The National Catholic Review

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a horrifying disaster that unfolded before our eyes on television and the Internet, not only wrenched the hearts of every compassionate person, but also raised for the believer an age-old question: Why do we suffer?

That immense question, or the "problem of evil," has bedeviled theologians, saints, mystics—-all believers--for thousands of years.  The question can also be framed as: How could a good God allow suffering? (And I’ll speak here of “natural evil,” that is, natural disasters and illness; rather than “moral evil,” those caused by human decisions.)

First, we have to admit that none of the answers to "Why do we suffer?" can completely satisfy us when faced real suffering—our own or that of others.  The best answer to "Why do we suffer?" may be "We don't know.”  Anyone who offers you “the answer” is either a liar or a fool.  And has probably never faced real suffering.

Second, we have to admit that belief in God may mean belief in a God whose ways will always remain mysterious. In an article in America, Rabbi Daniel Polish, author of Talking About God, put it succinctly. "I do not believe in a God whose will or motives are crystal clear to me. And as a person of faith, I find myself deeply suspicious of those who claim such insight.”

Polish goes on to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "To the pious man knowledge of God is not a thought within his grasp...." This is the greatest challenge of faith, says Polish, "to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril."

But while there are no definitive answers to the question of suffering, and while we may never fully understand it, there are what you might call “perspectives” offered by the Jewish and Christian traditions.

During my graduate theology studies, for example, I took a course called "Suffering and Salvation," taught by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., the distinguished New Testament scholar. In that course, later adapted into the book "Why Do We Suffer?" Father Harrington looked at the traditional explanations presented in Scripture. None is an "answer" for suffering and each may raise as many questions as it answers. Yet, taken together, they can provide, as Harrington says, "resources" for the believer.

So our class read in the Old Testament the psalms of lament, the Book of Job, passages in the Book of Isaiah about the "suffering servant," excerpts from the New Testament about the passion and death of Jesus, as well as meditations on the meaning of the "cross" in St. Paul's writings.

And we studied the main approaches to suffering found in Bible: Suffering is a punishment for one's sins (or an ancestor's sins).  Suffering is a mystery. Suffering is a kind of purification.  Suffering enables us to “participate” in the life of Jesus, who himself suffered, and likewise, the Christ who understands suffering can be a companion to us in our pain. Suffering is part of the human condition in an imperfect world.  And suffering can enable us to experience God in new and unexpected ways. 

A few of these perspectives I have found at best wanting, at worst unhelpful.  For example, the notion that suffering is a punishment from God makes no sense in the face of innocent suffering, especially when it comes to terrible illness or a natural disaster--like the earthquake and tsunami last week.  Does anyone really believe that a small child with cancer is being punished for his or her “sins”?  Does anyone really believe that God “caused” natural disasters in order to punish innocent Japanese in small fishing villages?  It is a monstrous image of a vengeful and cruel God.

Jesus himself rejects this image of God in the Gospel of John, when he comes upon a man who had been blind since birth (Jn 9:2). His disciples ask him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

Jesus replies, “It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  And he heals him.  

But some of these traditional biblical and theological resources have been useful in my own life during different periods of suffering and pain.

Perhaps the most helpful was the belief that God can accompany us in our suffering. And that it was okay, and even healthy, to lament these things before God, as many of the psalms do. That it was "mysterious," something I might never understand, like Job's question in the Old Testament, but that I could still continue to be in relationship with God. That I could try (but would sometimes fail) to emulate the patient way that Jesus faced suffering. That Jesus, who had suffered intensely in his life, could be, through my relationship in prayer with him, someone who understood my trials, small though they may be, and who could accompany me in them.

Most of all, that God could somehow be with me through times of pain, and small signs of hope could become apparent when I accepted the reality of suffering.  In vulnerability, in poverty of spirit, in brokenness, we are often able to meet God in new and unexpected ways.  Perhaps this is because we are more open to God’s presence: when our defenses are down, when we have nothing left, we are more open.  This is why people who suffer are sometimes seen as becoming more religious or spiritual.  They are not becoming more irrational, but more open. 

This is not the “why” of suffering, nor does it “explain” suffering; but it can sometimes be part of the overall experience. 

