust, then even though we cannot undo the evil action committed by another person, or reverse the disordered tendencies of nature, we limit the power of evil. The ultimate object of evil is to get rid of love, so the only way to combat evil is by refusing to let go of love and trust. Michelangelo’s Pietà shows us how to combine the two – it speaks of the greatest suffering yet, at the same time, the greatest love. It shows Jesus, accepting suffering at the hands of evil to the point of death. It shows Mary, grieving, yet accepting of Jesus’ Passion and, in spite of her own sorrow, still clinging to love and trust as she held the dead body of her son in her arms…

To accept suffering with love may be easy to say, but we all know that accepting suffering and evil is far from easy. No matter how convinced we are that love triumphs, it’s hard to remember that when we feel pain, and even harder to act upon. When we experience evil and suffering in our life, it hurts and hurts a lot. It often hurts so much that we are blinded by the pain and can’t think about anything else. That’s why the first step to overcoming suffering is working through it. We can’t magically put suffering in its place, pretend like it never happened, and stop feeling the hurt. The pain can last for years or even a life time. Often times, the pain we feel from a tragedy will remain in some crevice of our heart forever, even after we have forgotten about it. Our goal, then, can’t be to get rid of the pain, but to work through the pain and put it into its place so that the memory of that suffering begins to trigger love and truth rather than bitterness, anger and hatred. This is a process we need to lead ourselves through. While each one has to discover their individual path, some common ideas can help all of us:

