Growing up as a sort of “practicing” Catholic I was confronted since a young age with existential questions coming from my non-believer classmates. When I was actually very young, in elementary school (or maybe even before that), I was told by a friend of mine that he stopped believing in God because his grandmother was sick and he prayed to God asking Him to cure her, but she died anyway.
This can seem as a simple ingenuity or just an emotional reaction of a kid. But this actually is not a simple issue to address. The issue addresses implicitly lots of hard topics, like, above all the Problem of Evil.
1) There is a non sequitur
The fact that God doesn’t answer prayers doesn’t prove he doesn’t exist, it simply means he doesn’t answer prayers. If your father is on a trip to some foreign country and stops answering the phone, it doesn’t mean he is dead. He might just don’t want to talk to you and he might have a good reason to do so.
Obviously the goal of this article is not simply to find out a logical fallacy and end it there, but it’s to actually provide a reasonable explanation for unanswered prayers and the death of a loved one.
2) God gives and takes away
As created beings, freely created out of God’s love, totally sustained into existence by God, everything we have is a free gift. We are not owed the great value that we have, we have been made precious and valuable by God, but it is not owed to us, it has been given to us. God gave that grandma 80 years of life that she absolutely didn’t deserve in the first place. God is the giver of life, He can take it away. When we humans, in fact, kill someone, it is rightly said “you can’t play God”, exactly because God is the one who has the right to take life away. If now God decided to let’s say, end this “human project” of His (as He almost did with Noah’s flood), this would not be an injustice, God would have all the right to do so, as the giver of life and the Creator of all that exists.
3) God doesn’t answer all prayers for our own sake
All that we have is a free gift. God doesn’t have to answer all of our prayers, He is not our servant or our desire dispenser. Because God loves all of us, He knows that a lot of what we ask is not truly good for us and therefore He will lead you with time, by not answering certain prayers to understand what is actually good for you.
God’s plans of love for you are far beyond your imagination, His ways are above your ways (Isaiah 59:8-9). Our real good is the perfect union with God, who is the fount of all joy, happiness, beauty, goodness, justice and reason. Our more profound good is not a good grade in school, a perfect health, hundreds of years on this earth, but this incredible union with God.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if God doesn’t give you the much inferior goods you are asking Him for, when instead He wants to give you much more, that is true peace, joy, happiness, righteousness, conversion and eternal life. Important is to realize that already the fact that you are on your knees acknowledging your dependence on God asking for the healing of a relative is already itself a greater gift than the healing itself: it’s in fact Grace that is leading you to a relationship with our loving Father.
Then, of course, God can, in His providence, through natural means (success of the operation, the ability of the doctors, circumstances) or supernatural means (a miracle), also answer the prayer and concede the good you are asking for, but that is secondary. Of course one has to always pray to God when in need, He is Sovereign, it is the wisest thing to always recur to God, for also all natural healing ultimately depends on Him.
4) God came to give us eternal life
The purpose of God’s Incarnation, and therefore of the Christian message is not the wellbeing of our lives here on earth. While certainly a Christian worldview will enhance also the life here on earth, giving sense, purpose, value, objective morality, grounds for true unconditional love, and being an antidote to the depressing nihilism of atheism and the unsatisfying hedonistic lifestyle, the purpose of the Christian worldview is not mainly to enhance your life here on earth, it’s to give you eternal life, then from that follow also all the temporal benefits and blessings of believing in Christianity.
Jesus came to earth to free you from the bondage of sin, pride, deception, self-centeredness and give you eternal joy, happiness, and life! His promise is heaven, where all our desires will be satisfied in the most perfect way we cannot even imagine. So why did God let your grandmother die? Because God’s purpose is not to be a special oxygen tank for your grandma or a special surgeon for your friend who had a heart attack, he doesn’t want to keep you forever alive in this world of injustice, pain and hardship (which all are permitted for a purpose, but do not constitute God’s desire for your eternal life). God’s will for your grandma is far greater than avoiding her death now on this earth, He let her go for He has a much better plan for her (one can reject Christianity, but the question addressed in this article is regarding the own consistency and reasonableness of Christianity).
