Suffering: Part of God's Plan?

In a recent post, I left off with this challenge:

What I would like to invite is a fresh re-reading of the Gospels with this perspective in mind.  How does Jesus go about cultivating this more abundant life?  What are the elements of the kingdom of darkness that he will not tolerate?  What kinds of suffering does he encourage us to embrace and what kinds of suffering does he routinely obliterate?  How often does he speak of carrying your cross vs. how many times we see him lifting crosses off of people's backs?

A book that I read a few years ago really challenged my thinking in this regard.  It invited me to view the Gospels through a different lens, one that expected to see a victorious, extravagantly good Jesus.  And it invited me to reclassify and reinterpret what I was experiencing in life.  My default was to say, "If it happens, it's obviously God's will" (the sins of men being the only exception) because God is sovereign over every affair on earth.  But then I read the following:

'The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came that you may have life, and have it to the full.' [John 10:10]  It is not God if it clearly looks and smells like stealing, killing, and destroying. It is probably God if it looks and feels like life - lavish, abundant, and free. When we look at Jesus we never once see Him attributing to God untimely death, demonic oppression, hardship, human torment, misery, torture, murder or sin. We never see Him explaining things through some convoluted logic about sovereignty. He constantly portrays the Father as good and welcoming. We see Him conquering, forgiving, removing, healing, comforting, and confronting. He is filled with compassion, moved with compassion, overflowing with compassion... Regardless of your life circumstances, know this: your freedom is God's will. Everything in your life that is not part of God's destiny for you is fair game for removal.

Go ahead and re-read the Gospels. Keep a tally if you want. See how much it portrays the triumph of Christ over what afflicts man, over what steals, kills, and destroys in man's life, versus how much it talks about the need to embrace suffering in our life.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis gave this admonition to preachers: "In preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching" (38). In my experience, the relative frequency of and importance given to embracing versus overcoming suffering in Catholic teaching outlets (be they homilies, talks, books, or social media outreach) is hugely out of balance compared to what we see in the Gospels.  Within popular Catholic culture, there is frequently a love affair with suffering.


This is not to say that Jesus never talks about embracing suffering.  A number of responses to my previous posts on this subject have come down to asking, "But what about when Jesus says...?"  So I've decided I need to address these objections straight on before proceeding further.

I have combed through all four Gospels and attempted to identify any statements that Jesus makes that talk in some way about embracing suffering.  My first reaction to this experiment was to be amazed by how many page-turns I would make in between taking notes!  The sense of proportion is astonishing, and I believe our fixation on talking about suffering is keeping us from unearthing unbelievable treasures in the Gospels!

Having completed my survey, it seemed to me that the kind of suffering Jesus talked about could be delineated into a few different categories - suffering related to (1) persecution, (2) conversion, (3) duty, (4) sacrificial love, and (5) overcoming.  Once we have looked at these, I will take a closer look at what kinds of suffering the Gospels do not tell us to embrace, what is fair game for removal from a kingdom perspective.


The most striking examples of Jesus saying to expect and even rejoice in suffering have to do with suffering persecution.  Jesus states plainly, "I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves" [Mt 10:16].  "If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first... If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" [Jn 15:18,20].  The disciples are instructed to expect persecution, even to be killed. "They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God" [Jn 16:2].  Jesus predicts Peter's martyrdom specifically: "'When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God" [Jn 21:18-19].

Jesus gives these warnings to prepare the disciples, but also to encourage them that these are indications they are pleasing to God: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven" [Mt 5:11-12].


While the result of conversion is to enter into the joyful freedom of the children of God, the process of conversion can be painful.  Jesus even describes the experience as a kind of death.  "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit" [Jn 12:24].  And so entering into life in Christ follows the same dynamic of his own death and resurrection.  "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it" [Mk 8:35].

And so "whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself" [Mk 8:34], must "humble himself like this child" [Mt 18:4].  "The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted" [Mt 23:11-12].  To get higher in the Kingdom, you must go lower.  John - the greatest man born of woman - understood this dynamic and gave us that key to the spiritual life, "He must increase; I must decrease" [Jn 3:30].

