A PERSONAL THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING
I have taught religion for over twenty years, and it has been
important to me to make sense of it all. I have done my best to undeify
the priesthood and de-mythologize Catholic teaching: priests
are not Christ; God is not Catholic, nor is God the Creator a man;
Catholicism has made mistakes. I hope that along the way I have
helped some students find a way of relating to God and to the Church
that makes sense to them.
Suffering has always been the most difficult topic to teach, but
my life experience is where I have found most of my answers. It is
not my abuse as a child but my parenting as an adult that provided
most of my answers. In my childhood I learned about the evil that
men were capable of; in loving my children I learned about the love
God as parent
As a parent of two sons I have gained much insight into God as
Abba, or Dad. I believe that:
1 As a parent God does not want children to suffer but knows
that children must grow and learn, and that freedom entitles even
children to make mistakes. God also knows that children may be
hurt through the exercise of other people’s freedom.
2 As a parent God knows that children cannot always be
protected, that the evil actions of others happen beyond the control
of the parent, and that disease and sickness and disaster also strike
in a way that is beyond the control of the parent.
3 As a parent God wants to help us through our pain and
suffering, to help us bear it and to help us deal most positively with
it, to cry with us, console us, give us strength and guidance, support
us, hold us in His/Her arms and keep us safe.
4 As a parent it breaks God’s heart when His/Her children are
Different types of suffering
There are different types of suffering. There is suffering that is
the pain, discomfort, or unhappiness created by not having things
our way. Such “suffering” can indeed be good for the soul as it teaches
us how to deal with the lack of instant gratification; it teaches us the
values of justice, of working for things we want, of compassion for
There is the suffering of distress over personal, minor, emotional
wounds or the wounds of others. Such suffering is a valuable tool in
learning to cope with one’s emotions and place them in perspective,
and in learning empathy with other people’s pain. Obviously, then,
some suffering is a necessary part of learning about oneself, about
others, and about values.
Another form of suffering is the physical pain that is necessary in
order for our bodies to teach us about danger and harm. If fire did
not cause pain, we would not know to pull our hand out of the flames.
Sometimes physical pain is a necessary evil—the pain of injections,
of surgery to heal and cure.
Then there are other forms of suffering which seem to serve no
apparent function in terms of personal growth, physical safety, or
physical healing. For example, there is the pain of physical illness,
disease, or hardship caused by natural disasters—things over which
we have no control. And there is the suffering resulting from an evil
act perpetrated on us by another person.
While it is true that such experiences can provide a person with a
motivation for the development of a closer relationship with God, I don’t
believe that it is the purpose of God to cause these forms of suffering.
It is not God who determines the path of the hurricane, or the location
of the tumor, the recipient of AIDS, or the victim of abuse.
These types of suffering are not God’s will. They are not tests of faith.
They are not part of God’s plan.
Jesus healed people who were sick, he didn’t tell them to suck it
up because it is part of God’s plan. Jesus showed us the compassion
of God. Jesus got angry over religious hypocrisy and cried over the
death of a friend. Jesus taught us about a God who wants us to learn
to love ourselves and others, and in so doing love God and make
God/The Good more present. This is a God who wishes us to grow
and mature not to become victims overwhelmed with despair.
Although God is always present to us, we may not recognize that
presence, perhaps because of our preoccupation with other matters
or our unwillingness to turn to God until we have a serious need. Yet
I cannot believe that God sends us suffering simply to get our
attention. Rather, I believe that God desires passionately to be a part
of everyone’s life, and sometimes, ironically, it is in the experience
of suffering that people discover God for the first time in a personal
God’s place in suffering—cause or consolation
Each moment of suffering is the result of multiple causes both
environmental and human, both random and willed. I believe that
God is present in each moment of suffering not as the cause but as a
source of strength/will to Good in the very next moment in which
we are able to exercise some choice. Even when we have no control
over the causes of our suffering, we can exercise control over our
responses—not our feelings but our decisions. Some people use
suffering as an excuse for self-pity, others as an excuse for denying
responsibility for their behavior. But there are positive alternatives.
When life sends you manure—grow roses
God is the gardener who shows us how best to transform the
manure life sends us into beautiful roses, our suffering into something
positive. We can choose to use what we learn from suffering as a
way to better ourselves, as a teaching tool for others, or as the
motivation to help ease the suffering of others. God helps us tend
our garden; God gives us the sustenance of caring friends and the
healing and cleansing of tears.
So I don’t believe that my abuse was God’s will, or that God had
a reason, or that God gives me no more than I can bear. Yes, God has
helped me survive, but God did not want me to be molested, to be
terrorized, to be humiliated, to be unable to love myself or my
children, to be tested to the edge of my survival and very nearly
beyond. If that were true, then God would somehow be a child abuser
and a malevolent force. No. While I believe that God will help the
abusers to heal if they look to God for help, God did not give them
permission to do what they did; it is always an act of human will not
divine intention for children to be abused.
If God IS love and wills love and wills the Good, it does not
make sense to say that God also creates unnecessary suffering. God
is not in the evil of abuse, God is in the grace of survival.
Jesus and suffering
Jesus believed in the words he spoke; his faith was stronger than
suffering and death. Jesus revealed the radical nature of God’s love
in his forgiveness of the very people who tortured and executed him.
Christians must face that challenge too: forgiveness.
I have faced many obstacles to my faith in a good and loving God
and to my faith in my own loveableness before God. As a Christian
I am told that faith can survive suffering, and I am challenged by the
very words of Jesus to forgive my abusers. However, it is very difficult
not to view forgiveness as somehow minimizing or condoning the
abuse I experienced. Doris Donnelly’s book, Learning to Forgive
has helped me view forgiveness in a new light. Forgiveness is
something that will help me move beyond my anger and help me let
go of my pain. Forgiveness is useful for me, even if I never have the
opportunity to communicate it to my abusers. Forgiveness helps me
A message from God to an abused child.
You are a precious child.
You deserve to be here and you deserve to be happy.
It was my will for you that you be happy.
It was not my plan that people hurt you.
People choose to hurt you of their own free will.
It was not what I wanted. I wanted to protect you.
I want you to know that I have always been beside you.
I have given you friends to help you.
I have willed you my strength through them, and I have loved you
You must learn to reach out to your friends,
to trust that they care.
I am always with you, even in your darkest moments.
I will always be with you.
I want you to trust me. I am stronger than you.
I can carry you when you need to be carried.
I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in me.
I want you to know that people care about you.
I care about you.
You deserve to be happy.
You deserve to be loved.
You ARE LOVED.
( An excerpt from, From Hurt To Healing, Publish America Press, 2004)