Of course God can heal her, and He truly is the divine physician (Mark 2:17) and healer of soul and body, but the physical healing isn’t His primary plan for us.
5) The Purpose of Miracles
The ultimate purpose of miracles is not in itself the one to heal that particular person, but it is to build up the Church and strengthen the faith of its members and display the love and power of God in a more visible way to us.
Miracles are rare extra-ordinary acts of God. God also acts and heals a lot indirectly and through second causes and according to the rules of science that He created, but at times He decides to suspend the rules of physics that He created for a particular purpose.
If the doctors succeed in saving someone’s life it’s still thanks to the ordinary intervention of God through second causes: the circumstances are right in order to permit them to do the operation well, the intelligence and ability of the doctors are certainly trained by them but given by God, the procedure itself was thought with reason and God is the source of all reason, the laws of physics and chemistry which permitted predictable outcomes were made and sustained by God, such that blood flow is permitted, healing of tissues and so on; further, all motion that happens, happens thanks to the unmoved mover (see First Way of St Thomas Aquinas).
But at times God acts extra-ordinarily, suspending the ordinary rules of nature He created, and this is why we say that miracles are supernatural. Miracles happen, this is a fact, the scope of this article is not to defend any miracle in particular, but I recommend you read about the countless documented miracles like the resurrection of Jesus, the healings at Lourdes, Fatima, and all the miracles for the causes of canonization of Catholic saints.
The purpose of miracles is not merely the physical healing of the person, but the spiritual salvation of the person and those around him. It’s always God that performs the miracle, and the person who seems performing it is just used by God at that moment. This is what the Church has to say regarding the miracles that Christ performed:
Jesus accompanies his words with many “mighty works and wonders and signs”, which manifest that the kingdom is present in him and attest that he was the promised Messiah.
The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him. To those who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask. So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his Father’s works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God. […]
By freeing some individuals from the earthly evils of hunger, injustice, illness and death, Jesus performed messianic signs. Nevertheless he did not come to abolish all evils here below, but to free men from the gravest slavery, sin, which thwarts them in their vocation as God’s sons and causes all forms of human bondage. (CCC 547-549)
6) In suffering you have 2 options
All the good that happens comes from God, (or extra-ordinarily through miracles or ordinarily through events, people, circumstances etc.), and all evil is permitted by God for a greater reason.
God can punish, enforce justice, but never be the cause directly or indirectly of a moral evil (says CCC 311), for He is goodness and love itself by His own nature.
I think that this quote from Saint Thomas More wonderfully explains the point I want to bring across , “Nothing can happen to me that God doesn’t want [we explained the passive permissive will and the active will of God]. And all that He wants, no matter how bad it may appear to us, is really for the best”.
First of all, we need to trust that our suffering is happening for a purpose, we won’t always have the answer to why something has happened to us or to one of our loved ones. Sometimes, much more than theological explanations, trust and abandonment to God are much more effective to find consolation and give consolation to the needy. So always be cautious and sensitive when evangelizing to someone in great pain.
There are some reasons that we can grasp of why God permits (even without directly willing it) suffering. Your suffering is precious, don’t waste it.
At the end, there are only two ways you can live through suffering, with God, or without Him. You can either live through hard moments of life knowing that you are not alone, knowing that you have a loving Father nearby holding your hand, knowing that your suffering is not meaningless and that there is a wonderful home with no pain and no more tears with unspeakable joy awaiting God’s children after death, living with gratitude and acceptance every moment of your life, knowing that the love and affections of the people that are close to you are objectively grounded in God’s nature of love and goodness (which means that love and affection really exist . The other option is keeping your pain and live as if God didn’t even exist, in the (alleged) meaninglessness of your own existence, holding on desperately to the frailty of your life which is anyways destined to destruction and annihilation.
A person who chooses this option can hold one to phrases like “it will be ok”, or “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, thinking that he is somewhat still in charge of your life, while he is in “reality” (according to this wrong atheist worldview) just a clump of cells that is becoming dysfunctional, and enjoying the consolation of human affection when according to this worldview it has no objective grounding in the absolute goodness of God, but it’s simply some evolutionistic social byproduct of completely soul-less animals used for survival goals.
