I promised a while back to talk about the sufferings of innocent people who are not capable of making sense of their own sufferings. I’ve already discussed why I don’t think the existence of pain, generally, is incompatible with an absolutely good and loving God. However, the fact that infants, people with severe cognitive disabilities, and others who are incapable of understanding or making meaning out of suffering still suffer seems to demand specific attention of its own.
Basically, I think there are a few possible ways of approaching this problem. I don’t think any of them constitute “the answer” but I do think they all help to shed a little light.
1. We are communal, not individual beings. The problem of a particular person’s suffering being “meaningless” if they are not personally able to make meaning out of it assumes that suffering is a kind of private possession. I pay the price of experiencing suffering, therefore I ought also to reap the benefit of deriving meaning from the suffering that I endure. The fact is that a lot of the time when we suffer, the purpose of our suffering doesn’t directly concern ourselves or our own good. The pains of labour, for example, are not primarily for the benefit of the mother – and regardless of whether a woman is able to derive a secondary harvest of personal meaning from the anguish of giving birth, the primary beneficiary is obviously the child who gains access to the entire world outside of the womb.
The idea that the recipient of the first fruits of our efforts should always be ourselves, and then secondarily others, is a particularly modern Western point of view. Yet on some level we know that this is not the ideal. Our heroes are people who accept suffering and difficulty for the sake of others, often with little or no benefit to themselves. Christ Himself, of course, is the ultimate example of this kind of selfless love.
Obviously, we feel that the situation of infants is different because there is no possibility of consent. An adult faced with a suffering that they have not chosen can make a choice: either to rebel against the suffering and become angry and hardened by it, or to try to accept it, to co-operate in the Divine drama whereby suffering is transmuted into salvation. A person with limited rationality or consciousness is incapable of this kind of consent.
Or so we assume, because…
2. Our perspective is limited by its temporality. The way that we understand consent involves a linear progression: if a man has sex with a woman, for example, he has to seek her consent first. If he has sex with her first, and then asks if he was allowed to do so afterward, this is no good. She might give post hoc consent to the act, in which case he will probably avoid prosecution – but we would still say, from a moral perspective, that he was guilty of rape because he had presumed her consent without asking.
God is not limited in this way. One way to think of it is like an author crafting the text of a novel: it’s not uncommon to know the ending before you write the beginning, and it’s really rather normal to develop a character at the age of, say 23, and to work backwards and forwards from that point rather than proceeding according to a strict linear progression. Of course if the character in question had a genuine subjectivity, they would experience their life as linear: they would see themselves as having been created at the “moment of conception” not at the moment when the inciting incident of their main storyline occurred.
God, obviously, doesn’t work that second way either (He doesn’t exist in time at all) but thinking about the different temporal perspectives of artist and character provides a way to get our heads a little bit around the idea of an eternal perspective. An artist doesn’t stop for a second to consider whether it’s morally okay to subject their character to some kind of suffering at the age of eight if that suffering is necessary to develop them into the kind of person that they need to be by the time they are 30. From the authorial point of view there is no temporal gap of years between these two events: it may be less than thirty seconds between seeing that the adult character dresses up as a bat to fight crime, and concluding that it is because they saw their parents murdered as a child.For God, all the moments of our lives are happening simultaneously: we are complete, whole creations where all of the parts work together. From that perspective, post hoc consent is actually simul hoc – God is not presuming consent in advance but witnessing consent at a point which we consider to be “in the future” but which for Him is in the Absolute Present.
But what about the baby who suffers and dies before even being born? Or the person who lives their entire life with only marginal consciousness and a great deal of pain?
3. The end of life is not death, but Heaven. The Absolute Present which God perceives doesn’t only include all of the moments of a human life on Earth, it also includes intimate communion with the person in a state of eternal beatitude. The ultimate meaning of human existence, and by extension of human suffering, can only be understood and contextualized in the light of our eternal destiny. It’s true that sometimes our individual sufferings bear some sort of more immediate good fruit that we can appreciate. The example of a person who is living a life of banal selfishness, then gets cancer, overcomes it, and starts living to the full, or living for others, is so common that it seems almost trite. But we all have these experiences from time to time.
On the other hand, we all experience loads of suffering that we’re not able to contextualize – suffering that seems to go nowhere and to be for nothing. Now here’s the thing, most of the time when we’re suffering for a purpose we don’t understand the purpose during the suffering. Job, when he is on his dunghill, doesn’t know that God is going to answer him, or that he’s going to get even greater blessings as a result of his faithfulness. Only in retrospect do his sorrows make sense.
Most of what we endure in this world will, I think, only make sense when we reach the absolute perspective of Heaven. There are really just an infinite number of variables that we can’t see, that we can’t take into account, that we can’t understand. Even at the end of a human life there is always a great deal that remains mysterious or unexplained.
The Christian promise, however, is that these things do have an ultimate explanation, and that when we see the full panoply of creation spread out before us in our final intimate surrender to God, we will understand. It will have meaning. This is true just as much for the person who, in this world, lacks the faculty for meaning-making. In the Communion of Saints that person is just as much a person, just as capable of owning their own life and their own suffering, just as capable of seeing the purpose in it as any one of us. We might even imagine (it seems that it would be in line with the general principle that God permits us to participate freely in His work) that a person who seems to suffer meaninglessly in this life is, in Heaven, given the dignity of being able to choose how to distribute the graces which derive from their sufferings.
For the most part this is only a hope but every so often we get a glimpse of it: a woman feels that she has been visited by her aborted child and offered the grace of forgiveness, a mother who has lost her baby experiences a profound seemingly inexplicable joy, a woman feels that her severely disabled brother’s spirit is present to her during her trials. It’s not enough to definitely answer the question, but it is enough to give us latitude to trust that God has it covered.
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