We've all been there. Just when you think you've finally found a goldfish that will outlive the pet store's 30-day refund policy, another one is floating on its side in the 3 gallon 'aquarium' (oversized snowglobe) that you were sure was the ideal environment for a growing fish. What still baffles me is why we ever believed in the brilliant parental fib that flushing a deceased fish down the toilet was somehow bringing it to a better place, even though we were aware that nothing else we flushed was headed anywhere good.
Surviving the grief and bitter sorrow that follows the tragic death of a beloved goldfish is nothing compared to the questions and 'why’s' that we all deal with when we suffer real loss.
And we know that we're not alone in our questions; suffering is a reality in everyones lives. Especially for us Christians, who believe in a personal God that knows and cares about every detail of our lives, suffering seems to make no sense.
In the face of suffering, we're left with the difficult question of why a loving God would let so many bad things happen.
Sin and Freedom
The quick answer is sin. God never intended for us to suffer but sin brought suffering and death into the world (Romans 6:23). Did you know that we were never supposed to die, to get sick, or to endure the pain of losing someone we love?
In the Garden of Eden, God warned Adam that sin would bring death and still the first humans chose sin and death rather than trusting God (Genesis 2:16-17). Since that first rebellious bite of the forbidden fruit, we find ourselves in a world where suffering and death are all too familiar.
So why would God allow humans to sin? If God loves us so much, why didn't He stop Adam and Eve from choosing death? This may sound strange at first, but the answer is that God allows us sin because He loves us. Without freedom, without the ability to choose, there can never be love.
If we were just programmed or forced to make the right decision every time, it wouldn't be freedom at all. We would be like robots with no will of our own. As much as God wants us to choose Him and to choose the abundant life that He offers, He never overrides our free will.
Even though we've chosen time and time again to turn away from Him, God the Father never stops loving us.
Unlike all other religions, Christians believe in a God who chose to rescue us by becoming one of us. Rather than just leaving us in our suffering, the Father sent His only Son to rescue us from sin and death. 'By His passion and death on the Cross, Christ has given a new meaning to suffering . . . it can unite us with His redemptive passion' (CCC 1505).
Redemptive suffering is the idea that our suffering can be united to Jesus' suffering as a prayer to God. Anyone who has seen a person suffer gracefully can attest to the powerful witness of faith in the midst of suffering.
One of the reasons that Catholics celebrate the crucifix (the cross with Jesus' body on it) is that it gives us a visual reminder that we are never alone in our suffering. When we cry out in pain, we are heard by the God who knows what we're going through. When we are betrayed, mocked, denied, made fun of, rejected, or judged, we can be sure that God has been in our position before. There's nothing we could endure, not even death itself, that God hasn't experienced.
No faith other than Christianity holds the shocking belief in a God who would choose to suffer for love of us. Just think for a second how crazy it is that the God who created all things visible and invisible, the One who breathed the stars and spoke the earth into being, loved us enough to suffer and die for us.
Suffering will always be hard to understand; there's no quick answer, bumper sticker, or 140-character tweet that can totally answer all of our 'whys.' But even in our grief, we can look to the crucifix and know that we have not been forgotten or abandoned by God.
Because Jesus suffered, died, and rose for us, we can ache with the hope of an eternity in Heaven where we are promised:
'He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).