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Vol 39 No 3


Richard Lennan
STILL RELEVANT? Vatican II Forty Years On

Tony Paganoni CS
ETHNIC MINISTRY IN AUSTRALIA: History, Present Realities and Future Options

Frank Fletcher MSC
THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE HEART: The EJ Cuskelly Memorial Lecture 2005

Brian San

Rev Dr Lawrence Cross, Australian Catholic University

John Falzon
STATS AND STONES: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars

Danny Kinnane
MERTON: A Modern Perspective

Janiene Wilson
REVIEW: Jane Anderson, Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Friendships

Kevin Mark


God shouts to us in our pain


DURING MY STUDIES in England, I was fortunate enough to meet a revolutionary speaker and activist from China. He was imprisoned for over ten years in the deepest, darkest hellhole of the prison system in a paranoid, authoritarian regime intent on brutally squashing any potential threat to its power. As I walked towards him after his speech I could see him limp off the stage, balancing on a broken leg that had not quite healed. As I approached I could see the deep scars in his face where he was punched and cut open with a knife, when I shook his hand I felt the marks left by an electric cattle-prod that was applied daily for over a year.

There's just no escaping pain and suffering. 300 000 killed in the Boxing Day tsunami last year. 300 000. Every day you hear about bombs going off in Iraq and now London, ethnic killing in Cambodia. Tragic slaughter in the Sudan. Live8, a month ago, was not about music but about a child dying every three seconds. Suffering hits you when a loved one falls sick, when you hear of the newly married husband seeing his wife get run over, when you look into the eyes of a child who is going to die. Pain, suffering, war, disaster and disease—brutal, random, unpredictable, not differentiating between old, young, good or bad—these are real and prevalent features of the world we live in. Pain is there—we can block it out, we can try to contain and prevent it through things like law enforcement, or we can ignore it in happy times, but it's always there.

All this was suddenly brought to my mind one day when a friend asked me, 'You're Catholic, right? How could God allow this? Isn't He meant to be all-powerful, and isn't He meant to be infinitely good and loving? Why couldn't He have stopped the tsunami? Why does he let good people suffer?'

I think at the back of our minds we know that God loves us. After all, He sent His only Son down to save us. But sometimes, when I just think about the world, I wonder: where is God? If He has the power and the love, why didn't He stop the tsunami, or the Holocaust, or September 11? National Geographic magazine once showed a picture of an African woman holding her child, who is nothing more than a sickly skeleton, unable to move because of malnutrition and dehydration. All they needed was rain. Simple rain. How easy is it for God to create rain! Why does He not show His love once again by rescuing us from the pain in the world?

I guess this was a question that really bugged me. The past January was a bad time for me. I started to get really homesick, I didn't have any friends at all I could talk to. It just seemed everybody I met was telling me, through their words and actions, how I don't measure up and how I needed to be a lot stronger, funnier, harder, better and smarter if I was going to deserve their friendship. I was constantly depressed and felt like I was fighting all the time. And I'd go to Church and hear about how kind and loving God was. And while I knew it was true, I just couldn't reconcile it with what I felt day in and day out. How do you get around the fact that there is so much pain and evil in the world that God, who is loving, could have stopped?

It's a tricky problem, and I wanted to try to answer it. In thinking about it I guess we have to recognize two different types of pain. I'm going to split it into two categories—man-made and natural. Under man-made I put things like terrorism, Hitler and war. Or even smaller but no less painful things, like bullying or rejection. Under natural I put things like illness, disease and the tsunami.

In thinking about man-made pain, it's useful to think about what the greatest commandment is. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul. Love. Not be happy, not avoid killing, not being good to people. We're put on earth to love God. If you're going to do one thing in your life, make that it. But love, I think, is not a static, compulsory thing. If we had to love, if we had no choice but to love, it wouldn't really be love. I can program a computer to tell me it loves me, I can program it to say 'Brian, I love you. I really love you'— but it's not real. The computer must do it, must follow its program—it can't choose otherwise. True love, on the other hand, needs freedom of choice. If somebody, of their own free will, chooses to love you, when they could have chosen to betray you or ignore you – well, that's true love. So to truly be able to love God, we need to be able to choose God over other things like ourselves, power, status, money. And choice means that it is also possible to not choose God, to turn away from God. Choice means that we can prioritize other things during our time on Earth, things like wealth, beauty, status—and not listen to God.

So love is the most important thing to God, and freedom of choice is essential to that love. God loves us so much that He gave us the freedom to sin. God loves us so much that he respects our choice and accepts it when we turn away. So our free will, our freedom to choose God or choose to do evil, is how God shows He loves us. God doesn't stop people doing evil things, because to interfere and do so will make us less free. If God interferes every time someone is about to kill someone else, the killer is not free to kill and is not free to turn away from God. God feels our pain when we suffer and die at the hands of people committing sin, but saving us from that suffering is not as important as letting us be free to love Him. After all, suffering and pain isn't as big a deal for God, because He can cure the sick and raise the dead. He can conquer death and pain—in fact, He has. Dying on earth is not really dying. But what He can't do is force us to love him in the true sense of the word - this love requires freedom, freedom requires choice and the option to do evil.

So that's why the Holocaust happened, that's why God could appear to stand by and watch as innocent people were murdered by the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Inquisition. That's why God allows us to suffer at the hands of other people. He wants it to stop, but to interfere too much in what men want to do to each other would mean that men would not be free to choose things like power and money over God, and so it would violate the love that God prizes above all.

