Forgiving God: Can we make sense of suffering?

God is faithful, no matter what. But what of the obverse, rarely broached? How long are we to cleave to a God who ambushes us with tragedy, often just as we have improvised some shaky equanimity from the last surprise? How do we assess a God who invented both breathtaking sunsets and emphysema? As Robert Frost quipped: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

In the broadest sense, “suffering” means losing anything we love or even just presume to love. In that sense, getting out of bed is suffering, leaving the serenity of sleep to face the day’s surprises. Suffering is a given. But can any insight make the forfeitures worth it? Every thinker since Buddha began with that primal unfairness, the lachrymae rerum. That search feeds our dreams with paradisiacal islands where no one must work or be watchful. Most stories, however, suggest that suffering is the path to growth as a human being, that purpose comes from surpassing challenges.


In the cold light of reason, once one grants a Creator who intends humans freely to cultivate their souls, some suffering makes sense. On one hand, natural retribution is etched into the natures of things. Violate those ingrained natures, and you discover that. Like hearing the tilt buzzer in pinball, intelligent people sense a “wrongness” in defying limits too often. If you act the S.O.B, you become an S.O.B., and few will dare tell you. On the other hand, if Whoever Made the Rules invites free evolution beyond animal nature by scaling predictable obstacles, each crisis in physical growth is a natural invitation to broader and deeper participation in being human, independent of parents. In that perspective, such inequities as adolescence are certainly unpleasant but legitimate and more readily acceptable.

On the contrary, unmerited suffering is unpredictable, affliction for which no victim was responsible: my parents split up, my house burned, my friend betrayed my confidence, my mother is alcoholic, I got hit by necrotic fasciitis—none of them my fault, but either I live with them or go mad trying to make the truth untrue.

Another way to study our common burden is to subdivide unmerited suffering into the physical and the moral. Physical suffering/evil (hurricanes, cancer, death) results from living in this world. No human is responsible, only whoever set up this environment with those pitfalls. Moral evil or “man’s inhumanity” (war, murder, rape) results from human will, freely degrading oneself and others. Although this places the rebel human as the immediate cause, it does not absolve the kindly creator. If God is the ultimate cause, he/she freely gave wits and freedom to inadequately evolved apes. Some thinking people find that so contradictory they deny such a feckless Cause can exist.

Each of us, merely by being born (for which none of us was responsible), is by that fact condemned to death. Beckett makes that absurdity clear: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” In a godless universe, the greatest curses are intelligence and hope: hungers, by our very nature, for answers and survival, where neither exists.

Who can justify a God who allows cancer to devour a saint? (Or permits his only Son to be insulted, scourged and executed?) This question underlies the Book of Job: the mystery of suffering for which the victim is not culpable. God allows subjection of “the perfect and upright man” to one physical and moral evil after another. Natural disasters and marauders destroy his children, animals and crops. His skin erupts in boils. His wife deserts him. Yet despite his friends’ insistence that God makes only the guilty suffer, Job knows unarguably he did nothing wicked enough to justify suffering such as his.

Between Creature and Creator

Whether one suffers innocently from the vagaries of the environment (physical evil) or from others’ callous use of freedom (moral evil), God’s answer is the same. It comes at the end of the Book of Job, and near the end of each Gospel, but it is neither fair nor just. Nor is it, in any strict sense, an answer. In the first place, when God finally arrives to respond to Job’s accusations of mistreatment, God turns up in a hurricane, which is not quite fair. But that is God’s whole point: Job’s situation is not a question of justice but a matter of trust, as was Abraham’s. In the second place, the answer is not rational, but rather a person-to-Person experiential encounter between a creature and his creator.

“Brace yourself like a man,” says the imperious voice from the windstorm. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you understand” (Jb 38:3-4). In effect, God is saying: “Have you forgotten who I AM and who you are? Is there some ground on which you presume I should check my plans with you? Is it just possible I have reasons your space- and time-bound mind is incapable of fathoming?”

If the patience of Job means fidelity despite boundless doubt, then Job was truly a patient, trusting man. But if patience means silent acquiescence, he was anything but. For 37 chapters Job relentlessly challenges his friends, who insist he must be guilty. Since Scripture is the word of God, and Job is rewarded in the end for his perseverance, God seems to have no problem with our using the wits he gave us to challenge him. (A wonderful Jewish belief says, when we use our God-given wits to dispute with him, God dances for joy!) God finds no objection to our railing at him, wrestling with him (his angel) as Jacob did, even bawling him out for a fare-thee-well like Jeremiah did, using every curse in our arsenal as we would with any lifelong friend—provided, when we calm down, we forgive God, thanking him for the good times. For good times have far outnumbered and outweighed the bad.

