Seeking the face of Christ in suffering

Supporters of “doctor-prescribed suicide” often say it is needed to alleviate pain and suffering. In fact, intractable pain is way down the list of reasons why patients ask for suicide.

But an important point is being raised. What should we make of suffering? One commonly hears the so-called “problem of suffering” argument, against God’s existence. Suffering exists, the argument goes. But then God, all-loving and all-powerful as he is, seems to be either incapable of relieving suffering (thus, not all-powerful), or willing to (thus, not all-loving). Therefore, the argument claims, suffering disproves God.

This is a weak argument for two reasons. First, it never asks what “suffering” actually is; and second, it simply assumes that suffering (whatever it is) and love must be mutually incompatible.

The disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ knows suffering not only through personal experience, but also through the lens of Christ’s saving passion. This is at the very heart of our faith – that Christ freely chose to endure the agony of the cross and the grave, out of his infinite, divine love, so that we poor sinners might be saved from the sufferings of hell.  Moreover, as disciples, we know that our suffering can unite us to Christ’s saving passion, and therefore our suffering, too, can be redemptive.

Nor is faith required to see that love always entails suffering. Parents of every culture and religion willingly make sacrifices for their children, husbands and wives for each other, patriots for their country, and so on. These sacrifices mean people, always and everywhere, freely choose to suffer for love, for the sake of a greater good.

Can we imagine even our weak, fallible human love making no sacrifices, accepting no suffering, for the sake of the beloved?  If we can, we don’t call it love, but selfishness.

The truth is that all of us experience some kind of suffering, all the time, because what “suffering” actually means is “being deprived of a good.” In the broadest sense, only God is “the Good;” and since he is infinite in his goodness, we, as strictly finite beings, can’t even exist without lacking the fullness of the Good. We quickly learn to take such minor sufferings in stride, since we cannot change them, and to work within our human limits.

But, apart from the suffering resulting from our creaturely finitude, and the sacrifices we freely choose out of love, there is also suffering that we experience involuntarily, as an evil. In a minor key, we daily grow hungry, tired, and cranky; we are sometimes ill; we forget things; we never have as much money or possessions as we want; and so on.

More significantly, we spitefully wound others with our words and actions and are wounded by others; we fight and kill, sicken and die; we grieve helplessly for our beloved dead. This is the suffering our “problem of suffering” envisions. And truly, this “moral suffering” cries out to God for redress (e.g., Psalm 22).

We imagine, today, that we are somehow entitled not to experience this kind of suffering. No matter what form it takes, we label it “unjust” and “unfair,” and seek to avoid it by any and every means – even by the expedient of murdering the one who suffers (euthanasia)!

We imagine that our unprecedented wealth and technology can and should preserve us from all this suffering. But as we ponder it, do we not find that this hope is false?

Certainly we can alleviate some suffering, and this is right and good. Indeed, God wills that we do so, using all the gifts of his creation and all the talents of our intellects to unlock them, so that we can actively participate in his love for each of us, by doing what is humanly possible to cause others to suffer less.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, however, we know that we cannot get to heaven apart from the way of the cross. Suffering is necessary, in some sense, just as the passion was necessary for Christ’s mission of salvation. But, even here, in this experience of unwanted “moral suffering,” we see that, far from being unwilling or unable to relieve it, God is present, using us to relieve suffering for each other.

We should never, therefore, be afraid of suffering, or seek by unreasonable means (abortion, euthanasia) to avoid it; but when we must suffer, more than can be avoided or alleviated, we should seek there the face of Christ who suffered the cross for love of us.

This article is the third in a series by the Catholic bishops of Iowa, intended to encourage a thoughtful reflection on physician-assisted suicide, which will hopefully lead to opposition of PAS. The Most Rev. Walker Nickless is bishop of Sioux City.

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