But that doesn't mean that God is unfair or unresponsive to the sinful acts that humans do to each other. God does not cast a blind eye to sin. He comforts and gives strength to the victims, and the perpetrators will meet justice in Heaven. God won't interfere in this world, but He definitely interferes in Heaven. Justice delayed is not justice avoided—sin does not go unpunished, it just has to be punished later in order to maintain our freedom on earth.

So I guess that's why man-made suffering exists, and why God does not stop it happening. The problem of why naturally caused suffering exists, why things like drought or hurricanes or tsunamis, is a bit trickier. Because unlike man-made evil, these things are truly within God's control. He can make it rain when He wants to, He can stop a tsunami and He can prevent volcano blasts. It doesn't seem so related to men's freedom to love or sin, so why does God still allow it?

I guess it's here that we have to recognise that some suffering is remedial and necessary. It's part of what makes us human. If we never suffered, if we never felt pain or loss or grief, then we wouldn't know how good goodness is in comparison. Actually, if we've never suffered, we'd be absolute brats. Suffering, while painful, can lead to a tremendous outpouring of good. Cancer, for example, is said to be an incredible source of personal growth because you completely reprioritise your life for the better. This is definitely not to say that we should cause suffering or seek it out, but I guess I just want to point out that suffering is not all bad.

Also, we never know when some suffering now is part of God's plan. From the suffering we see in the world, we just can't see what purpose it has, but maybe God can. Maybe it's a necessary evil that we have to deal with in order to reap a lot of good in the future, much like how getting an injection makes you feel a bit of pain but it does prevent you from getting malaria. God just knows so much more than we do, and for all we know our present suffering might be for a very good cause. Jesus is all about suffering for a good cause—the pain he endured on that cross must have been indescribable. And yet the greatest good possible resulted from that suffering. Maybe, in a similar way, our suffering serves to bring about some good that at this moment only God can know.

But still, especially as a philosopher, I find these answers a bit unsatisfying. Sure, I can see how some pain is needed, but isn't the pain we see disproportionate? Did the tsunami really have to happen? Couldn't God at least make it rain when people starve because of drought?

And here we come back to the most important thing: Jesus. To me, Jesus is the answer to the problem of pain. I just can't think of a better answer than Jesus. He absorbed all our pain for us, and was hung on the cross for us. Jesus endured infinite agony, taking the sins of the world on to his shoulders, and all for us. In one sense, I can't really think of a satisfactory conceptual answer about why there is actually such a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. But when I think about how God can stand all our suffering, how God bears it—well, the answer is that He did.

The answer to pain is not an answer. It's not a word I can say, it's not a thought I can express, it's not a concept I can convey to you. It's a person. A person sent down from Heaven to earth. And I guess it makes sense. Because when I'm hurting, when I'm in pain, I don't want answers. When I'm suffering, when I feel alone and defeated and just plain scared of the future, I'm not going to open a philosophy book and say 'oh well, I have free will so it's all okay now.' When you're in pain you want Jesus. We want Him there to stand by us, lift us, to heal us, and depending on the situation, maybe even forgive us. And that's what He does. That's exactly what He does. Time after time people draw strength in suffering from Jesus, as many of us here might have done. As CS Lewis said, God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain. Jesus is there for us, and while suffering does not cease to exist, what Jesus has done is take away all the power of suffering, strengthens us in mind or faith or body, and helps us get through it. Jesus will not stand by when we suffer: he is there to take the brunt of our suffering Himself, as He did on the cross. The answer to pain is Jesus' being by your side when you pray. God's goodness comes through pain.

Jesus is there in our darkest hour, when we have the most pain. Like us, Jesus was broken, rejected, despised, spat on. He was defamed, sold out by one in His closest inner circle. Jesus descends into all our hells with us. He's what we really need when we're suffering. In pain, what we fear most is being alone, and with Jesus we are never alone.

So I can't tell you why we have so much pain. I know why we have some of it, and I know why we can never be free of pain – freedom of will is an essential part of love. But I can't tell you why God decided to not make it rain, or to have the tsunami kill 300 000 people instead of 30 000. Maybe only partial explanations are all that are given to us. What I can tell you, though, is that there is an answer to the problem of pain, and that answer is Jesus. Jesus, nailed by His hands and feet in the most humiliating and torturous death possible at that time in Rome, Jesus asking God why He had been forsaken. Jesus suffers with us, starves with the children in Africa, gets crushed by a falling World Trade Centre Tower. He takes our pain, and doesn't eliminate it, but strips it of its power over us.

I find something very interesting. The average Christian is not white, Western and affluent. The average Christian in the world today comes from a developing country, is poor and probably hasn't got much to eat. The people who have the most right to be angry with God, these people turn to Him in their hour of need. Through God they find peace and joy, for they feel that whatever they endure, it is nothing compared to what the Lord endured and nothing to the joy of really knowing Jesus.

By the way, the guy I was talking about in the beginning of my talk, the activist who was imprisoned and tortured almost to the point of death? His name is Brother Yun, called the Heavenly Man in China, one of the leaders of the Christian movement in China. In jail, he brought Christ to the inmates, giving them hope and helping them get through their terrible situation. He reformed prison guards with his love. He found out that Jesus' love absolutely obliterates all his suffering, and the last thing I remember is the sheer joy in his face of knowing that He is loved by Jesus.

Brian San is a member of the Antioch Catholic Youth Group in Kensington, Sydney. He is currently in his final year studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford, and is seeking a deeper understanding of Jesus.


Lewis, CS (1996) Mere Christianity, Touchstone Books.
--------, (2002) The Problem of Pain, Fount
Strobel, L (2000) The Case for Faith, Zondervan Publishing.