05 September 2018

Does God Send or Choose Suffering for Us?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, do you believe God chose for you to experience the trauma you wrote about yesterday? Some people affirm that God chooses the pain they experience or the difficulties they have. I understand how that seems to make sense of things for them but for me it makes God something of a sadist. Maybe that's a bit strong but I think you know what I mean. Anyhow, do you think God chose the trauma you referred to so that you would become a hermit?]]

I have answered questions similar to this before, not about the trauma I referred to yesterday, but  in general and perhaps in reference to the chronic illness/pain I deal with daily. You might look at, On Bearing the Crosses That Come Our Way. Other posts on the Theology of the Cross during the same time frame (@Aug. 2008) may also address this topic. My position on this has not changed but your questions take this position in a somewhat different direction than I may have taken in the past.

First, my foundational credo on suffering: I believe that God willed me and wills each of us to know God's love in whatever situation in which we find ourselves. I believe profoundly that God never abandons us --- even when others do. I believe that to whatever extent suffering is part of our lives because of the brokenness and distortion of our world (because most forms of suffering** are the result of the sin or estrangement from God which afflicts our world), our God will be there offering (his) comfort, encouragement, and empowerment --- even when we do not recognize the nature or the source of these things as we find ways to continue to live our lives and be our truest selves.  I do not believe that God wills suffering, sends suffering, or somehow manipulates our lives and responses with suffering so that we might answer this vocation or that one. As I affirmed in the post linked above, God does not send us the crosses that come our way, but he does send us into a world full of them so that, through (his) grace, we may redeem them, and he certainly commissions us to carry those that come our way.

When I look at my own life I recognize that some of the pivotal circumstances of that life along with the life/love of God that dwelt and dwells at the core of my being together gradually created the heart of a hermit. But as I also noted, I could have lived that truth as a religious doing theology in the academy, working in a hospital chaplaincy program or in full time spiritual direction, as well as in a hermitage. I don't believe God created me to be a hermit, but I do believe God created me to be the fullest version of myself I could possibly be, that (he) continually worked to shape my heart, and when it began to look like a hermitage might be a place living my truth could happen, the shaping God had done helped me to perceive the promise of this way of life despite my own prejudices against it. (He) helped me listen to my heart, to the profound questions and yearning that resided there and to appreciate the way eremitical life might answer these beyond ordinary imagining. On the other hand, had I not discovered the possibilities or even the contemporary existence and meaningfulness of this vocation, I am certain God's shaping of my heart and movement within it would have empowered my recognizing and embracing another way to live the truth of who I am.

Whatever sense we make of suffering it is important that we do not truncate a theology of human freedom or a theology of Divine goodness and mercy in the process. I don't think your use of the term sadist is necessarily too strong in reference to a God who sends suffering or makes us suffer. Manipulative might be a better fit in some cases, but in either instance, the willing or sending of suffering is unworthy of the God of Jesus Christ who is Love-in-Act. Always God calls us to the fullness of human existence. What God ALWAYS wills is human life in abundance. When suffering comes our way God will accompany us and love us in a way which can prevent suffering from being ultimately destructive ("all things work for the good in those who love God," Romans 8:28), but this is far far different from sending or willing suffering.

I hope this is helpful.

** N.B., There are four forms of suffering that are "natural" or "existential"; that is, they belong to the human condition itself without reference to sin. Douglas John Hall outlines them in his book, God and Human Suffering. These are loneliness, anxiety, temptation, and limits. Loneliness underlies our hunger for love or the completion that comes to us in the other; it points to the dialogical nature of our very being. Anxiety is part of our need for security, peace, and the ultimate comfort of and communion with God. Temptation allows us to grow and mature in expressing our human dignity, to develop into persons of character, while limits are part of our drive for and achievement of transcendence; limits open us to surprise, to dreaming, to wonder and joy. There are also pathological and sinful versions of these forms of suffering but Hall is not speaking of these here.