Often in classes of all boys, I find fierce resistance. If you argue the manifest differences between human and animal sex, for instance, you know instantly who the sexually active are, because they defend a vested interest with no pretense at fair exchange. At those times, I say, “Look, don’t be mad at me because I know more than you do, because I have read more, because I have given these questions more thought.”

That is at least remotely like our crying “Unfair!” to the very Person who gave us the means to see inequity and the skills to voice our objections. Therefore, if forgiveness is the hardest loving, perhaps the way in which we love God most profoundly is forgiving God for being God, for having reasons and a perspective we are simply unable to grasp.

Wisdom makes peace with the unchangeable. We are free to face the unavoidable with dignity, to understand the transformational value that attitude has on suffering. The ultimate freedom is the attitude with which we face unpleasant challenges. But it is a free response. We can settle for bitter endurance.

Suffering, accepted as challenge, redeems us from our misplaced feeling of uselessness, of meaninglessness, of being dismissible as human beings. In that sense, the experience of suffering is essential. Who would exult in good health, had one never been sick? Who would appreciate living without a felt realization of death? Who would feel grateful unless all happiness were precarious? “Shall we take good from God and not trouble?” (Jb 2:10).

Jesus’ Passion

Personally, I find an iron wall between the Father revealed by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son and the image of God that theologians have argued for centuries, who required Jesus’ sufferings as atonement for sins. I have a contrarian resistance to accepting Jesus as a “ransom” for us to an offended and unbending God. Isn’t ransom paid only to a hostile power?

The God revealed in Jesus’ unvarying treatment of sinners—the woman who wept over his feet, the adulterous woman, the woman at the well, cowardly Peter, the kindly thief crucified with him—offers simple, uncritical acceptance. Never a need to crawl, to list species and number, no compensatory penance. How does one square that kindly Father with a vindictive God who demands blood in recompense for two simpletons (to whom he himself gave the freedom) eating one piece of fruit? Could the God who asks us to forgive 70 times seven times hold a grudge so long?

Note well: I do not deny the centuries-old teaching on atonement. I just no longer pretend I understand it. Not even a fool could deny the effects of original sin. But I balk at the economic metaphor—an almost irreparable debt to explain what caused human inconstancy.

If the degradation God endured for us has not been deadened by repetition, I wonder if we could find a depth beyond atonement. In his forthright confrontation with evil and suffering, Christ did indeed free us—from fear: fear that our sins might defy forgiveness, fear that our sufferings have no meaning, fear that only a few loved ones truly care. To my mind, our liberation comes not from God’s acceptance of an infinite, bloody propitiation, but in the very nature of a God who is Love, who dotes on us neither despite our faults nor because of our good deeds but because we are his. Such love eludes any science, even theology.

The scandal of the cross is the baffling anomaly of an omnipotent God, by nature inaccessible to anything remotely negative, much less helpless agony, willingly yielding to such degradation. It defies rational explanation. To those not dulled by familiarity, the cross staggers the mind. What could motivate such abasement? The only response is no rational answer: love freely given, prompted by nothing more than a Father’s deathless infatuation. The Passion declares: “Here! Look! Is this enough to prove how important you are to me?”

Bewildering as that love is, it is more comprehensible—and more congruous with the God embodied in Jesus—than a God placated by blood sacrifice, as was accepted in a barbarian world. It allows of a God who goes beyond even conventional morality, group loyalty and law-and-order quid pro quo, the just balance, the human in us. It provides a model of post-conventional motivation: unbridled altruism that is neither rational nor irrational but beyond logic. Difficult as it might be for those whose scope is at those lower levels, this is the God in whose image we are fashioned—invited beyond the self-centered animal, even beyond the self-governed human, into the freewheeling love-life of the Trinity. Into holiness.

Look at a crucifix. Reflect on whom that corpse embodies: the architect of the universe, compacted into that bleeding mass. Can I honestly say, and accept in the depths of myself: “Yes. It is inescapable. God believes I am worth that. Who am I even to have second thoughts about that evaluation?” For that, I think I can forgive God’s unfathomable intentions.