But my suffering is small. When I worked in East Africa as a young Jesuit, I met refugees who had seen their brothers and sisters murdered before their eyes. Also during my Jesuit training, I knew a woman in Boston who had been confined to a hospital bed for over 20 years. And recently a close friend's young wife was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor, and, after returning from the hospital, when I wept at home for the two of them, I saw in an instant how little I had ever suffered compared to them, and to others. My suffering is very small.

And compared to the immense suffering of those in Japan today, whatever suffering I have experienced is infinitesimal. 

Moreover, my suffering is not yours. Nor are my own perspectives on suffering meant to be yours. Just as every believer must find a personal path to God, so must he or she find personal perspective on suffering. And while the collective wisdom of the community is a great resource, the platitudes and bromides offered by otherwise well-meaning believers as quick-fix answers are often unhelpful.

Sometimes those easy answers short-circuit the process of deeper individual reflection.

Believers are rightly suspicious of easy answers to suffering. My mother once told me of an elderly nun who was living at a retirement home with my 90-year-old grandmother. One day the woman's religious superior came to visit. The elderly nun began to speak about how much pain she was enduring. "Think of Jesus on the Cross," said her superior.

The elderly nun replied, "Jesus was only on the Cross for three hours.” Easy answers usually do more harm than good.

Richard Leonard, an Australian Jesuit priest, wrote about his experience with such facile answers in his recent book Where the Hell is God?

Richard's family has been touched with great suffering. His father died of a massive stroke at the age of 36, leaving his mother to care for Richard, then two, and his siblings. At dawn on Richard's 25th birthday, his Jesuit superior woke him to summon him to the phone for an urgent call from his mother. His sister Tracey, a nurse working at a healthcare facility for aboriginal people, had been involved in a terrible car accident. When Richard and his mother reached the hospital their worst fears were confirmed: Tracey was a quadriplegic.

Through tears, Richard's mother began to ask him questions about suffering that put his faith to the test. Richard called it "the most painful and important theological discussion I will ever have in my life.” "Where the hell is God?" his mother asked.

Richard's answer to his mother was, in essence, that God was with them in their suffering. "I think God is devastated," said Richard. "Like the God who groans with loss in Isaiah, and like Jesus who weeps at his best friend's tomb, God was not standing outside our pain, but was a companion within it, holding us in his arms, sharing our grief and pain."

Besides the idea that suffering can sometimes open us up to new ways of experiencing God, this is the theological insight that I find most helpful in times of pain: the image of the God who has suffered, the God who shares our grief, the God who understands.  Much in the same way that you instinctively turn to a friend who has already gone through the same trial you are facing, you can more easily turn to Jesus in prayer, who suffered.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” as St. Paul’s the Letter to the Hebrews says.

Richard takes a dim view of those who offer glib answers in the face of suffering. "Some of the most appalling and frightening letters," he writes, came from "some of the best Christians I knew.” Tracey must have done something to offend God, some said. Others suggested that her suffering was a "glorious building block...for her mansion [in heaven] when she dies.” Others wrote that his family is truly "blessed," because "God only sends crosses to those who can bear them.” Or, more simply, that it is all a "mystery" that simply needed to be accepted, almost unthinkingly.

My friend rejected these answers in favor of a hard look at the reality of suffering, one that only comes with the long struggle to have an "intelligent discussion about the complexities of where an how the Divine presence fits into our fragile and human world.”

When we are suffering, our friends will want to help us make sense of our pain, and they will often offer answers like the ones Richard described. Some answers may work for us. Others may leave us cold or even be offensive.

But, in the end, every believer must come to grapple with suffering for ourselves. And while our religious traditions also provide us with important resources, ultimately, we must find an approach that enables us to confront pain and loss honestly with God.

Suffering is indeed a "mystery" for most believers, but it is not something that we should ignore, but one that we should engage with all our mind, heart and soul.

This essay was adapted from The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. 

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 3/16/2011 - 11:01pm
David (#36),
Thank you very much for your kind words.  I appreciate the good thoughts very much.  You brightened my day.
Janice
Anonymous | 3/16/2011 - 11:35am
Michael,

 ''It's the randomness that is the distinction, I think. ''


Without the randomness and the occasional tragedy we could not have a meaningful life here on earth.  It is hard to explain because we are so trained to think the opposite.  Without the doubt that these tragedies generate we cannot have faith.  Without the doubt everything would be so predictable and what then would be our purpose here; to follow the yellow brick road where there would be no bad things happen and there would truly be a wizard at the end.  It would all be so meaningless and trivial. 