  1. Remember that we need God’s help. We are not capable of doing what he asks of us alone, and he never intended for us to do it alone. He created us to be together with him. He became man to accompany us. He sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen us. He is an essential part of our lives. He is here to help us and we need his help to succeed. God is love. If we are trying to overcome evil with love, what better partner than Love itself could we have on our side?
  2. Associate moments of pain and suffering with a greater good. God never said that we wouldn’t suffer. He never said that the road would be easy. He did say that he would always be with us and that he would bring good out of evil. When a tragedy occurs, the evil is obvious. We sometimes need to dig deeper to find the good that comes out of it. If we look only at the evil that occurred, then whenever we remember the incident, we remember the evil and all of the feelings we had arise again – shock, terror, bitterness, hatred… whatever the case may be. If we stop to find some good out of it, whether that good occurs in our own heart or in the lives of others, we now have a positive experience that we can associate with that evil. Every time we think of the evil, we can turn our attention to the good that came out of it. This thought process can help us gradually put aside any bitterness or hatred within ourselves, fostering instead love and gratitude, not for the evil itself, but for any goodness that may have come out of it.
  3. Remember that, as Christians, we follow Christ. He has shown us the way. He has suffered before us and he has faced evil before us. We can look to the Gospel to see some ways he responded to suffering and evil, and emulate them in our own life:
    1. Grieving. It is a natural and necessary process of acknowledging loss and letting go. Grieving is something very personal – how it is done and how long it takes is something each of us needs to determine in our hearts. Our Lord grieved more than once. He wept over Jerusalem. He wept when Lazarus died. There is nothing wrong with tears.  Tears can be a relief mechanism to let go of the bitterness or anger. They can be a way to simply express sorrow, longing and loss. Or they can cleanse the heart and soul, exposing many emotions all jumbled together, helping us think through them and put them in their rightful places.
    2. Forgiveness. Jesus forgave constantly. He preached forgiveness and he practiced forgiveness, to the point of saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” when he was being crucified. When we experience suffering because we, or someone close to us, have been wronged, the first step to recovery is forgiving the person who has done wrong. Feelings of anger toward the person who wronged us or a loved one is normal, but allowing that anger to take root in our hearts and continue as hatred both prevents us from moving forward, thus increasing our own suffering, and leaves us weakened, with a corner of our heart dark and loveless. By forgiving the person, we crowd out evil with love and the evil that was committed, although it can’t be undone, becomes less powerful. It can be very hard to forgive. Sometimes we have to try very hard and it takes a long time. Trying to think of different circumstances, such as mental illness, abuse, or different pressures that may have lessened the evil intent of the perpetrator can sometimes help us to forgive. After all, sometimes the person is completely unaware of what they are doing; other times they are acting out of fear or coercion and would rather not be doing what they do. This doesn’t excuse their actions and it doesn’t mitigate the pain caused, but it can sometimes help us forgive the person by recognizing the difficult situation or condition that they themselves are struggling with. Even if this doesn’t help us and we can’t think of any logical reasons that might help us forgive the person, we need to try. Even if we always feel anger when we think of the person, we need to try to forgive them and ask God’s help to forgive them. If we sincerely desire to forgive them, have the firm intention to forgive them, and keep trying to forgive them whenever we think of them, then even if we still feel pangs of bitterness toward the person, we are able to act based on upright reason and love.
    3. Prayer. Jesus prayed. Prior to his greatest suffering, he went into the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed to his Father, expressing his feelings and asking for strength. He spoke to his Father while hanging on the cross. These weren’t the first instances of praying to his Father; Jesus didn’t wait until he was “in trouble” to call out to God. He communicated with his Father constantly and he taught those closest to him how to pray as well. Prayer can also help us in moments of suffering; it will be most effective if we already have a relationship with God through regular prayer, but even if we don’t, God will still hear us when we call out in time of need. Our prayer should be like Jesus’ prayer in his moment of agony – honestly telling God how we feel and asking for what we want, but, in the end, asking for the strength to accept reality as it is when we can’t have what we want.
    4. Communication. Jesus didn’t only call out to his Father for help. He also told his disciples what was troubling him. Three times he foretold of his passion. He spoke even more intensely of his suffering during the Last Supper, as the Passion drew near. When we experience evil or suffering in our lives, communicating our struggles to others that are close to us can help us in two ways: expressing ourselves brings a feeling of relief and enables others who know what we are going through to support and help us. They can talk things through with us, comfort us and possibly help us find closure.
    5. Company and comfort. This is similar to communication, but different. Jesus told all of his disciples that his betrayal was near, but he only asked three of them to accompany him to his place of prayer in the garden. During that time, he didn’t communicate with Peter, James and John; he simply wanted them with him, close to him. Sometimes the silent presence of another can be very comforting and strengthen us. No one can take away the pain we feel, but their presence can give a shoulder to lean upon.
    6. Solitude. While the company of others can be a great support throughout a grieving process, moments of solitude can also be essential. Being alone gives us time to think through our own thoughts and emotions before ourselves and God alone. When we are alone, we can be completely honest with ourselves, without being afraid of what someone else is thinking of us or how our words could affect others. When we are alone, we can put aside all other distractions and truly face our inner selves. Sometimes, the greatest grief and most intense relief come through solitude and lonely tears.  Jesus prayed in solitude multiple times. He brought his disciples into his relationship with the Father and taught them how to pray, but there was a dimension of his relationship with God that could only be lived out in solitude. With regards to suffering, he prayed in solitude right before telling the disciples about his impending death (Luke 9). He also prayed in solitude during his Agony in Gethsemane. He wanted the company of his closest disciples, but he also withdrew from them to be alone with his Father.
    7. Just Rage. It can be gratifying to know that Jesus, while perfect, while able to forgive, while all-loving, also experienced anger. This teaches us that anger isn’t always wrong. However, we need to learn when and how anger can be justified. Jesus saw evil at work many times, including during his own crucifixion, and didn’t react in anger. We therefore need to closely examine the time he did react with “righteous anger” to see what justified it. In the cleansing of the Temple Jesus showed anger as he turned over all the tables and kicked out the sellers. Determining whether our own anger is righteous or not can be difficult, because it is easy for selfish anger to blend together with righteous anger.  Two characteristics associated with Jesus’ just anger can help us determine whether our own anger is righteous or not:                                                                                                                                                            Is our anger the result of personal pain and loss, or an injustice outside of ourselves? Jesus’ anger was not directed toward his own suffering or pain, or toward evil directed at him. Jesus’ anger was directed toward an action (selling in sacred temple for material gain) that abused what rightfully belonged to his Father. Anger, then, can never be righteous when it is the result of personal pain, but only when it is directed toward an objective evil that takes away what belongs to God. Life belongs to God and to the creatures that possess it, so the anger we feel when faced with violent tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting, can be just, if we are angry not because of the pain we feel, but because of the injustice of the act. Any evil act that causes death takes away life and freedom that doesn’t belong to the perpetrator of the act. Theft takes away property that rightfully belongs to another… So there is grounds for righteous anger faced to suffering cause by evil… however, we need to make sure that we don’t confuse righteous anger with personal hurt and anger.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Is the object of our anger a person or an action? If the object is a person, it is not righteous anger; if it is an action, it could be… Jesus anger was not directed toward the person, but toward the action. This can give us a pretty good indicator of whether or not our own anger is righteous. If we feel hatred or bitterness toward the PERSON, it is not righteous anger. Jesus never hated anyone, even those that drove the nails into his hands. Feelings of hatred are the result of our fallen nature, not of justified anger. If we are able to forgive the person, but feel anger toward the injustice done, not because of personal hurt or loss, but because someone has taken something that rightfully belonged to another and, ultimately, belonged to God, then what we feel could be righteous anger. Only God sees each of our hearts, so in the end only God can be the judge of whether our anger is righteous or not. We need to work hard to let go of all selfish anger and direct any anger we do feel toward the injustice of the action, rather than toward personal loss or toward the person involved.

