We cannot fathom exactly why God allows suffering, but we do know that out of evil, God always brings some greater good.
The First Reading for Ash Wednesday says: “Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.” (Joel 2:12-18, emphasis added). In other words, the way back to God is by…suffering.
Sufferings in this life serve to bring us closer to God. The Beatitudes reflect this in their promises – “Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.” At first this seems contradictory and impossible, but really it is not. Think about it – if you were never sad, you would never need to be comforted. You cannot fix what is not already broken, and it is the same in our relationship with God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor, 12:9) God uses our weaknesses, our sufferings, our failures, to give us a chance to grow closer to Him, for it is through them that we learn who He is.
If we were never suffering, we would not know the consolation, the joy, the peace, and the happiness that can be found in God alone – the One our restless hearts are searching for.
If we were never sick, we would not know that He is healer.
If we were never sad, we would not know that He is comforter.
If we were never weak, we would not know that He is strong.
The Fall made us weak and susceptible to sin, and brought suffering and death into the world. But suffering is actually God’s gift to us, to be used to come back to Him. Our redemption from the slavery of sin came about through the suffering and death of Jesus, so if suffering did not exist, we might never have been able to obtain God’s grace.
That sufferings are a gift from God is something that has been constantly affirmed by the Saints…
St. Alphonsus Liguori said:
“Whenever God wishes to do us some special favour, He sends us a cross.”
Jesus said to St. Teresa of Avila:
“I want you to know this – that those, whom my Father afflicts with the greatest sufferings, are those who are dearest to Him…the more anyone is loved by my Father, the heavier will be the trials that such a one will receive from Him – this is the measure of love.”
Our Lord told St. Gertrude:
“My child, you can do nothing at all that will give me greater joy than to suffer in patience all the trials and tribulations that come to you.”
St. Catherine of Genoa said:
“To arrive at perfect union with God, adversity is a necessity. By means of it, God wishes to consume all those evil tendencies that arise within us and without. Injuries, contempt, infirmities, abandonment – maybe by relations and friends – confusion, temptations, opposition: all these are necessary in a supreme degree; for we must fight. The only way to victory is by battle; and in that battle we conquer all the evil movements that arise within us, until we are no longer subject to their dominion. We shall not reach this state of divine union until all these adversities, once so bitter to us, have at last become sweet, in and for God.”
And St. Francis said:
“My joy overflows while embracing my cross; I gain heaven and God for this slight earthly loss.”
This Lent, let us try to make the most of the sufferings God sends us, and conform ourselves to the image of Jesus, who lived a life of the most bitter sufferings (and, of course, being God, is definitely in very close union with Him!)
And if you’re having a rough time, just remember: it’s because God loves you, and wants you to be united to Him!
(P.S. For more on the value of suffering, I highly recommend reading Chapter 1: Love is Patient (The one who loves Jesus Christ loves to Suffer) in “The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ” by St. Alphonsus Liguori. St. Alphonsus’ writings are very inspiring – albeit challenging – and would make wonderful Lenten reading. A free copy of the book can be downloaded here: https://archive.org/details/ThePracticeOfTheLoveOfJesusChristupdated908)