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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 4
Christmastide 2010

Reconciling a Loving God with Pain, Suffering and Disaster

by Rita Joseph

The first article of the Affirmation for Catholic Women states: “We believe that through God’s grace our female nature affords us distinct physical and spiritual capabilities with which to participate in the Divine Plan for creation. Specifically, our natural function of childbearing endows us with the spiritual capacity for nurture, instruction, compassion and selflessness, which qualities are necessary to the establishment of families, the basic and Divinely ordained unit of society, and to the establishment of a Christian social order”.

It is through God’s grace that we are given the spiritual capabilities to discern God’s loving plan for ourselves and our families. It is His gift of faith that equips us to face the hard things of life with courage and compassion and steadies us when tragedy threatens to overwhelm us.

We live in trying circumstances. In a fallen world where nature itself is disordered, great natural disasters occur almost every day. Droughts, floods, bushfires, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis — somewhere every day, there are men, women, and children confronting intense fear amidst massive disruption to their lives. Others are caught in the tragedy of epidemics that sweep through communities unchecked by modern medicine. Yet others are trapped in tragedies of human design — in the desperate privation of the powerless who live under cruel dictatorship or in the lawlessness of a failed state; or in the cruel suffering rendered by indefensible acts of terrorism; or in the deprivations, endemic fear, horrific injuries and human loss in war zones.

And at the micro-level, we all experience smaller but no less fearful tragedies — difficult circumstances such as a sudden loss of employment, a home foreclosure, or long years of caring for a child with a disability or for a frail aging parent. There may be days of deep anxiety, of chronic or terminal illness, sad days spent near a beloved mother or father, sister, brother, son, daughter or dear friend. Dark days.

And then there are the ugly days — where anger, greed, jealousy, selfishness, and dissension erupt, spoiling all that is good and promising.

Many experience the pain, suffering and disaster that are part of the human condition and reason that there can be no loving God, for a loving God could not allow these things.

As we know from Scripture, God created heaven and earth. He saw that His creation was good. As we understand from Genesis, all God’s creation was in perfect harmony “in the beginning”. Nature obeys God’s laws. And sometimes the operation of these natural laws — the same laws that benefit us, and that we depend upon (gravity or fire, for example) — may result in natural disasters that cause destruction and human suffering.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “only the Christian faith as a whole” can provide an answer to the problem of evil:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all His creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by His covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of His Son, His gift of the Spirit, His gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and His call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil (CCC No. 309).

It’s important to remember that God gave human beings the dignity of free will — He would not compel our love for Him or our obedience to His loving plans for us. Of their own free will, throughout the history of our human family, our forebears have thwarted those plans. Perversely, again and again, human societies chose to make an autonomous plan, an alternative, inferior plan which rejected the natural law principles that first governed the perfectly integrated harmony of our parents in the Garden of Eden.

Moments of grace — hints of heaven

Yet, through Divine Mercy, vestiges of that first harmony endure even to this day and give us credible hope of heaven to come. We recall the early days when as little ones we basked in the protection and love of our parents; we remember our first Holy Communion day: happy days filled with good things, good health, small celebrations and lots of laughter.

We recall the delights of the senses, good food, music, loving voices, the warmth of sunshine, the gentle miracle of rain, the glad color and scents of trees and flowers, green grass, a blue sky, the grandeur of mountains against the sky and mighty waves coming tamely to shore, where little children paddle safely and build sandcastles.

We remember the profound happiness of making good friends, our marriage vows, our wedding day, the inimitable joy of sublime union in the physical gift of oneself to one’s spouse, the birth of a baby, the Christening day, little arms and little hugs growing stronger each day, first words, first steps, first love, and so on.

But these moments of grace are just hints of heaven — they give us hope and encouragement, but they are not heaven. Saint Paul saw heaven and he says “… eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).

Earth is definitely not heaven. Earth is just a temporal place where God, our Father, prepares us for heaven — if we will let Him. By God’s grace, we have to will our way to heaven. He will not force us.

Tragedy stems from rejecting God’s loving plans for us

As with the physical laws of nature, so with the natural laws governing human behaviors — to contravene them is to be confronted with unavoidable consequences that upset the equilibrium that a loving God had planned for us and cast us into maelstroms of hurt and disaster.

All down the centuries, new ambitious plans based on radical man-made rules have emerged. New plans to make a heaven on earth without God have been mooted, implemented and then collapsed in moral chaos and disaster.

And so even today, the same overweening pride, not wisdom or prudence, urges governments, the media, educational institutions and the legal, medical and science professions to re-make our world according to a new order — to banish God from political discourse and to live as though God doesn’t exist. This is human folly at its most irresponsible — to deny our Creator’s existence, to re-create the world in our own fractured image, to conform the founding principles of our own new order to our own fallen nature, to enact new laws that will accommodate all our favorite sinful behaviors.