This process of conversion has become known as "dying to self."  In reality it is a dying of the false self (the false ego) so that the genuine Christ-intended self can emerge.  It is also a stripping away of idols and ungodly attachments.  "No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other" [Mt 6:24].  Being singlehearted for the Lord in this broken world will sometimes come with a cost, the stripping away of whatever is at odds with the Kingdom.  This might mean the loss of material resources, like the rich young man's wealth [Mt 19:16-22] or the herd of swine [Mt 8:28-34].  Devotion to Jesus may even be a cause of division in family relationships [Mt 10:34-36].

Each of these are potential occasions where loyalty to Christ may come into tension with our affections for things of this world, and where conflict is revealed (not everyone was called to renounce his wealth) conversion can feel painful.  As such, Jesus encourages his would-be followers to count the cost of discipleship [Lk 14:28-33], even to be ready to (metaphorically) part with their hand or eye should these steal their affections from the Lord [Mt 18:6-9].


Perhaps an offshoot of "dying to self" is the diligence of simple fidelity to one's daily duties.  Jesus praises the "faithful and prudent servant" who is found performing his duties upon the master's return [Mt 24:45-47].  So too the wise virgins who took care to bring extra oil for their lamps and were ready to greet the bridegroom [Mt 25:1-13].  Those servants who invested their master's talents were given greater responsibilities, while the one who simply sat on his talent was rebuked [Mt 25:14-30].

There is no promise that we will be allowed to avoid things like grunt work, or the slow and steady progress of hard work.  If the kingdom is like a mustard seed [Mt 13:31] we should expect some aspects of it to unfold according the the laws of organic, gradual growth.  We may even have to suffer some "weeds among the wheat" for a period of time until the harvest is ready [Mt 13:24-30].  Jesus modeled this kind of steadfastness by drawing away frequently for prayer, even "rising very early before dawn" to squeeze prayer into a busy agenda [Mk 1:35].  Even while facing the Cross, he says, "I love the Father and...I do just as the Father has commanded me" [Jn 14:31].


Jesus taught and demonstrated a lifestyle that is willing to accept suffering and difficulty for the good of another.  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" [Jn 15:13].  Jesus modeled this self-emptying love by taking the lower place and washing the feet of his disciples [Jn 13:1-20].  He used the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate what genuine love of neighbor looks like [Lk 10:25-37].

Sacrificial love also pushes past offenses in pursuit of reconciliation in relationships.  Jesus proposes direct confrontation in dealing with relational conflict (a very difficult thing for many!) [Mt 18:15-17], but says immediately after that we should be ready to lay aside grievances and forgive someone seventy-seven times [Mt 18:21-35].  The picture is of someone who places the pursuit of authentic relationship with another above their personal comforts.  We might see the same dynamic present in Jesus' shocking instructions to "turn the other cheek" and to "offer no resistance to one who is evil" [Mt 5:39].  It is a dramatic way of saying, "I hold no malice towards you!" - it is an attempt to communicate that one only has good will even for his aggressor.

Jesus upholds other demonstrations of sacrificial love that are directed towards God himself.  Preeminently, there is the act of extravagant love by Mary at Bethany which Jesus said would be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed.  Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with oil that was worth a year's wages, and this was a sacrificial offering of love that was pleasing to God [Mk 14:3-9].  Likewise, Jesus upholds fasting as a legitimate means of prayer, promoting the additional sacrifice of keeping your fasting hidden so that it is only known between you and God [Mt 6:16-18].  Jesus also indicates that some are invited into voluntary celibacy [Mt 19:12] or voluntary poverty [Mt 19:29] for the sake of the kingdom.


The final category has to do with those sufferings that are allowed into our life, but which we are designed to overcome.  In speaking encouragement to the Romans, St. Paul says that we are "more than overcomers through Christ who loved us" [Rm 8:37].  To be an overcomer requires that there is something to overcome, and so this is the category of the "in-between," those things that God allows into our life but which we are not meant to suffer indefinitely.