So yes the quadriplegic and Japan and all the other natural tragedies are necessary to have a meaningful life.  God isn't focused on providing us a comfortable life here.  That is not His purpose but it is how too many are evaluating Him.  We have to doubt Him in order to reach him.  If you start to think what a world would be like with no unpleasantness, it would not be very pleasant.  We just think it would all be peaches and cream but it would introduce something we would hate and it would make us not a Child of God because we would no longer be in His image and have free will.  We would be automatons.  We would be incapable of doing anything but the obvious.


You are right that the reason Franklin got all those French babes is because he knew all about the laws of attraction.  Question, was he a positive nucleus attracting all those female electrons or was he just a wandering negative electron landing on any female proton he came across? 
Anonymous | 3/16/2011 - 11:02am
JR: I understand that we can find meaning in practically anything.  It's the randomness that is the distinction, I think.  We all experience pain, we learn what causes it, and we can learn how to avoid it.  Natural disasters, disease, accidents, etc...; those sort of apparently random, at least with respect to their choice of victim, occurrences that make us ask, "Why me?" are tougher to figure. 

I always thought Ben Franklin was so well known because he got all the hot French women ;-)  All that exposure to negative ions had a postive effect, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.
Brian Gallagher | 3/15/2011 - 11:27pm
Another thoughtful post by Father Jim. Thank you, Jim.
Happiness is so elusive. Just look at how relationships, things that make us very happy, can break down and break up. Suffering, however, is universal and always with us.

I no longer believe in God or anything that might be called God, i.e. a being with agency. Fr. Martin's example of the young woman made a quadriplegic is a good example of why you shouldn't believe in God either: what a sick joke it would be if there were a God who allowed that sort of thing.

The meaning of suffering vexes all of us at some time or another. ''This is the greatest challenge of faith, says [Rabbi] Polish, 'to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril.''' The mind is a fascinating thing. It races for meaning in everything. To say that the world or the course of evolution is meaningless is easy, but like the Rabbi's wise words, it's challenging if not impossible to come to terms with that. Just as we cannot fully understand God, can we honestly claim to know what meaninglessness is? that is, what it means?

I don't expect any answers after my death either. Answers are statements you hold in your brain, abstract representations of things and relationships. Even traditional theology proposes more immediacy with God than that after death.

So as for ''Where the hell is God?'', well, you can't say that ''God isn't here'' since we're told over and over again that he is with us. God is infinite spirit, they say. But again, how can you tell infinite (everywhere) spirit (immaterial) from sheer nothingness? You can't.

The only comfort I can offer is that in the end, we'll all be together and that's all that good people ever wanted anyways.
JANICE JOHNSON | 3/15/2011 - 10:43pm
Lent for me, as for many, is a time to take stock of my life and to express appreciation for those who have provided me with many good things, spritually and otherwise and to seek forgiveness from those whom I've hurt,  At "America" there are two contributors that I was to especially thank for their gifts to me.  Fr. Jim, you never fail through your books and articles to inspire me and to prod me into being a more fervent follower of Christ.  And Dr. Bill, you are my inspiration.  From the time you wrote the movie review until now, I have tried to support and encourage you in your work., As what you write and do in your life is very near and dear to my heart.  And it is not something I have wither the talent or means to do myself.

For a time I thought I could contribute something to the study of bullying and abuse of vulonerable people as I am a woman who was abused across the life span and was also a very successful social worker with abused women and children.  That was God's grace at work!!  I was molested by an older intimidating cousin as a little girl; was bullied by a sadistic psychiatrist during a social work internship; was psychologically abused in therapy in my 40's by a psychologist who was in a mid-life crisis.  Under great stress, as now with my son, I seem to be prone to flashbacks and enormous anxiety.  I am truyly a case study.  It would mean a lot to me as a kind of redeeming of the suffering to be able to offer myself as a subject ,  But,, I certainly don't know how to go about it in the right way.  I've commented on sexual abuse in the church on the blogs and been shot down.  I learned that for a private, reserved person like me, going public is not the right way.  Perhaps it is just my arrogance at work, thinking I can be such a great contributor to kinowledge!  So, I've given up that idea and am focusing on doing what I do best and is most needed......caring for my children and praying for the vulnerable people and for those like youk, Fr. Jim and Dr. Bill, who live out the beatitudes daily in your lives.  Thank you and God's blessings on you both.
Anonymous | 3/15/2011 - 1:05pm
''fire causing pain helps us learn to avoid fire; lightning striking and burning down a house doesn't seem to have any purpose but to cause misery.''