Self-pride goads humanity to pretend that the rapid spread of perverse behavior (such as abortion, in vitro fertilization, medically assisted suicide, promiscuity, adultery, divorce, sodomy and same-sex “marriage”, prostitution and addiction to pornography) has no serious consequences that cannot be dealt with cleverly by democratic consensus, the welfare state, secular education, positivist law, and an opinionated media claiming omniscience.

When “God is canceled from social life…”

As the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo warned: “God is canceled from social life”. Shortly before he died, the cardinal, in an interview with Juan Manuel Estrella, commented on “The Gospel of Life” encyclical:

Evangelium Vitae is providential, especially today in the parliamentary realm, with so much progress in science but with an “absolutism” lamented by Cardinal Ratzinger, which pretends not to know the limits and to ignore moral principles and values.

God is canceled from social life and this does not happen with impunity, as there is an attempt against the principles of truth of every society.

The sense of law is turned upside down and arrives at the height of confusion that dehumanizes man, by converting crime into law, as denounced in Evangelium Vitae, or as Cardinal Ratzinger said, when the state arrogates to itself abusive prerogatives.1

Amidst all this moral confusion and social dysfunction, clearly we must seek to re-instate God in our lives and our communities.

God can bring good out of evil

As Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good”.2 Whenever we are confronted with pain, suffering or disaster — or find ourselves in company with those who are suffering — we must turn to God with all our hearts. To live in His presence — this is the only way for human beings to cope with the hard things of life, to be able to go on living, to remain fully alive. To live in God’s presence — this is the only way we are able to bear overwhelming fright, to survive the unbearable heartbreak of our own turn in the garden of Gethsemane.

For each one of us in great trouble or distress, there are at least three ways in which God can bring good out of evil.

1. Pain, suffering and disaster can bring out the best of our humanity.

The hard things make us more human and bring us closer to Jesus, closer to what we are meant to be. They can bring a new empathy with others, better understanding of their needs, spur us to provide practical help and a deeper love for each of them in their troubles. And this can bring a reciprocal love from others for us in our own distress. This can foster a new sense of family, of community, overriding petty disputation, divisions and irritations — bringing a new realization that we are all in this together — that your needs, your pain, your heartbreak are also mine. These hard experiences can bring us past initial bitterness or bewilderment to a greater love — a truer love of God and neighbor.

2. Pain, suffering and disaster bring us back into the presence of the Lord, our Creator.

At the same time, the hard things of life strip us back, take all the frills away, and leave us contemplating the essentials only — the heart and soul of our existence and our dependence on the Lord. We turn to Him in desperate prayer, and, comforted by His loving forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and by the profound peace of His presence in the Eucharist, we find we are not alone.

Often too, pain, suffering, and disaster engage the intellect urgently — they draw us into the quest of our life, a fierce quest for meaning, a quest that we have ignored for too long, because we have been living too busily, too greedily, too actively engaged in work, too immersed in seeking pleasure or some material goal. Pain, suffering and disaster cut through the complacency of our comfort zones. They focus our thoughts powerfully on one of the most central questions of human existence — “Why?” “Why me?” “Why is this happening?”

When we are forced into the “why” question, we begin to contemplate seriously and deeply the meaning and purpose of life. And we find ourselves moving painfully but surely toward God.

3. In pain, suffering and disaster, we tread the road to Calvary with Jesus

The search to make sense of suffering can bring us to walk beside Jesus to Calvary. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church assures us, “Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows Himself to be touched by the sick, but He makes their miseries His own: ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” Even without full understanding, we can be strengthened and comforted in Jesus being present. In carrying our own cross with Jesus, we can humbly offer our own small part in His great act of redemption for our sins, for the sins of those whom we especially love, and for the sins of the whole world. We are drawn closest to Jesus when in our own agony of fear or pain or heart-break, we remember the Way of the Cross. Jesus, our Redeemer, loved us and took the wood of the cross and carried it in pain and derision to Golgotha. He willingly lay down on the wood, allowed Himself to be viciously nailed to it — and in His final agony on the cross raised between heaven and earth, He asked the Father to forgive us.

Thus, Saint Leo the Great said, “Christ’s inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon’s envy had taken away”. God is indeed good to those who are searching for His truth — in their tragedy they find His love, which makes all things bearable, all things worthwhile.


1 Interview With Cardinal López Trujillo,Vatican City, published posthumously April 20, 2010 (

2 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, 1, 3, ad 3.

Rita Joseph, a member of the editorial board of Voices, has represented family concerns at United Nations conferences. She writes and lectures on social issues, and has made a special study of the Holy Father’s writings on family and on women. She has lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. Her book Human Rights and the Unborn Child was published in 2009. Rita and her husband Gerard live in Canberra, Australia.

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