Why Does God Let His Best Friends Get 'Beaten Up' So Often?

Not long ago a good friend of mine, a Carmelite named Mellie, sent me a question that is certainly refreshing for its honesty. After recounting for me the many good people in her life, family and friends, who have suffered so much at the hands of wicked persons, she wrote:

I still can't comprehend why God's loved ones suffer so much. Maybe you can answer this question in your Q&A column on the website. ...

The Lord said, "My ways are not your ways" and to "trust in Him." My human intellect, which came from Him, is just so feeble and really just a pea pod at most, and tries to give some sense as to why His friends are the ones who really suffer the most, have their heads chopped off, burned at the stake, stoned to death, persecuted - yes, their rewards are in heaven, I truly believe that. It is just that His friends pay too high a price according to the understanding of this human being writing this e-mail.

Thanks so much, Mellie. You put into words what many of us sometimes feel. Why are good and devout people permitted to suffer so much? Many of us are fearful of asking this question, lest we seem ungrateful to God for all His gifts, or lest we feel we are being irreverent about His Providential care for the world.

In this refreshing honesty you are a true daughter of the shining light of your order, St. Theresa of Avila, who did not try to cover up her honest struggles and doubts with pious platitudes. This brings to mind a story about the time she fell out of a carriage and into the mud, and with a sigh she turned to the Lord and said: "No wonder You have so few friends, when You treat the ones You have so badly!"

Why does God permit His closest friends to suffer so much? Why does He tell His saints that it is even a sign of His love when He permits them to carry so many crosses - and such heavy ones? Surely this question - like Job's question in the Old Testament - rises up in every heart in our own "dark nights of the soul" when the heavy burdens we bear seem almost too much for us to carry any longer, and we join our Savior in his cry from the Cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" (Mk 15:34).

Of course on the Cross, Jesus knew He could never truly be forsaken by His heavenly Father, but He certainly felt forsaken at that moment of agony. In this way He shared in what we all experience at times: the seemingly inexplicable silence of God in the face of cruel injustice. This experience of seeing the righteous persecuted and beaten down is so common that in our culture we have even invented a cynical saying for it: "No good deed goes unpunished."

Mellie, if I had a complete and comprehensive answer to this question, they would not just call me "Dr. Stackpole"; they would name me a "Doctor of the Church!" I do not think we can have a complete answer to this question this side of heaven, when we shall no longer see God and His truth "in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor 13:12). And yet, the Catholic faith sheds light on this dark subject - just enough light to enable me to keep on going, and to keep trusting in Jesus, our merciful Savior. Let me just share with you now, and with my readers, my best thoughts on the subject, and invite others to add their comments as well.

1. Jesus permits His best friends to suffer so much because suffering can enable us to grow in self-forgetful love, which is the best preparation for heaven.

There are many consolations in knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Among them is knowing that we are infinitely loved, which helps us find a measure of true joy and peace of heart as a result. We also find forgiveness for our sins and grace poured into our hearts to enable us to overcome our sinful habits. We find the light of truth about God and about ourselves as human beings. We find deep friendships with others in Christ of a kind and quality we never thought possible. We find healing from deep emotional and spiritual wounds. We find the hope of everlasting life, and a love-relationship that never ends. In short, in finding Jesus Christ (or, to put it more accurately, in letting Jesus, the Good Shepherd, find us!) we discover, more and more, that we are finding our heart's deepest desire.

The trouble is there can still be a fair amount of self-centeredness and self-seeking in our love-relationship with God. Saint Theresa of Avila sums it up when she says that we need to learn to "love the God of consolations more than the consolations of God." So He permits us to experience dry, desert times in prayer, times that sometimes last months or even years, and He permits us to suffer many trials and tribulations in the world. The true disciple of Jesus Christ is therefore not a "fair-weather friend," but one who loves and serves Him no matter what the cost, and the greater the cost, the more the soul can be stripped of self-seeking in his relationship with God.

Saint Alphonsus Liguori put it like this in his mediation on "Conformity to God's Will":

The true lovers of Jesus Christ love only that which is pleasing to Jesus Christ, and for the sole reason that it does please Him; they love it when it pleases Jesus Christ, where it pleases Him, and how it pleases him....This is the real drift of what is meant by the pure love of Jesus Christ; hence we must labor to overcome the cravings of our self-love, which seeks to be employed in those works only that are glorious, or that are according to our own inclinations.

Our Lord also taught this truth to St. Faustina on numerous occasions. In her Diary, entry 67, for example, Jesus said to her:

When I was dying on the cross, I was not thinking about Myself but about poor sinners, and I prayed for them to My Father. I want your last moments on earth to be completely similar to Mine on the cross. There is but one price at which souls are bought, and that is suffering united to My suffering on the cross. Pure love understands these words; carnal love will never understand them.

Saint Faustina herself reflected on this truth in entry 57:

Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Savior, in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering the purer the love.