What can I Do to Mitigate Evil and Suffering as Much as Possible?

This is the second question we should ask ourselves regarding evil and suffering. Instead of asking why God doesn’t change the situation, or getting bitter at the people that cause our suffering, we should ask what we can do to mitigate evil and suffering as much as possible. It’s impossible to get rid of evil completely because, as discussed earlier, the human person is free and God respects our freedom. As long as we are free, there is the possibility that we will choose to walk away from good instead of embracing it. Furthermore, we have inherited a universe wounded by the results of original sin, so natural evil (pain, illness, death, etc.) will continue to be part of life in this world. So instead of asking why God doesn’t do anything to stop evil, or why other people cause suffering through violence, we should be asking what we can do to mitigate evil and suffering as much as possible.  Remember – based on the laws of inheritance, we pass on the good and the bad, so the best answer to the problem of evil in our world is for each of us to do everything we can to pass on as much good and as little evil as we can to the next generation. This can occur on the individual level and on the social level.

Individually, we should strive for love and goodness to crowd out hatred and evil in our own heart. Wherever there is a little light, even just a tiny candle, darkness is expelled. If each of us truly tries to overcome hatred, to forgive and to love, even when we suffer, then evil fights a losing battle – even if evil is committed, it’s goal, which is to spread darkness and hatred, is not reached.

On the social level, the more we can help each other, the more we, as a human community, can pass on good rather than evil, and love rather than hatred. We can’t eliminate evil all together, but we can try to identify key triggers and mitigate them. For example, so many shooting tragedies have occurred in America over the past few years, all following a certain pattern of violence that can easily be associated with violent media and video games, and most perpetrated as a result of mental illness. If we, as a society, address these issues, reject violent role models and violent entertainment, and work on strengthening ways to identify and support individuals struggling with mental illness before they cry out to the world through violence, we as a society, can mitigate some of the evil and suffering that occurs. This requires us to look inward, at ourselves, at our communities, at our society at large, and see ways in which, willingly or unwillingly, we are responsible for evil and suffering. We have kicked God out of schools, business and culture at large. We have taken fathers out of homes and created many single-parent households. We have created a culture centered on the media and then inundated young people with violent forms of virtual entertainment, only to express horror when they then emulate such behavior in reality. We have overlooked the needs of sensitive individuals prone to mental instability, at times refusing sought after aid. We have produced all the weapons used for death and mass destruction. We have created division and competition. We have, for years, voted in politicians who speak about economy, immigration, and foreign policy, but ignore the very real and growing problems we face within our own culture. Maybe we haven’t shot the gun or set off the bomb, but as part of the human community, we are all responsible, as a society, for the problem of evil.

As we continue forward after this most recent shooting, preceded by countless other tragedies both nationally and internationally, I hope we stop asking why a good God permits suffering, and start asking these other, probing questions that shed light on our own involvement, whether as an individual, or as a society, in the reality of suffering. I hope that, instead of focusing on our hurt and spreading more evil through hatred, we each find a personal path to healing and find strategies in line with Christian beliefs, that help us let go of anger, bitterness and hatred. I hope that, instead of regretting our current difficulties, we focus on passing on an improved world to our children – not a world of better technology, more advanced systems and more money, but a world of less suffering and violence, and more peace, love and understanding.

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