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Lenten Reflection on Human Suffering: What It Means To Be a Child of God

By Michael Terheyden
February 28th, 2010
Catholic Online (

God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more suffering and death (Rev 21:4).

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - Why do we suffer? On the first page of his Apostolic Letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, Pope John Paul II writes, "Suffering is particularly essential to the nature of man. . . . It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense īdestinedī to go beyond himself . . . ." Suffering, then, is linked to our nature and destiny.

Human existence, as we know it based on our natural existence, is not our end; it is like a grain of wheat. Jesus said, ". . . unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit" (Jn 12:24). So what is our destiny? Saint Paul answers this question. He writes, "[God] likewise predestined us through Christ Jesus to be his adopted sons. . . " (Eph 1:5). With these thoughts in mind, perhaps we can gain some insight into the meaning of suffering by exploring what it means to be a child of God.

In Building a Catholic Biblical World View, the bible scholar Dr. Scott Hahn gives us an idea what it means to be a child of God by looking at the natural relationship between parent and child. First and foremost, it means that our parents gave us life. It means that we have the same nature they have, and similar characteristics. It means our parents care for us, raise us and discipline us. It means that we live in their house and eat at their table, and that we are heirs to their estate. It is not possible for us to repay our parents for everything they give us.

Although it is impossible for us to repay our parents, we can act justly toward them. Justice demands that we give our parents the honor and obedience that is owed to them. Likewise, since we are children of God and everything that we have comes from God, justice demands that we honor and obey Him. But in order to understand how we can honor and obey God, we first need to understand something about God.

God is a relational being and the full reality of what our natural families only image. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 221, "God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and He has destined us to share in that exchange." We share in that exchange when we are baptized into Godīs family and become His adopted children.

As a result, to act justly toward God and give Him the honor and obedience owed to Him is to return His love. The way that we return His love is by giving ourselves away, that is, by giving ourselves back to Him. We can get a better idea what this means based on our experience and the example that Jesus gave us.

To a certain degree, we experience what it means to give ourselves away when we deny our wishes, wants and needs for the sake of another. Dr. Hahn takes this idea to a more fundamental level in First Comes Love. He reminds us that self-denial is necessary in order to achieve self-mastery, and that it is only through self-mastery that we can take possession of ourselves so that we can give ourselves away in a true act of love.

Having full possession of Himself, Jesus was able to give Himself away completely. He poured all of His divinity into our nature. He poured all of His life out on the cross. Then He humbled Himself even further, becoming "ground wheat." He loved the Father and us perfectly. In Lord Have Mercy, Dr. Hahn says that Jesusī life, passion, death, and resurrection are a manifestation of Godīs inner life and love in space and time. Consequently, to be a child of God is to be willing to give ourselves away completely and sacrificially.

The problem is that we are weak and rebellious. We do not want to give ourselves away completely and sacrificially. Sacrifice entails suffering, and we fear suffering. So in our weakness we avoid it and disobey God. Our disobedience began in the Garden of Eden. Paragraph 398 of the Catechism states, "Seduced by the devil, [Adam] wanted to 'be like God,' but 'without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.ī" Although we avoid the reality of our weakness, rebel against God and disobey Him, Pope John Paul II informs us that our weakness has another purpose, one that is great and noble.

Referring back to his Apostolic Letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, Pope John Paul II writes that Jesus descends to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence, but at the same time in this weakness he is lifted up, confirmed by the power of the resurrection. This is the gospel paradox of weakness and strength.

On page 25 of his letter he writes, ". . .this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christīs cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open, to the working of the salvific powers of God offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is manīs weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self."

We will never be able to act justly toward God and give Him the honor and obedience we owe to Him unless we first acknowledge and accept our weakness and admit His absolute power and authority over us (His divine providence). Yet, even if we admit God's power and authority over us, why should we trust, let alone love, a God who permits the innocent to suffer and die? Why should we believe that Pope John Paul II is correct?

We understand that parents must discipline their children when they are disobedient. During our better moments, we can even understand that our disobedience causes much of our own suffering. But this does not adequately explain why a good God permits evil to rain down on all of us, even the innocent. Some primary examples being: the brutal death of babies in their mother's wombs, the cruel acts committed against little children and the weak, the oppression and slaughter by governments of their citizens, or the untold suffering caused by natural disasters.

The most profound explanation for the question of evil is of a spiritual nature. God permits evil because He desires to share His inner life with us. Paragraphs 306-311 in the Catechism state that by creating us in His image and likeness, God gave us the intellect and the freedom to choose our destiny and act upon it. He gave us this power, so we would be able to appreciate and participate in His life. In other words, God permits evil because He respects the freedom and great dignity He gave us. Evil, then, springs from rebellion against God (ours and the fallen angels); and it mysteriously affects all of creation. However, God knows that He can derive good from it.

God permits evil, but He gives our suffering a great and noble purpose. This is what Pope John Paul II is telling us in his letter. On page 27, he informs us that Jesus did not bring redemption to a close, that the redemption, which Jesus accomplished through satisfactory love, remains open to all love expressed in human suffering. Jesus raised human suffering to a higher level by endowing it with the power to redeem. As Saint Paul writes, we complete the suffering of Jesus in our own bodies (Col 1:24). Thus, when we unite our suffering to Jesus as an act of love, we are participating in the redemption of all creation.

Consequently, when we suffer as the sons and daughters of God, we are acting in accordance with the nature and characteristics that belong to our Father. We are loving like God in space and time. We are giving ourselves away in life-giving love. We are living in our Father's house and eating at His table, for we are His children and the heirs to His kingdom.

In a certain sense, we have already received our inheritance, for the seed of supernatural life is already in us. Only now we experience this life sacramentally, especially in the sacrament of Baptism and in the Eucharist. But at the end of time, provided that we remain true to the graces that God has given to us, we will experience the full reality with all our senses. Then God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more suffering and death (Rev 21:4).


Michael Terheyden is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. He is Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. He is greatly blessed to share his Catholic faith with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.

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