Lightning is a natural consequence of basic physical forces.  As such it will appear in lots of places and over time just by shear chance will hit a house that is not protected.  And in many of those cases will cause misery.  But the number of lightning bolts outnumber the number of cases of misery by a large amount.


It tells us to avoid certain situations that may be struck by lightning and in the process of learning this we will learn something about electricity.  One special case is of a person flying a kite in a lightning storm.  Did you know that the reason Benjamin Franklin was so admired in Europe was not because he was such a brilliant philosopher and practical man as known to us in the US but because he was one of the most knowledgeable men in the world on electricity.  Franklin made the arbitrary distinction of calling electrons negative and for that we have a much harder time intuitively understanding electricity.


Now imagine a world where lightning happened but never once hit a house that was unprotected and never caused any misery.  What would you think?  And what would be the eventual consequences of your answer?
Anonymous | 3/15/2011 - 11:21am
Whatever happened to Satan?  I know I just heard about him and his tempting of Jesus at mass recently, but no mention of him here and the notion that he might be the cause of suffering?


Also, just want to bring up the difference between "pain," the physio/psycho reasons for which are pretty clear; and "bad things happening to good people" which can cause pain and suffering but seem to have no purpose.  E.g., fire causing pain helps us learn to avoid fire; lightning striking and burning down a house doesn't seem to have any purpose but to cause misery.
Anonymous | 3/15/2011 - 11:01am
David,

''That's why it seems to me to come down to:  What kind of god would create beings who *must* experience suffering throughout their lives?''


Each organism has within it a mechanism for its demise.  This is part of the plan and lots have been discussed on why such a design.  Second. pain often has some very positive outcomes and I do not mean getting tougher mentally and spiritually by experiencing it.  It directs the organism to avoid life threatening or disabling events.  We keep our hands off the stove due to pain to prevent us loosing a hand.  


''As someone said the rabbi said:  I just don't know.  Can't know.  Gotta let it go at that.''


Some people have not left it at that and contrary to Fr. Martin's statement there are some who think that all this pain and suffering is necessary.  It is necessary for us to exercise free will and this is a huge hole to go through and many have written on it.  I am surprised the Jesuits have not gotten to it or at least a discussion on it.  If everything was hunky dory, would we have free will?  Will we have free will in heaven? 
Crystal Watson | 3/15/2011 - 2:20am
For those interested in reading more from David B. Hart on the topic of suffering, he had an email discussion with some Catholics after the 2004 tsunami.  The emails can be found at Touchstone, but I have them posted in order at my own blog too here ... http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2009/09/david-b-harts-discussion-of-suffering.html
Leo Zanchettin | 3/14/2011 - 8:50pm
I must admit that the quote from Akita raises more questions than it answers. It seems to portray God as a ferocious Vindicator who would just love to get his hands on us wretched sinners-but he can't because he pesky Son keeps shielding us from his divine Wrath. I have a hard time making this fit within our doctrine of the Trinity. There seems to be too much division within the godhead in this characterization.

I think it would be helpful to review the entirety of the messages given in Akita-and elsewhere-before using them as a point of argument. Just as some use only a few verses to say that God is just a really nice guy, we should avoid using just one paragraph from one apparition to explain away something as horrific as what happened in Japan.

Of course, I don't want to imply that the Virgin Mary is wrong. But I think a couple of items need to be kept in mind whenever we look at supernatural manifestations like this.

First, while the Church has given its approval to this apparition-and others-it is always a provisional approval. It simply means that the faithful are free to believe that these apparitions are valid. It does not, by any means, command the faithful to abide by every word reported by the visionaries or locutionaries.

