The Design of Suffering

This world wasn’t designed to be free of suffering. Every single one of us suffers.

If we allow ourselves to be selfless enough, even for a moment, to listen—not just hear—but really listen to others, we can start to realize how much they are suffering too. No one can escape it. Even the most bubbly person you know in your life has some things inside that cause them suffering.

Why is There Suffering?

When I started to look at the big picture, the question to myself became, “How could there not be?” There’s more than 7 billion people on Earth, all given free will.

Free will doesn’t just mean free action… it also can be free speech, free thoughts, and also free inaction—in other words, the freedom to do nothing.

Sometimes people use their free will and their earthly power sinfully to suppress the free action of others, or even their free speech, but no one can ever take your free thoughts from you. Free thought is always yours.

So we all have at least some degree of free will. Now multiply that by 7 billion. That’s 7 billion sinful (no one here is perfect) humans running around with their own free thoughts, words and actions, bumping up against everyone else’s free thoughts, words and actions.

The result is a whole hotbed of moral good and moral evil. This creates suffering because suffering happens when good confronts evil.

Physical Evil

Does suffering exclusively happen when someone inflicts their moral evil on someone else’s moral good? No! Even if everyone got along, there still exists physical evil: things like natural disasters and sickness. This is distinct from moral evil.

So nature itself is not morally evil. Nature is just obeying the laws of the physical universe. When you look at the big picture, we are very delicate creations with a lot of physical needs. Nature’s volatility can therefore bring about human suffering quite easily.

Here’s an interesting dialogue from the film Interstellar when two astronauts are venturing out into the unknowns of space. They have a brief discussion about moral evil.

Brand: “You know, out there, we face great odds – death – but…not evil.”

Cooper: “You don’t think nature can be evil?”

Brand: “No.  Formidable, frightening, but…no, not evil.  Is a lion evil because it rips a gazelle to shreds?”

Cooper: “Just what we take with us, then.”

—Anne Hathaway (Brand), Matthew McConaughey (Cooper). Interstellar. Paramount Pictures, 2014.

I also think this ties into why Jesus doesn’t instruct us to withhold from killing animals for food. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us that God put the creatures here for us. The slaughtering has a purpose and so the animal’s life is not in vain. The sacrifice of the animal lets us consume it, which gives us energy to allow us to continue to live to (hopefully) do more moral good in the world, more than what that animal alone could have ever done. By us consuming the animal, it becomes part of us and it contributes to our lives. Leading up to the sacrifice, the animals should be treated with respect and dignity.

God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him. —CCC358, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition

This unification by consumption also has ties to when we consume the body of Jesus through the Eucharist, which I talk about in a separate post: The Eucharist: Difficult Bread

Why Does God Allow Evil?

Doesn’t he have infinite power and so he could have created a more perfect world with less or no suffering? Yes, but he also possesses infinite wisdom to know why not to do so. We don’t know the full answer. What we do know is he loves us so much that he wanted to give us free will, even if that means we choose to reject him!

I rejected him for many years before running back to him. I feel I love him more now than I ever would have if I never rejected him in the first place. That’s not to say I intentionally planned this all out. Sin just gradually overcame me till it blinded me so much that I would have been doomed to darkness if he did not intervene.

We see this dark-to-light progression time and again in the Bible, and in the lives of the saints. I grew up with the false notion that all the saints lived untarnished lives from birth to death. This is not so. They had very real battles and struggles with sin.

God, in some beautiful way, knows how to grow a flower from a ball of mud.

God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it. —CCC311

And St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good. Thus St. Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.’—CCC412

Suffering Tests Us

My main belief as to why there is suffering is that it puts each of us to the test. A test to prove that we want to be in heaven and deserve to be there. We are all put in tough situations throughout our lives. These force us to make decisions, which sculpt us into a new version of ourselves, for better or for worse.

Everyday we are a little different than yesterday, whether we like it or not. Even if I did absolutely nothing today, I have now become a slightly lazier person compared to myself yesterday.

So at the end of our days on this earth, at the hour of our death, I believe that laid out before us will be all our good works and all our bad works. Our soul is weighed justly on a balance.

Every day won’t necessarily be one of serious suffering. We can certainly have joyful days here on Earth. I believe such days are microscopic samplings of what heaven is perpetually like. Sometimes these little bouts of joy are enough to motivate someone who is beaten down and tired to persevere for another day and gather enough will for the next series of trials.

What if There Wasn’t Suffering?

Take a moment to think about what you suffered from this week. Did you feel hunger? Got a bruise or cut? Someone hurt your feelings? You hurt someone’s feelings? Felt lonely? Angry? Confused?

Imagine now that we lived in a world free of suffering. What would you do with your life? If there was no evil to combat, what would motivate you to get out of bed and on with your day?

This world we live in is an interesting place where good and evil are wrapped up in a bizarre dual. Where there is both good and evil, there is suffering. Where there is suffering, there is an opportunity for things to be better. Where there is an opportunity to make something better, there is a choice we make to help it grow or let it die.

Which takes us back to free will. We have the free will to make things better, make things worse, or do nothing about it (which can sometimes make it worse).

God really wants us to try and make things better and walk towards him, but he will never force our hand. Some of us are trying to walk towards him, some are staying in place or wandering, and some are walking the other way.

An existence free of suffering is really hard to perceive, but it exists. It’s called heaven.

Can We Make Earth Free of Suffering?

No amount of human effort alone will make our world perfect. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to move this Earth towards perfection. God can work wonders through you if you allow him to. And much like our own human effort can never make us perfect, we are still called to work towards becoming perfect.