I’ll take the whole loving Father, hope and love option!
Saint John Vianney in his Catechism on Suffering writes “Whether we will or not, we must suffer. There are some who suffer like the good thief, and others like the bad thief. They both suffered equally. But one knew how to make his sufferings meritorious, he accepted them in the spirit of reparation, and turning towards Jesus crucified, he received from His mouth these beautiful words: “This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise. “ The other, on the contrary, cried out, uttered imprecations and blasphemies, and expired in the most frightful despair. There are two ways of suffering – to suffer with love, and to suffer without love. The saints suffered everything with joy, patience, and perseverance, because they loved. As for us, we suffer with anger, vexation, and weariness, because we do not love. If we loved God, we should love crosses, we should wish for them, we should take pleasure in them. . . . We should be happy to be able to suffer for the love of Him who lovingly suffered for us. ”
So even if you don’t keep going on reading this article, you should by now, even without knowing why God could allow suffering, still desire that God exists and chose to live through your pain with Him. St Paul writes “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18), this promise should inspire us and keep us motivated even in the hardest moments of life, this is a real promise, an actual solution and a reason of true hope.
We hear so many times the phrase “if God exists why is there suffering, it doesn’t make sense” (my brother already partially dealt with this topic in these articles https://confident-faith.com/2018/01/27/plantingas-answer-to-the-logical-problem-of-evil-part-1/ and https://confident-faith.com/2018/02/14/plantingas-answer-to-the-logical-problem-of-evil-part-2/), but it’s actually without God that suffering doesn’t make sense, according to atheism it is absolutely without purpose, because there is no providential plan of a sovereign being able to insert your suffering in a purposeful setting. Under atheism, you are just a materialistic product of nature, and you are feeling chemicals in your brain, that’s it, no purpose, no meaning, no transcendent value to your suffering.
So what are these greater reasons which justify God allowing such evil. We will see them in the next point.
7) God has great reasons for permitting suffering
a) Suffering allows us to unite our sufferings to those of ChristSt Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:10-12, “Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory.” He also writes in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lackingin the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” He calls us to unite our sufferings to those of Christ. What a privilege we have, we can in humbleness find a more perfect and deep union with the greatest love of our life, Jesus. We can be united in a special way, united to His passion and cross, His majestic throne of salvation. We become participants in the greatest miracle ever, the salvation of humanity. We can add the merits of our suffering (which if meritorious, it is thanks to God’s Grace and Christ’ merits) to the infinite merits of the sacrifice of Christ that redeemed the world. Suffering people can find deep union with their Savior through what they are feeling, and by uniting their suffering with the suffering of Christ, they can participate in the salvation and redemption of the world from sin, perdition and damnation.
b) Suffering allows us to encounter God’s closeness and love
Who suffers can experience more than anyone else by praying for it, the closeness of Christ and His love and consolation in the midst of suffering, His love for the last and lost more personally.There are countless quotes of canonized saints who describe the deep joy and union with Christ during suffering, I will just report a few.
–“If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.” –Saint Ignatius of Loyola
–“Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Savior; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering, the purer the love. –St. Faustina
–“If you really want to love Jesus, first learn to suffer, because suffering teaches you to love.” –St. Gemma Galgani.
Who suffers understands what He went through for us, and we feel more personally the love, closeness and compassion that Jesus had for the outcast, the poor, the excluded, the suffering, the lepers. We understand these words “and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:34-40). Jesus wept, He understands our suffering and lived Himself the reality of death and suffering. Suffering with Jesus and knowing the compassion and tenderness that He has towards you in your hardship is encountering God in one of the most profound ways possible. Of course like the Jews did (challenging Jesus), one might ask (also in a non-prideful way) why then Jesus didn’t avoid directly death and suffering, the answer is that Jesus destroyed death and suffering for you for eternity, but permits it here for all the reasons we are discussing in this article. Of course, the passage cited continues, and Jesus resurrects Lazarus, and many Jews convert and start following Him (the actual purpose of the miracle).So we can have a personal special encounter of God’s love,closeness, and consolation, understanding radically His passion and crucifixtion that He underwent for us.
