ARCHBISHOP LUCAS: Why did Christ have to suffer? Why do we suffer?
March 18, 2021
In this month’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas uses communications manager David Hazen’s question about the necessity of Christ’s suffering to tackle the question of evil. Evil entered into the world through the sin of our first parents and is perpetuated through our own sins. Central to our faith is that Jesus suffered and died to redeem us from our sins because of his great love for us. The only adequate answer to the mystery of evil, then, is to be found in our Christian faith, which we can more fully grasp through meditating on Scripture, reflection and prayer.
Q: I was talking to one of our coworkers the other day – a mother of four with a couple of teenagers – who said that during Lent, her family has been spending time reading through the four Gospels during the week. She shared a question that her kids asked, which is a fitting one as we head toward Holy Week: If Jesus was God and man, why did he have to suffer? Why couldn’t he protect himself from all the pain of being scourged and carrying the cross?
Great question. It is a question that naturally comes from meditation on the Scriptures and the life of the Lord. In a sense, we take the passion at face value, but there is so much behind it.
The question occurs to us: Why did the Lord have to suffer? And why does anybody else have to suffer? The answers to both of those questions are connected.
When we take the coming of Jesus and his life – his teaching, his calling disciples, his suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, all of that together – we see at once how much God loves us, that he wanted to enter into our human experience. In a definitive way he answers the question, “Does God really care about us?”
The fact of suffering could lead us to imagine that God does not care, and that he has sort of thrown us here like pieces on a game board – some might end right-side up and some upside down. Some people prosper, some people suffer. It is a question that people have thought about through the ages. God is very clear in this communication of his living Word, our savior Jesus Christ, that he does value us and that he is looking in our direction. More than that, he is on our side so much that he took on the entire human experience with its joys and sufferings and limitations.
St. Paul says, “He who knew no sin became sin.” He entered so deeply into the brokenness of the experience of this world, that he embodied it all. He did not embody evil, but embodied humility, putting himself totally in the hands of his heavenly Father. Evil entered the world through sin, and so the answer to the question of evil, as the Catechism and the Fathers of the Church tell us, is really the whole of the Christian faith. And it takes the whole thing to begin to understand it. We do not explain suffering away. And simple answers are not satisfying, but there is a beautiful, clear answer.
I encourage the family that raised the question to continue to meditate on the Scriptures and to read more, and to think more and pray more about it because the answer is there; it is not meant to be hidden from us. We understand it in the framework of sin and redemption – that sin entered the world through human willfulness, and original sin broke the harmony that was God’s design for the world and for the experience of human persons.
God could have created the world differently, but even before original sin, the world was created so that it could develop. Things grew, plants and animals had lifespans that would end, and so on. Nature didn’t exist in a state of perfection, even at the beginning. There was movement and vitality that God had built into it. And a particular manifestation of God’s creative love is the gift of freedom he gave to man and woman so that we could respond to his invitation to love freely.
From the beginning, we have at least partially said no to that. We see in the original sin that Adam and Eve were sold on this untruth: that you do not really need God to be God of every part of your life, that you can take care of yourself, or reserve some control for yourself.
Every sin is like that. Most people are of good will, and we have faith, and we are mostly trying to do the right thing. But when I sin, I find myself saying, “I trust God for most things, but in this area, I’m going to take control and I’m going to be God in this choice, in this relationship, with these possessions,” or whatever it might be. So the goodness that God has built into creation and the potential that it all has, including for you and me to turn to God and to fulfill the purpose for which we have been created, has been tainted by sin.
Q: You said the whole of the Christian faith is the answer to the problem of suffering, the problem of evil. Can you help us understand that a little more?
Right. God is not indifferent to suffering, for starters.
What we recognize is that in humility, in allowing himself to be broken, to become powerless, Jesus has entered into evil and conquered it, and conquered it ultimately. His suffering was real, and he was really experiencing it in his humanity. How he could do that as the Son of God we don’t know entirely, but we accept the fact that he really suffered and he really died.
But he is not dead now. He rose from the dead and began already in this world to take on the glory rightly his as the Son of God. He then ascended from this world to the right hand of the Father where now he lives. And he chooses to remain with us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our experience in the Church.
So, he didn’t just stop by and taste evil for a little bit and then go. He did have the experience of his life, death and resurrection in a certain period in time. But he does remain active in the lives of individual people and in our life as a human family, through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Scriptures began to speak of that already in the first generation of the Church, that the body of Christ continues to experience suffering in his members, but the members are also able to taste the glory of his victory over suffering in this world.
Q: Even those who accept the Christian message struggle with the mystery of ongoing human suffering. How can we understand this more fully as we come to the end of this Lenten season?
The world is broken because of human selfishness, and God, in his providence, has not chosen to just make it right and make it stay right. We understand that if he were to do that, it would mean the destruction of human freedom.
Generation after generation, we have not learned our lesson and we continue to choose things that are bad for us, that hurt us and that hurt other people. Why doesn’t God just make it all right and keep it that way? Well, it is not his plan. Out of respect for us, and for the beauty of being able to love, he allows us to choose what is good for ourselves and to be selfless in choosing good for others.
While we are on our pilgrimage through this imperfect world, a journey that involves suffering for all of us, Jesus accompanies us. He doesn’t take all the pain away, but he invites us to unite our suffering with his own suffering.
He has redeemed the suffering and the brokenness in an ultimate way, offering it as a pleasing gift to our heavenly Father. And he invites us into that work of redemption. The suffering that we experience is an opportunity for us to invite the Lord in. It is also an opportunity for people around us, whose hearts are open, to come to us in our suffering, in our isolation, and to exercise their freedom in a way that is generous and healing.
The one who is carrying a burden of suffering can begin to experience, already, the lightening of that burden and the healing of the isolation through the goodness, the free choice of others who surround that person with love and with companionship.
In the readings for the season of Lent, Jesus reminds us that we cannot have a right relationship with God if we don’t care about our brothers and sisters. And he continues to send us to people not far from us who are carrying burdens, who are suffering. It might be a physical suffering, it might be psychological, it could be any number of things.
The Lord is asking us to be aware of them and to reach out to them. We are asked to preach the Gospel with our lives. This Gospel, this body of Christian faith which helps us enter into the mystery of suffering and redemption, will not be credible if the members of the body of Christ are not ready to enter into the suffering of others and accompany them.