What God Can Do With Suffering

What God Can Do With Suffering November 29, 2021

Christians are supposed to rejoice in our weaknesses.

I don’t really know how to do that. But I do talk about weakness a lot– partly for good reason, so that we can all remember that weakness is nothing to be ashamed of . And partly because it’s just on my mind so often, because I’m weak.

Lately I’ve been downright fragile.

The anxiety is to blame. It just gets worse. I’m grateful to finally have a doctor who knows what’s wrong with me after 36 years of suffering, and I’m thrilled that the PCOS is so well under control. But I am still struggling with the anxiety and panic attacks that PCOS is causing, and the way the monthly hormone pills make it worse.

On Saturday I had a panic attack over nothing, again. And afterwards I was so scared and lonely that I just had to go out of the house, so we all went window shopping at the Ohio Valley Mall an hour away. We drove on the freeway. I am a good driver now. I’m very careful. But the whole way down to Saint Clairsville, I was tortured by fear of things that couldn’t possibly happen: cars materializing driving the wrong way on the freeway, the pavement sliding sideways and dumping us into the Ohio, a policeman pulling me over and telling me my license had been suspended for no reason at all and I was now going to prison for driving anyway. For awhile, I got off the freeway entirely and just drove around a small town looking at Christmas lights until I felt calm again. The Christmas lights were beautiful. It was a fun detour.

The whole time we were walking in the mall, my heart was in my throat expecting a catastrophe. On the way back it began to snow.  This was my first time driving on the freeway, in snow, in the dark. I seriously considered getting a hotel room and just staying there, but I did not. I drove all the way back to Steubenville, in the snow, in the dark, on the freeway.  I expected to die at any minute, but I didn’t. I made it back. When I finally got back to town I did a victory lap around LaBelle and the rich neighborhoods as well, to admire the early Christmas lights in Steubenville. And those were beautiful. I am glad I went for a drive.

Being a weak person in some ways requires being strong in others, and I’m proud of myself. I am strong enough to get through a bad thing.  I am strong enough to find something good to admire while I’m in it.

But there’s another trick I can’t do. I can’t take something that’s truly bad, and give it a new meaning. Only God can do that. And that’s a part of the Catholic understanding of suffering that I’ve often seen misunderstood.

People can withstand terrible things, and there’s merit in withstanding terrible things. Sometimes it can help make you stronger to endure a terrible thing. It can help you have empathy for other people in terrible straits. But the terrible things remain terrible.

People can also withstand not-so-terrible things and realize when it’s over that they weren’t so terrible. But whatever was bad in the experience remains bad.

People can also find good things hidden in bad, and they can be glad they went through a bad experience because the good outweighed it. But bad things reman bad.

Christ redeemed suffering through the cross. He turned suffering, a dreadful human thing, into a part of the life of the Holy Trinity. Suffering, for us, is still not a good thing. It’s not to be sought out. It’s wrong to be precious about it. It’s especially wrong to shame people for not seeing the good in it, or to gaslight them by claiming their suffering is a blessing. It’s not. But it’s also a prayer and a thing that’s been redeemed.

If suffering is  a good thing and we’re all just being silly, then the redemption loses its meaning.

If we’re all just wimps and Jesus came to show us that what we fear isn’t so fearsome, then Jesus isn’t God, He’s nothing but a man who is stronger than we are. If we’re all just ungrateful and God wants us to look on the bright side, then Jesus is nothing but a man who is more perceptive than we are. A man stronger or more perceptive than we are is something we can comprehend. We’ve seen that before. But God is beyond our understanding, and His ways are far above our ways. God became man, without ceasing to be God. He chose to accept whatever we would do to Him, no matter how evil, and we did the absolute worst thing we could think of. So He embraced and accepted that absolute worst thing, carried it down to hell with Him, broke the gates of Hell, rose from the dead and ascended to His Father. In doing that, He didn’t reveal suffering to be something that it wasn’t. Suffering remains the worst thing that can happen. But He did change the meaning of suffering by uniting it with the Life of God and making it a godly thing. Suffering, the worst thing that could happen, became a kind of prayer. Being in pain became a kind of prayer. Being humiliated became a kind of prayer. Being afraid became a kind of prayer. Every human experience, no matter how bad, is a prayer now, because prayer is the movement of the Holy Trinity and one Person of the Holy Trinity became a human.

Only God could do that.

Humans have consciences, though our consciences are flawed and we sometimes make mistakes. Humans can look at a thing and discern whether it’s good or bad, or not so bad as we thought. We can find hidden good that we didn’t know was there in a thing that’s mostly bad. We can also realize that a thing we thought was good is actually bad. But we can’t make a thing good that isn’t. Strictly speaking, not even God can do that. But God can descend into a thing that is evil, and give it a new meaning.

And now, since God dwells among us, all things are made new. Everything in life has a new meaning, including suffering. But that doesn’t mean suffering isn’t bad. It means that the God Who is pure Good descended into the bad thing with us, to bring good out of something that isn’t good.

The drive to the mall was a good choice. The stops to look at Christmas lights were good and I can cherish them. My anxiety and weakness are bad, and I don’t need to try to pretend they’re good. My learning to endure is good and so is getting help so this won’t happen anymore. But all of it, all of it, all of it was prayer.

Everything that happens to a Christian is prayer.

That’s why you can rejoice in your weakness– without having to say it’s a good thing.

That’s what God can do.


Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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