Sooner or later our luck runs out! Things could be going well and life seems just dandy, but there comes a moment when suffering touches our lives deeply. All the assurances we give others when it happens to them fall flat before the inexorable movement of pain when it touches our lives, our family, and our faith. Then the story of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures takes on a great and incontestable importance. As one modern Rabbi put it, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Underneath the shock of this experience is the unspoken assumption that if I do things right and always am faithful to God, everything will go well in my life and the lives of my loved ones. If they do not go well, then God is punishing me for something that I did of which I am not aware.
It often does not dawn on us that this has not been the experience of the saints who often died for their faith nor the experience of the Son of God who never sinned yet died brutally tortured in a shameful death, cast out by the religious people he served!
The happiness of the holy is not based on changeable circumstances. It is founded completely on the will of God, which transcends all situations. One can be persecuted for doing what is right and still be content. One can suffer torture and still be at peace.
So there is a false equation between earthly joys that are here today and gone tomorrow and true spiritual joy, for Christ promised us a peace that the world cannot take away. This in-depth peace is a sign of the Kingdom and is given to us who only seek the Lord’s will. All other searches for peace are bound to end in disaster.
So there is no real opposition between being faithful to God and the experience of suffering. Suffering is but one of the ways in which that fidelity to God that we have promised in Baptism can be expressed and maintained.
Many would say to this, “What good is it then to be a believer if it does not take away suffering and ensure tranquility?” Here we come to the nub of the issue. Love for God must have no other reason to exist except in and of itself. Love is its own reward, and love of God is the greatest reward we can have for it gives us the peace we are looking for, but not in the way we want. We want to avoid the struggle of fidelity. We want to bypass the rough and razor sharp cliffs of reality in all of its seemingly random nature. In a word: we want to do what is right for the fruits of fidelity and not for it alone. Our motivation is selfish and cannot be reconciled with the God who is love itself. As Thomas Becket says in T. S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral”, “The highest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason”.
Fidelity in loving, even in lack of comprehension and in great pain, is the process of purification that we must submit to in our quest to love God as we ought: not for what He can do for us but simply for Himself.
You may be shocked at the extent of our selfishness even in regards to God Himself. Nevertheless, it is there and it must be burned away if we are to enter the gates of paradise, which has no room for our self-will.
I am reminded of the story of the sinner who went to the Rabbi despairing that God will never forgive him. The Rabbi said to him, “Don’t worry. God forgives you. You will get to heaven.” That night God appeared to the Rabbi and expressed his annoyance that the Rabbi acted like God in telling the man he was going to be forgiven. So God said to the Rabbi, “Because you are a Rabbi I have to back you up. So that man will get into heaven. But you won’t! No matter how many good things you do in life!” The Rabbi simply smiled at God and said, “Thank you. Now I can simply love you without any hope of a reward!”
When we say we love God, do we have ulterior motives (to get out of pain and into pleasure)? Or do we simply love God no matter what? A good question…