A broken planet sounds depressing but keep your eyes on heaven and it puts this relatively short, earthly life in perspective. I believe Earth is a pilgrimage. It is a testing ground to allow us to earn our place in the afterlife. The evil Screwtape talks about how the devil wants us to see Earth as our permanent home.

Spiritual Advisory - Screwtape Content

Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.

While they are young we find them always shooting off at a tangent. Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion, the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry—the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon—are always blowing our whole structure away.

Our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or ‘science’ or psychology, or what not.”—Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters

Jesus himself affirmed that he did not come to Earth to bring peace. The peace we seek lies in heaven with him.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”—Matthew 10:34-39, RSV-2CE

Man against father?  Daughter against mother? Huh? Was this a misunderstanding? No, and this teaching is stated again in the Gospel of Luke:

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”—Luke 12:51-53, RSV-2CE

In the prodigal years of my life, I was tearing myself away from my parents, and they were just trying to keep me on the right path. They were trying to do God’s will and I rejected it, causing division—an absence of peace—as Jesus mentions.

But even now—when I’m seriously committed to God like my parents—could they have the potential to hold me back from being more like Jesus? Surely. And similarly, I could hold them back from being more like Jesus in my own sinfulness.

Division on Earth Creates Suffering

Each of us is a unique human being with a unique relationship with Jesus. Even when I pushed him out of my life for years, there was a still a relationship there because Jesus doesn’t give up on us. After the visions I had, I felt like I had deserted a best friend and a brother for many years, and when I came back with my head drooped down in shame, Jesus came running over to me with a smile and open arms.

That kind of mercy and love…I’ve never felt anything remotely close to it. It was totally disarming, and so incredibly peaceful.  That’s why I now feel so strongly about doing what God wants me to do. I owe him my life because he saved me from self-destruction. Evil is by its very nature self-destructive, and he pulled me out of that.

I feel that my vocation—at least part of it—is creating this website and sharing my thoughts and stories to help others on their own journey of life. I also feel that he is inviting me to be a kind of artistic evangelist: a creator of music to bring people to him.

This is where the division on earth can come in, primarily in two ways:

  1. The weakness of others can cause them to be jealous of my relationship with God or of the successes God has blessed me with.
  2. My weakness can cause me to get too fixated on the end goal of being an artistic evangelist, and I neglect to see the immediate need around me.

I initially struggled with this weakness of mine quite a bit. I then realized that God is not calling me to work on this artistic vocation at every waking moment. Two realizations immediately revealed this to me: (1) he gave us Sunday as a day of rest, and (2) he calls on us to always help our fellow brothers and sisters. Jesus lived this teaching. He knew his goals on Earth were to establish his church on Earth, and also to die, rise from the dead and go to heaven, all for our sake. But he didn’t push aside and ignore those in need on his way there. During his ministry, he healed the sick countless times.

Reduce Suffering As You Go

It dawned on me that, while I have a vocational quest that has the potential to reach a massive audience, I should not blindingly pursue it and ignore the beggar on the street, the weeping person on the bus, or the friend struggling with addiction. We need to reduce the suffering of others as we walk towards Jesus. After all, by loving each of them, we are loving God.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'”—Matthew 25:37-40, RSV-2CE

God could have purposefully put someone in my path because he has entrusted me to help them in their time of dire need.

What helps me put this in perspective is the parable of the Good Samaritan, and not the usual message of how selfless he was or that Samaritans in those times were looked down upon.” Surely the Samaritan is inspiring, but I also stop and ask myself, “Where was he going?”

His end game was not to help the beaten man. He just happened to be walking along the road. When he did all he could to help, he continued. To where?

I believe he symbolically was walking towards Jesus, which is what we are all called to do. Along the way, the Samaritan saw a brother in serious need and so he stopped to help. Then he continued on. This reminds me not to become so “tunnel-vision” and ignore all the need immediately around me.

In our journey towards him, he’s asking us to love him more than anything or anyone on earth. That’s why Jesus can cause division among us, because he wants us to love him more, and that doesn’t sit well with everybody.

The Road of Life

The Samaritan story leads me to picture my life as a long, winding road. It started out wide, with lots of other people walking next to me.

In my twenties, it got very crowded, with lots of people around me partying. There was lust, recreational drugs, excessive alcohol, drinking games, conversations about meaningless stuff, and deafening music that celebrated all these things. I thought I was happy and part of a group, but I felt something missing inside. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I heard a voice.

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.”—Mark 1:17, RSV-2CE

And immediately I left the crowds and followed him. In my Electric Forest journey, I literally walked away from the crowds.

Today, the road I’m on is much quieter. I’m alone for most of my days. It’s not lonely though, because I feel his presence. Peaceful is the word. There’s no more fanfare and crazy partying around me, but deep down I seriously don’t want that anymore. I feel a calm now and I will never trade that in to get back my old life of debauchery.

This peacefulness doesn’t mean it’s easy. Today, the road has gotten very narrow and I certainly feel waves of suffering at times. There are still friends and family around, but many of my thoughts and questions are only matters that I can offer up to God. So as I continue up the road, I feel I will be spending more of my time alone with him, which means less time with others, and that causes me suffering sometimes as I let go of possessions or earthly relationships.

I’m not suggesting that everyone’s journey towards Jesus will also lead to increasing isolation. Look at the saints. There were some that lived like hermits and others who spent their time in large crowds, among the impoverished and needy.

We all have a different road carved out in front of us but they all lead to him. Jesus wants you to walk towards him. You can (A) walk away, (B) stay where you are, or (C) walk towards him. He gave you the free will to decide. It’s your move.