In light of the recent horrendous mass murder in the Connecticut elementary school, we all naturally ask the question, Why?. Why did this person commit this violence against innocent children and adults? Why did he feel compelled to act in this way? Why did he have such violent thoughts and malice? But then we also ask the question, why did God allow this tragedy to happen? Why does God permit such evil to occur to the innocent?
To provide a simple answer is to demean the gravity of the question. There are no simple answers. We can turn to God’s goodness, providence, and love to help us understand. In the end we must still admit that we cannot always see God’s intentions and that it transcends our finite human understanding. It is a “mystery”. This does not mean we cannot know some truths about suffering and God’s providence and omnipotence.
It’s a good idea first to talk about what evil is. Evil is not a thing but a privation, namely, a lack of good. And there are two types of evil – moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil is the direct result of sins, actions done against God’s law with the intention to do so. Physical evil such as cancer, earthquakes, or stubbing my toe is also the result of sin but in an indirect way. If we turn to scripture and go to Genesis 3, we recall the Fall when death entered the world through the free choice of Adam and Eve to chose themselves over God. The consequence of this disobedience was death (Gen 2:17) and all the suffering that can happen as a result of this fallen nature.
You might ask why God didn’t create humanity without sin. Well, he did. Adam and Eve were created in a state of grace. However, they were created, as we are, with freewill. For freewill is what makes us human and enables us to love. Love cannot be coerced; it can only be freely given. So as human beings, we have the ability to chose to love or to not and chose moral evil instead.
But back to the question of why would an all-powerful, all-loving God allow suffering? To help us in understanding this mystery we must direct our gaze to the Cross. God allows suffering because the blessing and good that results is greater than that would have occurred without it. Look at the Cross. The worst evil ever perpetrated was to execute the innocent only begotten Son of God, the 2nd person of the Trinity. What greater sin is there? Yet through that act of seeming injustice our redemption is obtained.
How the suffering of others affects us as a whole is a mystery. Presently we see dimly (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), but we do know that God wills for our salvation and for us to be in his loving arms for all eternity.
The words of St. Paul here are fitting:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:18-39
Some people will claim that God is punishing us for our sins. This may be true, but we cannot see the mind of God to know. But if we understand and believe God’s desire for an intimate relationship with us, perhaps we should view the allowing of suffering as a manifestation of God’s mercy. Now, we don’t believe that God directly causes us to suffer – but he can use it for our benefit. After all, when do we as sometimes immature Christians go to God in prayer? When there is a tragedy, or difficulty, or agony. We reach out to God in those moments. Even people that don’t normally view themselves as religious are more likely to invoke the Almighty. God wants us to pray in the good times too.
One final thing I’ll say is this: In a society where we’ve driven God out of the culture, out of our public life, out of our schools, out of our arts, and relegated him into the corners of our churches on Sundays, is it any wonder that we have individuals who act out in an ungodly manner? When we devalue life and adopt, as Blessed Pope John Paul II called it, “a culture of life”, is it any wonder that we have individuals who act out in a deadly manner?
I’ll leave you with these powerful words from St. Paul again, speaking about our participation in the cross of of Christ:
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