We have only to mention, for starters, the multitude of sicknesses that Jesus healed during his life.  But I will focus on just a few that illustrate this suffering of "in-betweenness."  In John 9, Jesus is asked regarding a man born blind from birth whether his blindness was due to his parents' sin or his own.  Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him."  I draw two points from Jesus' response.  First, he does not indicate that God caused the blindness; he seems to specifically avoid the question about cause.  Second, he makes it clear that God does not intend for him to remain in blindness perpetually.  We are left with a mystery about the cause, or about why God would allow this affliction, but not about his attitude towards it.

Perhaps more perplexing is the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11.  Hearing about his friend's illness, Jesus has a similar comment as the previous: "This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it."  Then Jesus stayed on where he was for two more days, during which time Lazarus dies.  While we are all familiar with the glorious ending to this story, it is the "in-between," the delay, that remains perplexing.  But confusion and the quest for an answer to "Why the delay?" all too easily deflects our attention from where it should be - the promise that we are meant to be "more than overcomers."

Consider the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28.  Her request for Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon was flatly (even rudely) rejected by Jesus three or four times in a row.  But in faith she persisted until Jesus himself extolled her faith and healed her daughter.  Faith means maintaining your conviction about the character and goodness of God no matter what your "in-between" circumstances may be telling you.

Jesus consistently displays an expectation that whatever destroys and diminishes life will be overcome.  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" [Mt 5:4].  "Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy" [Jn 16:20].  Why, when we read these, are we so quick to put the promise off to some distant future?

Once, when his disciples asked him why they could not drive out a demon from a young boy, Jesus responded, "Because of your little faith."  Jesus did not say, "This is a job only the Son of Man can do."  No, he had an expectation that his disciples should be able to handle this, if only they had greater faith.  "Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you" [Mt 17:14-20].  On one occasion when Jesus calmed a storm at sea, he asked his disciples, "Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?" [Mk 4:40]  Is it possible that Jesus expected them to be able to calm the storm themselves by their faith?

The point of this section is to say that, while on the one hand Jesus tells his disciples, "In the world you will have trouble," in the very next breath he says, "But take courage, I have overcome the world" [Jn 16:33].  Jesus did not simply take the adversity that life brings to us and relegate it to the category of "fate" or even "God's will."  He maintained the consistent expectation that these things could be overcome by him and by those who had faith in him.  Thus, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world," that is, away from every difficulty or tribulation, but "as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world" to continue to overcome the works of darkness just as Jesus did [Jn 17:15,18].


Now that we have surveyed what the Gospels have to say about suffering, it is worth noting what is not on this list.

Demonic Influence - Jesus has no tolerance for this.  We are never meant to carry this kind of affliction.

Illness and Disease - There is no indication anywhere in the Gospels that God simply wills for disease to be part of someone's life.  We see disease present (especially in the "Overcoming" category), but it is never attributed to God.  Instead, "Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness" [Mt 9:35].

Guilt from Sin - While the temporary pain of repentance is part of the "Conversion" category, Jesus consistently speaks forgiveness and peace to sinners.  We are not meant to be perpetually burdened with the memory of our failings.

Mental Illness or Anguish - Jesus consistently brings peace and sobriety to those who suffer from mental torments.  Jesus healed some who would today be described as having schizophrenic tendencies [Lk 8:26-39].  Jesus restored people from social ostracism and rejection.  Jesus repeatedly told his followers, "Do not be afraid," knowing how easily fear can influence the human mind and heart.  Jesus acknowledged the kind of internal bondage that can take place ("Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin") and offers the promise of a way out ("If a son frees you, then you will truly be free") [Jn 8:34,36].

Poverty - While not all are blessed with wealth, Jesus portrays God as a Father who provides.  "Do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?'... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all" [Mt 6:31-32].  Our God is a God of unlimited resources, and to us he says, "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours" [Lk 15:31].  Where there is poverty (and the poverty mindsets that come with it), we are meant to overcome and know the provision of the Father.