Second, we have to remember that when it comes to definitive, inerrant divine revelation, there are only three sources: Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. Apparitions do not enjoy the same degree of certainty as these three. I think the Church's approach here is very wise, given the degree of subjectivity involved-only one individual (or maybe just a few) reporting messages received interiorly, in the depths of the human psyche. 

That's why it's not usually a good idea to base one's argument solely on an apparition-as inspiring and moving as that apparition may be.
Robert Homan | 3/14/2011 - 1:05pm
I second the suggestion of David B Hart's piece on the tsunami. If anyone is really interested in this, he expanded that piece into a stunning little book called "Doors of the Sea":

"Hart incisively reveals where both Christianity's critics and its champions misrepresent what is most essential to Christian belief. While responding to atheist skeptics, Hart is at his most perceptive and provocative as he examines Christian attempts to rationalize the tsunami disaster. He contends that the history of suffering and death is not simply part of a divine plan that will make sense of evil. Rather than appealing to a divine calculus that can account for every instance of suffering, Christians must recognize the ongoing struggle between the rebellious powers that enslave the world and the God who loves it" (from the Amazon description) http://www.amazon.com/Doors-Sea-Where-Was-Tsunami/dp/0802829767


NORMA NUNAG | 3/14/2011 - 12:46pm
Since Suffering is a mystery..... asking why sometimes makes the pain even more intense.  Perhaps the best response is to just accept it and then just yell it out and hope that someone will sit quietly and calmly with us.  Isn't that what Jesus did? .... Calling out to  His friends to sit with Him?  I think He did yell too, didn't He? He called out.... My God, My God why have You foresaken me.
Anonymous | 3/14/2011 - 11:00am
David,

 ''So, 'evil' is kind of like 'real, real bad'.  No way to define that clearly.''


Like I said, I have never seen it defined while people use the word all the time.  They usually feel safe if the event or act is egregious and there is much human suffering though animal suffering is also fair game for the use of the word.  Then there is the distinction between natural evil and moral evil as Fr. Martin makes.


Actually the bigger problem for people is natural evil because there is only one person to blame here and it is one of the major arguments by people saying that God does not exist.  A completely nonsense argument but one that emotionally people understand.  If you are talking with an atheist this will inevitably come up as a last resort proof that there is no God.  That is why the theodicy issue has been one to generate heated debate for centuries and is essentially what Fr. Martin's post is about. 
Anonymous | 3/14/2011 - 10:55am
Jimmy: I am certain that Our Lady would love to hear from you...
Crystal Watson | 3/13/2011 - 5:50pm
Fr. Martin - a really good post.  The problem of evil is the biggest problem I have with believing in God.  An interesting discussion of the problem of evil after the 2005 Indian Ocean tsuami was written by  Eastern Orthodox theologian  David Bentley Hart at First Things ... "Tsunami and Theodicy" ....  http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/05/tsunami-and-theodicy/david-b-hart
Joe Garcia | 3/13/2011 - 5:40pm
As Father noted, this issue has bedeviled wiser theological heads than ours. It would take a lifetime to identify, let alone examine, all of the different facets of suffering and why God allows it to happen.

But the passage from St. John's Gospel from which Fr. Martin quotes - and to which I cling when pondering the devastating effects of the Great Recession on my family and livelihood, my father being diagnosed with Alzheimer's AND Parkinson's, or my youngest with autism - is illuminative.

We know neither ''this man nor his parents'' sinned that he may be afflicted so, but, rather for God's works to be manifested through him. So, while on the one hand, we can discard the notion it was some sort of celestial payback, we must also contend with the fact God clearly allowed that man to be born blind and wander around in some degree of anguish (if being blind today is no picnic, I cannot fathom what it must have been like in the year 30 A.D.) for X years prior to Christ healing him.

At the risk of overly tortured exegetical contortions, also note that often Christ not only says (essentially) ''You had faith and now you're cured.'' but more precisely ''Your faith has made you whole.''

By this I mean that whatever suffering God allows here and now has a ''back end'' which we (with our fallen nature characterized by darkened intellect, weakened will and propensity to evil) not only do not understand but cannot understand. God's revelation doesn't tell us everything there is to know about Him, only what we need to know about Him.

In the meantime, as we try, staggering awkwardly towards Grace, the best we can do is reflect that His Mercy outstrips any suffering, and especially suffering made with the right dispositions, and view the sufferings of others with the eyes of Christ, to be moved to action on behalf of those suffering as Christ was moved to act on our behalf.