c) Suffering transforms us into saints
It makes us into saints and humbles our pride. Of course one may not take advantage of his suffering and waste it, but nonetheless, it is actually a means of humbling our prideful heart which rejects God’s Grace. It is the best way to answer Jesus’ call “And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). We are so full of ourselves, so egocentric, so self-entitled, but when we are put on our knees by life, here we can encounter the power and love of God. So suffering can become that wrecking ball that destroys the wall we put up against God and against our own good. Suffering shows us the finitude of life, it gives us a supernatural view of life making us understand its real incredible value. It opens our hearts to desire the supernatural eternal life making us let go of all our idols and vanities of this earth. It makes us selfless and teaches us real compassion and understanding towards the other people who suffer. Suffering brings about in so many cases the grace of conversion, the greatest thing a human can receive, he finally turns to God and opens himself to the fount of Goodness, Joy, Eternal Life and Beauty leaving behind all his wickedness and sin. Suffering teaches us gratefulness, and abandonment in trust to His providence. So suffering can truly make us into saints! Yes, the saints you see on holy cards and key chains, yes, saints! It can be the fuel to die to self, and pick up our cross and follow Jesus, abandoning every sin and living what Saint Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
d) Suffering transforms the ones near by into saints.
We saw in point 1 how the suffering person can add the merits (which are meritorious only for God’s Grace) of his suffering to the infinite merits of Christ to redeeme the world. But now we will see also how directly God permits suffering so that people around can start having a supernatural view on life and aknowledge the frailty of this one, and so repent and believe in the Gospel.Suffering teaches and sanctifies all the people around us. It can bring about the radical change of heart of the people who help us. It teaches them compassion and can be used to break through their cold hearts and make them too into saints. Even if the suffering can change more directly the person who suffers, it can bring about the same effects that we saw in the previous point (point 3). People can actually answer the call of perfection of Jesus to the rich young man in Matthew 19:20-22: ” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” People, in seeing the frailty of this earthly life, and the compassion that convicts them in their conscience, can start leaving all their attachments to vain things and turn their hearts to love Jesus in the person who is suffering and pick their own cross with love and hope, answering Jesus’ commandment “And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).
e) Suffering can be used to pay the temporal consequences for our sins.
All of our sins have an eternal and a temporal consequence. Repentance and confession bring about the forgiveness of the eternal consequences of sin, they avoid eternal damnation and open the doors to eternal life in heaven. But even if something is forgiven, the repentant soul still has to do reparation and penance, and undergo the temporal sanctifying and purifying suffering of purgatory and/or on earth. Suffering here on earth is also a way to pay the temporal consequences of your sin. It’s just, it’s a way to pay back the debt that we make with our offenses and sins to God and our neighbors. So each tear, every bit of your pain is not wasted if offered up. It’s only through God’s grace that our suffering can be meritorious and used to pay back our offenses. To understand better God’s love in temporal punishment read this article https://confident-faith.com/2018/07/22/gods-love-in-temporal-punishment-and-the-catholic-teaching-of-indulgences/ .Yes, it can also be a direct punishment for your past sins, a punishment of love in order to stimulate in you a greater disdain for what you did and a greater love for God, truth, goodness and beauty. Even if most of the times the wicked don’t suffer and good Christians do, and suffering is mainly given to those that the Lord purposefully wants to sanctify (among the greatest saints many suffered incredibly from physical illness even though they were incredibly conformed to God’s law), still we cannot exclude that there can be cases where suffering is a just direct consequence for a past sin, that has the goal to bring you to a more profound repentance and do justice to the offence done.
f) Suffering allows us to offer it up for others.
We can offer our suffering as a great prayer for others. What a suffering person endures is hard, and if lived with and through God’s grace it can be a fount of merit. That person can then offer that merit (which is merited only thanks to the merit of Christ, we alone merit nothing) for the salvation of his loved ones, or for a particular intention. It is a great tool and a great offer of prayer. God can use the suffering you are offering up (which is meritorious only thanks to God’s Grace) to heal let’s say another person, to bring to Christ a lost soul with the grace of conversion and repentance (of course He could do it without the merit you offered up, which is there in the first place thanks to Him, but He wants to make us part of the plan of salvation, so He lets us participate, even if absolutely not necessary because His merits on the Cross are infinite, in the salvation of others).
g) We can offer suffering for the souls in Purgatory.
