Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I’ve been a Christian since 1997 and Catholic convert for 2 years, I have never been plagued quite this way.
Some time ago an acquaintance told me that she believed in God and Jesus but did NOT believe that He has anything to do with us. She made her case based on the many unanswered prayers of believers vs. so-called “answered” prayers. “How do you explain that one child is raped and murdered and God does nothing even though the parents are praying…. and meanwhile, another child is spared because her parents were praying? Is one child more deserving and loved than another? Are the prayers of one set of parents more powerful than those of the other? She went on to say that this proves her theory that God set the whole world in motion and is just sitting back watching. She prefers to think this way than to think that God intervenes for some and not for others.
Now, I don’t consider myself an ignorant person and I’ve read my share of books and been through the gamut of searching, seeking, and faith shaking. My faith remains intact, but I wish I had an answer for her.
The only answer, at the end of the day, is Christ crucified. The one who served God best of all and was, above all men, most beloved of the Father is also the one who endured the greatest suffering and the most desolating abandonment, followed by the most awesome glorification.
Chesterton puts it best when he says that in this life, we are on the wrong side of the tapestry. The threads we see make sense, but they make sense somewhere else, not here. Trying to deduce why one person suffers and another is granted a miracle is not possible here because we don’t know the end of the story. That’s the lesson of Job. The neat answers don’t work and the nihlist ones don’t satisfy. But to the Christian, one person is granted a share in Christ’s suffering and another is given a share in his healing because God, who knows the whole story, is not absent and just sitting back watching, but present and making each person a sharer in the life of Christ as He sees best. The paradox here is profound and scary, because one of the people who shares in Christ’s life may well be the person who dies crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” We may account him despised and rejected of men, yet he may well be the one to whom God says, “Well done, thou good and faithful” when he opens his eyes on the Other Side of the Tapestry to discover that he very sense of forsakenness was his share in the great redemptive act of Christ for the world.
Whatever the case, the one thing the Christian story definitively puts to death is the notion that God has nothing to do with us and stands aloof. If there is anything that the story of the Incarnation of God in the person of Christ Crucified tells us, it is that he is passionately involved with us, even when we can’t for the life of us see how in our little tiny present moment. When we step back and look at the big picture, with God himself spiked to a cross for us, we can see that, whatever else may be the case, he’s not aloof.
Ultimately, your question boils down to the only one of two arguments there has ever been against the existence of God: the problem of evil. Why does God allow bad things to happen. Ultimately, the answer to that will not be fully understandable in this life. But what we are told by St. Thomas is this:
As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
This is still mysterious, but it is no more mysterious than the Resurrection, in which God makes good on that promise first in his very own body. He allows the worst evil to be done, not to us, but to himself, and then brings the glory of the Resurrection out of it. His promise is that we shall experience the same. That’s a frightening promise, but again, whatever else it is, it’s not evidence for his aloofness. If anything, we’d like him to be more remote than that.
One book that you might find helpful is Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense out of Suffering.
Ultimately there’s no formulaic answer. Evil is a mystery, like love. But God assures us that love is stronger than death.