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Thomas Deely
10 years 1 month ago
The founder of us Redemptorist Missionaries had his own special idea of "atonement" which steered away from the seemingly quid por quo idea of redemption. I think the last verse of TU SCENDI DALLE STELLAE, one of his famous Christmas carols expresses it pretty well. It is "my own" English version of the 4th and last verse of it that goes: What brings you so much pain, Lord? What do you now hope to achieve?(bis) What is the reason? Why are you weeping? Why is you heart not at rest and in peace?-- Yes, I know what the reasons are. Lord! It is not for the pain, Lord. What grieves you is lack of our love. (bis). (Carol of St. Alphonsus de Liguori)
10 years 1 month ago
Dear Father O'Malley, I very much appreciated your searching, heart-felt article on suffering. I share your misgivings over the "centuries-old teaching on atonement." You are right on target when you "find an iron wall between the Father revealed by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son and the image of God ...who required Jesus' a ransom for us to an offended and unbending God." The ransom or expiation theory is indeed centuries old. It comes to us from Anselm in the 11th century and has been called the "most successful theological construct in history." It should however be thoroughly rejected. It is not biblical. It undercuts Jesus' revelation of a loving, forgiving Father, severs the cross from the arc of Jesus' life and teaching, makes salvation ahistorical, and hides the central message of Jesus concerning nonviolent resistance to evil and loving action for suffering humanity. See the review--in the same issue of America as your article-- by Peter Phan of my book, "Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence," which suggests an alternative touchstone metaphor for understanding salvation. Please do not disclaim your effective rejection of the "God who holds a grudge" theory. You are helping the many who find it bewildering and antithetical to their instincts and values. My only criticism of your article is the "gaze at the cross and see how much he loves us" stance. We can go further. The cross is the result of the way Jesus lived. He invites us not just to gaze but to take up the cross and follow his way of life. That makes suffering not just a mystery to be pondered but also a challenge for our action.
David Pasinski
10 years 1 month ago
I just returned to the office from visiting a patient who is pleading to die due to his suffering. Although he is a Christian as am I, I could only counsel Thomas Merton's prayer of God's accompaniment-- "You will never leave me to face my perils alone." The rest is silence....
10 years 1 month ago
You touched upon the most sensitive teachings within our tradition, i.e. original sin and atonement. And as we are all heirs of the Enlightenment to one degree or another, these two teachings are not only scandalous but also absurd. Indeed, I struggled myself for a very long time to make any sense of them. Interestingly enough, I found some help in placing these ideas in their proper context. For example, Adam and Eve story was written at a time when Israel experienced peace and prosperity, not suffering, the so-called Golden Age. Not pressed by more urgent matters, the Yawhist could take some moments to reflect. One thing is clear. The writer was concerned with the idea of the justice of God which had to be reconciled with the idea of the loving and merciful God. These are major themes in the O.T. I find that each of us, at some point, will grapple with these two notions: justice and mercy. To put it differently, can love be at the same time just and merciful? We see all around us evil doers who prosper and terrible things that happen to good people! Surely there must be a just God to set things straight. I suggest that this perspective is not so absurd after all. Somehow, to our astonishment, in Jesus Christ God manages to reveal to us his boundless and merciful love without doing away with the notion of justice. By way of anology, let us imagine that I am the judge in court. My job is to uphold the law, to make sure that justice is served. The accused is my own child. After all is being said and done, my child is found guilty. My heart breaks, but I have no choice. I pass the sentence: $5,000 fine. Case closed. But at dinner time, I am face to face with my beloved child who is deeply troubled and sorrowful. Tears are coming down his face as we gaze into each other's eyes. He says 'mom, I am so sorry!' I know what to do. I don't even have to think about it. I take him in my arms and I say 'do not worry, everything will be alright. I will pay the fine, just don't do it again.' But the fine must be paid. Adam and Eve is just another name for us humans. We all have dirty hands. For Christians of the east, sin means turning away from God who is Life. Jesus confirms it: "I am the Way and the Truth and The Life." He does not say I am Heaven. Turning away from Life is Death not Hell. And it is so by logical necessity not because of a God conceived as punitive. We simply cannot introduce ideas born of existentialist philosophies into the Jewish consciousness of Jesus. There simply was no dichotomy between the inward and the outward. Modern psychology seems to confirm this ancient insight in the consensus achieved regarding the psycho-somatic unity. And so, sin translated in wrong doings because one turned away from God/Life/Love/Truth/Good which meant death. Theologians therefore could say that the 'penalty' for sin is death and that Jesus/God atoned for that so that we may have Life. Nothing punitive about it. This theology becomes problematic in a culture that lost the notion of sin. But whether I break your arm intentionally or not, the fact remains: the arm is broken. The question of God requiring satisfaction is the wrong question. We need to ask why God created the universe the way it is and not otherwise? This is the same with asking how can we imagine heaven or how can we define God. Obviously we cannot.
Coletta Livingston
9 years 4 months ago
I have read and re-read and recommended this amazing article to many, many people. I intend to memorize most of its message about a God who is indeed crazy about us-thank God!! And thank you, Father O'Malley


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