What’s Up with Suffering?

Dear God, I don’t get it! is the name of my children’s book and it’s also the message I’ve heard through the years when bad things happen to good people.  Whenever the weight of the cross presses upon us, we tend to feel somewhat betrayed.  Why me Lord?  I don’t get it!  I pray and live a good life, why are you doing this to me?

The theme of suffering and striving to accept it appears to some degree in all nine of my books.  It’s not an obsession of mine; it is merely an inescapable aspect of Christian living.  Following Jesus Christ demands we come to terms with suffering. There’s no escape.

The Suffering Stumbling Block

Christianity makes many promises — peace, eternal life, mercy, etc. — but it does not offer us a pain-free existence. Instead, it promises just the opposite. Yet still, when the suffering comes, it feels like God betrayed us; dumping pain in return for our faithfulness. Or maybe we have not been so faithful at which point we immediately run to God, repent and make all sorts of promises to be good if only he will ___ (fill in the blank). Then, we expect God to want in on the bargain.

I first heard someone say, “If there is a God, how can he let this happen?” when I was in high school and a sixteen-year-old girl died in a car accident. Now that I’m in my fifties, I’ve heard it many times over.  I’ve seen people walk away from religion stating this familiar refrain, “If there was a loving God, he would never let people suffer.”  Suffering becomes the deal breaker for them.

Clearly, faith in God requires some level of acceptance that he allows us to suffer. Ideally, the acceptance needs to happen pre-suffering or otherwise feelings of surprise and betrayal are apt to set in.  It’s hard to reconcile our pain with a God who loves us. Theists believe God is removed from us, setting the world in motion and then sitting back to watch the show. Christians have a more personal image of God. Jesus is his only begotten Son and our brother. He loves us, and we are to love him and others in return.  So then, what’s up with suffering?  If the Bible says, Ask and you shall receive, then why are we not guaranteed our heart’s desire?

My children’s book covers that exact theme. It is a novel about a young boy who prays hard not to move after his dad loses his job. His prayer is not answered the way he had hoped, so he then grapples with finding meaning in prayer since what he asked for wasn’t granted.  It is a story that touches a chord.  To my surprise, adults have loved the book  and last week a woman told me her grandson has read it three times. I’ve come to see that acceptance in adversity is a theme Christians draw strength from.   It is often the very thing people seek to move forward.

Teaching about Suffering

In my first book, Catholic Truths for Our Children, a guide for handing down the faith, I contend that teaching our children about the value, meaning and acceptance of suffering is key to passing on a faith in God. If we only teach them that God loves us and hears our prayers then what is a kid to think when things don’t turn out the way he hoped?

Here is an excerpt: 

Our relationship with God can either be strengthened or strained during suffering.   When my children struggle with some difficulty, I often tell them that we suffer because this is not heaven.  They know the story of Adam and Eve and that because sin entered the world so too did suffering.  I commiserate with them when they ask, “Why did they have to disobey God?”  I also point out that each of us have sinned many times, so what’s the likelihood that we would have passed the same test? 

Any talk about suffering includes an explanation that this world is imperfect but we have eternal happiness to look forward to.  The topic of suffering comes up periodically in our family. My children often ask questions like, “Why do we have to suffer?  Why do we have to get sick?” And my favorite: “Why do you think God made mosquitoes?” I explain that suffering is part of the world we live in, but people suffer far more than they need to when they refuse to stay close to God. We do not need to suffer alone.  God will comfort us when we are hurt and save us from much needless pain if we let Him guide our lives. 

Teach and show your children to go to God in prayer for comfort and acceptance during difficult times.  Share your own disappointments and sufferings with your children in a way that will impact them positively.  During the times when we must struggle with an aspect of life not of our own choosing, we can do it with faith that God understands our difficulties and helps us carry our burdens. The Scriptures say:

“ For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow”  (2 Cor. 1:5).

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

“Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.  Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matt. 11: 28-30).

The reason for our suffering is not always obvious, but just as a parent can see more clearly to the future than their children, so too, God sees our future more clearly than we do.  God sees our future as including eternity, so we must trust Him to know what is best for us.  I also tell my children that God sent His own Son to suffer in our place in order to open the gates of heaven.  This realization — Christ’s suffering — helps me to accept my own hardships.  Suffering is a consequence of original sin and our own weakness, but it takes on meaning if we can unite ourselves to the sufferings of Jesus. 

To present this lesson in a positive light, consider that anything worth having is worth working for.  We must work for heaven and accept life’s difficulties.    Learning to walk and ride a bike was hard for our children.  They fell, got hurt, and became frustrated.  But the prize was worth the suffering, and in the end they conquered.  When we give our children consequences for bad behavior, it means they suffer in some way.  The purpose, however, is to make them stronger and better individuals. These are all little rewards compared to eternal happiness in heaven with God.

“But as it is written:  ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor. 2:9).

The best news, of course, is that suffering is never the end of the story.  Remember, after Christ’s death was the resurrection.   Just like there is always a happy ending in fairy tales, our life with God will be the happy ending to end all happy endings. 

“If we have died with him we shall also live with him.  If we hold out to the end we shall also reign with him”  (2 Tim. 2:11-12).

“But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Pet. 4:13).

Bottom line:  Life is the journey and not the final resting place. Suffering is temporary.

In the Amazing Grace books that I co-authored with Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto, a recurrent theme in these inspirational stories was survival through suffering. For that very reason, we decided that the last book in the series would be Amazing Grace for Survivors (also co-authored with my son, Luke).

 As I wrote in the introduction, “Surviving is more than just getting through an ordeal. It is being triumphant in spirit, regardless of the outcome.  As Christians, we recognize that life’s struggles can bring us strength and peace — even if the struggles remain. Such challenges are the fire that purifies and empowers us, ‘just as gold and silver are refined and purified by fire’ (Zech 13:9).  When trouble comes our way, our faith may be tested, but our endurance grows and our character is strengthened. 

I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of people over the years, often ghost writing their stories. The testimony of a survivor is one in which suffering did not come easy and was often rejected with anger, but ultimately, acceptance and strength prevailed. In that way, suffering brought them closer to God in the end.

Much of life is a mystery and suffering is a part of that. A survivor draws strength through suffering from God and ends up loving him even more — an irony best understood through the eyes of Christianity.

(© 2011 Patti Maguire Armstrong)

Patti Maguire Armstrong, is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.

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