AMDG,
Winifred Holloway | 3/13/2011 - 5:20pm
I am mostly with Kathy on this question.  Suffering happens.  What is our response?  Compassion and help where we are able to offer it.  Where is God in all this suffering?  Like the Richard mentioned in Fr. Martin's posting, i would say God is with us in our suffering and despair.  For myself, I have decided that God is not in control of what he has created.  I am not adamant about this, it's just my limited way of understanding our world.  And I am ok with it.  It has been a very long time since I have thought of God as being Superman who will turn the world on it's axis just a bit so that Lois Lane doesn't really die.  Suffering happens, God is with us in that, and for me, that's enough.
Anonymous | 3/13/2011 - 5:08pm
Cody: I did not mean to suggest that I know the cause of suffering or the will of God. I am not suggesting that the earthquake was caused by sin. Our Lady of Akita said: 

Many men in this world afflict the Lord. I desire souls to console Him to soften the anger of the Heavenly Father. I wish, with my Son, for souls who will repair by their suffering and their poverty for the sinners and ingrates."
In order that the world might know His anger, the Heavenly Father is preparing to inflict a great chastisement on all mankind. With my Son I have intervened so many times to appease the wrath of the Father. I have prevented the coming of calamities by offering Him the sufferings of the Son on the Cross, His Precious Blood, and beloved souls who console Him forming a cohort of victim souls. Prayer, penance and courageous sacrifices can soften the Father's anger.

This the mesaage of the Virgin Mary. I suppose one could argue with the Blessed Mother...
Mark Harden | 3/13/2011 - 5:00pm
Theodicy. The unavoidable fact is that Almighty God either permits or ordains every single thing that happens on this earth. God could even get rid of Satan...but does not. Why!? The concise response is that God always brings greater good out of any evil. But in what manner? When we reflect deeply on the fact that everything - good, bad and indifferent - which happens occurs only by the permission of God, we can only conclude that the lesson for us is that this life is not our end, not our goal. Our sole purpose in this life is to gain eternal life. And in that eternal life, we have been promised by Christ, there is NO suffering and NO evil whatsoever.
Anonymous | 3/13/2011 - 4:59pm
'I think the main definition of evil according the Holy Roman Church would be the 'absence of good' '

I have seen that before but what then constitutes an absence of good?  The only real absence of good is the deprivation of salvation or the chance to be with God.  That was the basis of my Catholic education since a little boy.  And at Mass this morning, a relatively young priest, 40 years old, quoted the Baltimore Catechism as to why we are here.

I am not being negative on anything but just saying I have been down this road on this argument many many times and have not found a definition of evil that works except the one dealing with salvation.  Thus, all natural catastrophes no matter how horrendous, do not constitute evil.  They certainly are extremely painful, unpleasant or whatever other adjective you want to use.  But are they evil?  I do not believe so.  Only if you postulate that life on this earth is the ultimate objective then they are evil.  And too many people focus on this alone when as Catholics we should have a much wider perspective.
david power | 3/13/2011 - 4:15pm
JR,

I think the main definition of evil according the Holy Roman Church would be the "absence of good". This following Augustine who gave it a thorough going over in the Confessions.
It satisfies me but would be interested in hearing any counter arguments.
 
Kathy Berken | 3/13/2011 - 4:00pm
Suffering happens.

Your suffering is not anyone else's, and is not to be compared as if it is some kind of contest. Platitudes will never help someone feel better, nor will explanations. As if to say, 'The earthquake caused the house to collapse and the resulting tsunami caused the flooding,' will make anyone in Japan feel better.

If having to know why we suffer helps us feel better, then, by all means, analyze it, but suffering is part of life. Emotionally healthy people do not enjoy it and just about everybody I know wishes that it would go away and never come back.  

Still, suffering happens.

The bigger question than 'Why?' is 'So, Now What?' The way to alleviate suffering is compassion. And isn't it interesting that 'compassion' means 'to suffer with'? I don't think it means that if you were in an earthquake and lost your home, that I, too, should destroy  my home so I know what it means to suffer. Compassion means doing what we can to fill the true needs of the person suffering. And of course, discerning that is not always easy. 