Untimely Death - Though untimely death is a reality of life, we never see it attributed to God in the Gospels.  Platitudes meant to console, such as "God just wanted another angel in heaven and decided it was his time," ultimately paint a distorted picture of God's character.  Jesus recoiled in the face of untimely death and was known to ruin a perfectly good funeral.

This list is not exhaustive, but I think it hits on the major areas of suffering that are commonly misattributed to God's will.  We are too quick to assume that God is using these as a means to build our character, or that He is disciplining us to teach us a lesson, or that He wants to grow compassion in us by increasing our suffering, or that He is drawing us closer to Jesus in his Passion.  To be sure, God has a way of bringing good out of the bad in our lives, but this is different than saying that these things are from God, that He sent them into our lives Himself.  Romans 8:28 says that "all things work for good for those who love God," but the miracle of this is precisely that God works good even from the bad things that He never intended to be a part of our lives in the first place.


Two well-known statements carry enough ambiguity that I chose not to place them in a category.  The first is the most famous: "Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me" [Mt 10:38].  Many will invoke this in statements like, "This is just my cross to bear."  As I stated in my original post on this topic, my concern is that we may be in danger of forming a victim mentality if we too quickly call something "my cross."  What if that "cross" is really something that God means for you to overcome?

Originally I planned to put this example in the Persecution category.  To the ears of the disciples, it would have sounded more like "Whoever does not sit in his electric chair..." or "...stand before the firing squad..." than the way we hear it today.  However, Luke's Gospel rephrases it as, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" [Lk 9:23].  Thus, it appears that a broader interpretation of this statement was already present in the early church.

That being said, as a standalone it remains ambiguous what "taking up your cross" should or should not apply to.  Sound reasoning says that what is less obvious in Scripture should be interpreted in light of what is more obvious.  If there is nowhere else in the Gospels that we can see Jesus attributing illness and disease to the will of God, for instance, then we should be reluctant to group that in with the possible "crosses" God might be sending us.

A second familiar quote that we might call ambiguous comes from John 15: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit" [1-2].  The agricultural image would not be lost on Jesus' disciples.  Pruning is an intense act of cutting back, either so that more nutrients would go straight to the fruit, or so that the vine itself would grow back fuller and stronger.  Surely this insinuates a measure of pain in the life of a Christian.  But what means is God willing to use to prune us?  Again, it is best to look to what is more explicitly stated in the Gospels for clarity rather than to assume too quickly that a given suffering is willed by God for our pruning.


One final category I feel it important to mention is the area of mystical suffering experienced by some saints throughout history.  Some saints received a particular grace to share in the Passion of Jesus in a mystical way, such as the stigmata experienced by the likes of Padre Pio or Gemma Galgani.  Some believe that we can even find scriptural precedent of this in St. Paul's "thorn in the flesh" described in 2 Corinthians 12:7.  In any event, the validity of this kind of mystical experience is something firmly rooted in our tradition.

Some would point to these kinds of examples as a way of illustrating that God sends suffering into some people's lives for a purpose.  Perhaps they would extrapolate from tales of this kind of mystical suffering to support the idea that God intends for some people to carry the heavy burden of physical, emotional, or circumstantial sufferings.  I think this is a dangerous leap to make.  The fact that the source of these saints' afflictions was supernatural, unexplainable from a medical point of view, points to this as a very unique situation.  God's purpose in this is a particular mission and calling - suffering in union with Christ for the salvation of souls.  Furthermore, these saints are often supernaturally sustained in a way that defies the natural order.  An equivocation between this kind of mystical suffering and, say, someone's experience of a disease that has has a natural medical explanation and destroys the body, simply does not compute.  We may take an example from these saints for how to suffer well while overcoming, but to attribute the disease as being God-sent obscures God's character and may lead to that same victim mentality that embraces the thing that God actually means for you to overcome.

(N.B. This section was revised on 2/17 to provide greater clarity.)