A person who is undergoing pain can offer that suffering not only for the good and salvation of other humans here on earth, but only for those already definitively saved who are undergoing purification in purgatory who is paying for the temporal consequences due to his sins. So instead of passing lots of time in purgatory, God uses your offer to free him first and bring him into heaven. It is not unjust that God uses “your” merit (merited by Him anyway) for a person who is suffering temporally for his past sins, for his purification is efficacious again only thanks to God’s Grace, it’s all a free concession of His underserved love in any case, so He can use not only the infinite merits of the blood of Christ shed on the Cross to purify you and free you, but He permits us (even if not necessary) to participate with our personal merits (which are in any case merited by God, because without His Grace we could merit anything).
h) Suffering, at last, is Providential
It is a work of God’s Providence for His sons, you don’t know what you would be without that suffering. As written before St Thomas More left us these great words of wisdom, “Nothing can happen to me that God doesn’t want. And all that He wants, no matter how bad it may appear to us, is really for the best”. Trust God, you don’t know in what situation you would be in without that suffering. You might in fact without that sickness have lost your soul, encountered the wrong person who could have led you astray. You could have gotten close to near occasions of sin that would have led you to fall and cease to love our Lord (regardless if God can know hypotheticals of the future, if in His providence He permitted something to one of His children, it’s the best thing for them). So if this sickness happened to you, you know God let it happen because you are in a great situation to strive in holiness. St Paul, in fact, says, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28).Further, a world without suffering might have resulted in a completely secular population in which people completely ignore existential issues. If we suffer, and the world suffers, it is because God allows it for something greater, for us to find Him and become, in Christ, like him.
So we have seen with 8 different reasonable explanations how your suffering is precious and why God permits it. Don’t waste it! Offer it up, pray for healing, especially spiritual healing, and also physical healing, and hope that God will grant you also the physical one (if you are asking for the spiritual one, it’s already God working in you, you couldn’t ask for that Grace without Grace) or miraculously or through the ordinary and through the doctors. Suffering has meaning, and it points to an eternity of joy and hope. So when you ore one of your loved ones encounter suffering you know that you have two options, embrace the Cross and hold on to the rock-solid loving support of God, or abandon yourself to your powerlessness and nihilism. Like the pastor in the movie Miracles from Heaven (min 53) said: “At the lowest points of my life I’ve tried it both ways, doing everything I can to connect God or walk away, and in my experience, one feels a whole lot better than the other”.
So there is a way, not an easy one, to be joyful and hopeful even in the hardest times of life. Is emotional happiness always there when we embrace the Christian worldview in the midst of suffering? No, not always, maybe rarely (still possible though), but Hope will be there, so as the tender love and closeness of Christ, whom better than anybody else, knows what suffering is, because we, the ones Jesus loves, with our sins have tortured, crucified and killed Him. The Catechism explains wonderfully what God can accomplish from permitting (God can never be the cause, directly or indirectly of a moral evil says CCC 311) suffering and evil, “[…] From the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that “abounded all the more”, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good.” (CCC 312).
I would like to conclude this article inviting you all to read the Catechism of Suffering of Saint John Vianney (https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/st-john-vianney-catechism-suffering/ ), and leaving you with a part of the marvelous divinely inspired words of Psalm 145 (according to the Bible edition the enumeration of the psalms can change):
14 The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
15 The eyes of all look to thee,
and thou givest them their food in due season.
16 Thou openest thy hand,
thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
17 The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
18 The Lord is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
19 He fulfils the desire of all who fear him,
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20 The Lord preserves all who love him;
but all the wicked he will destroy.
21 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.
Ed Da Pra
 NABRE Footnote
What is lacking: although variously interpreted, this phrase does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the cross was defective. It may refer to the apocalyptic concept of a quota of “messianic woes” to be endured before the end comes; cf. Mk 13:8, 19–20, 24and the note on Mt 23:29–32. Others suggest that Paul’s mystical unity with Christ allowed him to call his own sufferings the afflictions of Christ.