So, why did Japan get hit with a 9.0 earthquake and devastating tsunami? Shifting tektonic plates. But what am I going to do about it? Feeling helpless, all I can do is pray and donate to the CRS or the Red Cross or a similar organization. I can listen to the people here who have friends and/or family there. I can sit with someone who feels helpless, depressed, and overwhelmed because bad news triggers negative feelings.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations is a good analogy to the Japan disaster. The people's feelings were raw and wrenching, and they rejected God. They needed to scream and cry and be angry and eventually just be silent. I hope somebody was there to hold them. 
Anonymous | 3/13/2011 - 3:13pm
There is an answer but it is not a traditional one mentioned by Fr. Martin.  Over the past several years I have participated in and read many discussions on this problem which has a name.  It is called the theodicy issue or problem.  From Wikipedia a definition of theodicy,

'a theological or philosophical study which attempts to justify God’s (largely in the Monotheistic/Abrahamic sense) intrinsic (or foundational) nature of omni-benevolence (all loving), omniscience (all knowing) and omnipotence (all powerful), despite the existence of evil which would otherwise stand to refute God's existence ' 

In all these discussion I could find no one and I am not being facetious who could define the term evil. There is a brand new Teaching Company course on evil so I will go through that to see if they can define it but my guess is that this effort will also fall short.  Again I am not be frivolous or flip.  If you try to define evil, you run into all sorts of problems.

Most people define evil as extreme unpleasantness such as we see in a natural disaster as in Japan and Haiti as well as any seemingly unnecessary death before its time.  By the way Chile last year had an equally bad earthquake but their infrastructure was less vulnerable to such a large earthquake though many died there too.  

The whole tide turned on this subject after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.  Then people began to focus on the seemingly unnecessary destruction and death and pain caused by natural disasters and why God would allow it.  By the way the Lisbon earthquake occurred on All Saints day.  But all the discussions have a flaw in them including Fr. Martin's.  They are focused on earthly unpleasantness and not what humans are aspiring to.  It is too much focused on our existence in this world and forgets what we are supposedly meant to accomplish.  If you try to define evil in any way nearly all the discussions go to earthly issues which in the scheme of things is trivial.  True evil is one that prevents humans was reaching their ultimate goal and is not the most horrific natural disaster one can imagine.  And if the nuclear reactors melt down, we haven't seen anything yet.
Cody Serra | 3/13/2011 - 2:54pm
 Mary Byrd: As much as I believe in Mary's messages along history, I don't believe our Mother's messages explain the causes of suffering.
God's will is unknown to us. We have to accept with faith the mystery God' will without attaching human intentions to God.
Anonymous | 3/13/2011 - 2:51pm

Japanese quake's epicenter located near Marian apparition site

www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=40676


Juan Lino | 3/13/2011 - 2:27pm
Great post Fr. Martin?  Have you ever read the section - "The Great Cry: Why Suffering" - in Msgr. Albacete's book, God at the Ritz?  Just curious.  Thanks again for the great post.
Anonymous | 3/13/2011 - 2:21pm
While it is very human to feel that God has abandoned us in times of suffering, it is also true that we are often the authors of our own suffering. Our Lady has appeared throughout history and always the message is the same: prayer, penance and conversion. Our Lady of Akita appeared to a nun in 1973 and had three messages. These apparitions are approved by the Church. For those interested I provide a short excerpt and the link:
"The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres...churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord.

For the messages of Our Lady of Akita: www.ewtn.com/library/mary/akita.htm
Japan is one of the latest countries to permit what is also referred to as an emergency contraceptive. The health ministry gave the go-ahead for the sale of NorLevo from May, the Japan Times reported, Feb. 24.
The article said that it is hoped the move will help to reduce the number of abortions.  The abortion rate in Japan was 8.8 per 1,000 in 2008, just a bit over half the rate in the United States, according to the article. See Zenit: www.zenit.org/article-31929?l=english -
Kang Dole | 3/13/2011 - 1:27pm
This was excellent.
Jimmy Ingram | 3/14/2011 - 8:55am
I totally reject the comments above about a 'vengeful God' a 'punishing God' This goes against everything I believe about the God of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE as shown to us in Jesus Christ.
Any supposed vision of the Virgin Mary speaking such words is completely evil and dangerous.

Jimmy Ingram