Why is it so important that we learn how to love self-forgetfully? Because that is precisely what we will be doing forever in heaven, and our Lord knows that it is the gateway to the greatest of heaven's eternal joys. He wants us to be ready! The joy of self-forgetful adoration and love (with no more suffering needed to purify it) is precisely what heaven is all about! Again, St. Alphonus helps us understand this in his meditations (this one entitled simply "Hope"):

On the instant that the soul enters heaven, and sees by the light of glory the infinite beauty of God face to face, she is at once seized and all consumed with love. The happy soul is then as it were lost and immersed in that boundless ocean of the goodness of God. Then it is that she quite forgets herself, and inebriated with divine love, thinks only of loving her God. ... As an intoxicated person no longer thinks of himself, so a soul in bliss can only think of loving and affording delight to her beloved Lord; she desires to possess Him entirely, and she does indeed possess Him, for every moment she offers herself to God without reserve, and God receives her in his loving embrace, and so holds her, and shall hold her in the same fond embraces for all eternity.

2. Jesus sometimes permits His best friends to suffer so that they can offer up their sufferings, in union with His own on the Cross, for the outpouring of His saving grace on the whole world.

Jesus said to St. Faustina from the Cross:

I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help Me, My daughter, to save souls. Join your sufferings to My Passion, and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners. (Diary, 1032)

This is a great mystery of the Catholic faith, and I discussed it at length in my book Jesus, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000). Suffice it to say here that it is certainly a miracle of grace when our unavoidable sufferings in this life can not only be borne patiently in faith, but also offered up in love for the needs of the Church and the world. Pope John Paul II once wrote in his Apostolic Letter "Salvific Dolores" ("Redemptive Suffering"):

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else He says: "Follow Me! Come! Take part through your suffering in the work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through My suffering! Through My cross! Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him....
Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" [Col 1:24], the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption, he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.

3. Jesus permits His best friends to suffer so much because suffering can set our hearts on heaven more than on earth, and on our love-relationship with Him more than on anything else.

Marxists and secularists accuse the church of teaching "pie in the sky when you die" and offering the suffering and oppressed a mere "opiate" of otherworldly hope: in other words, pious "escapism," rather than the courage to face their problems and correct injustice in this present life.

On the contrary, a human heart whose hope is set ultimately on heaven rather than on earth is better able to love others in this life and to face life's problems with courage and hope than one who believes that this life is all that there is, and that "death swallows all."

First of all, the human heart that does not confuse its highest and lasting happiness with any earthly possession is free from the kind of desperate "clinging" to one's own worldly goods, privileges, and status, or those of one's own race, class, or nation, which is the source of most of the world's strife and injustice. In other words, those whose hands are empty are free to "lend a hand," to give and receive love, unlike those whose hands are filled with disordered worldly desires and attachments.

Second, if it is true that every human being is offered eternal life as a child of God, then each and every human being should be of much greater worth in our eyes than if we are all just highly evolved apes whose life will be snuffed out after a few measly decades of life on a dying planet! In other words, the dignity of the human person is tied up with the tremendous potential destiny of each person. That is one reason why the communists and fascists, who kept their sights solely fixed on this world, ended up abusing human rights on such a massive scale: torturing and killing those whom they believed were obstacles to their social programs. As C.S. Lewis once put it, if you aim for heaven you get a bit of the kingdom of heaven on earth thrown in for good measure, but if you aim at earth you end up with nothing.

Finally, as St. Paul wrote, we need to have deeply engraved in our hearts the truth that nothing is "worth comparing with the glory that shall be revealed in us" (Rom 8:17-18). Have you ever talked with an elderly person who, looking back on his life, said to you: "It all went by so fast!" That is the truth; life is short. To nurture our relationship with Jesus Christ - a love-relationship that lasts forever - will only really become our first priority when we truly realize how fleeting and transient everything else really is.

The Devil uses earthly things - even good things like our own bodily health and security, the companionship of our relatives and friends, our satisfaction in a good home and a good job - to cast a spell on us, to make us cling to them and try to set all our hopes on them, so that we may even try to make ourselves permanent residents here, rather than sojourners journeying to a better kingdom (Heb 11:13-16). Suffering wakes us up to the truth. Health and security, friends and family, homes and careers, all these are God's good gifts indeed, but they are mere "sacramentals," mere hints and foretastes of the glory and joy that is to come in which they will all be taken up and transfigured. In short, suffering keeps us from mistaking this life for our true home. In that sense, too, it can be a precious gift.

I know that it doesn't usually feel like it when we are going through it. Jesus didn't exactly feel full of sweet consolations when He was suffering on the cross either. But because He has been on that cross and taken its pain and sorrow into His Heart, our Lord understands all too well what we sometimes have to go through. That is why things like the Psalms of complaint (e.g. Psalm 77) and the Book of Lamentations are in the Bible. And that is also why the kind of reflections I have offered here are often more helpful "after the fact" - when our sufferings have eased a bit, rather then when we are going through them at their greatest intensity. At times like that, an honest lament offered up to God, and sheer trust that He who is Infinitely Wise knows what He is doing, and why He has to permit the sufferings that He does (even when we cannot see the reason for them ourselves), is probably the best first-aid for the soul in distress. Saint Faustina shows us the way:

Jesus, do not leave me alone in my suffering. You know, Lord, how weak I am. I am an abyss of wretchedness, I am nothingness itself; so what will be so strange if You leave me alone and I fall? I am an infant, Lord, so I cannot get along by myselaf. However, beyond all abandonment I trust, and in spite of my own feeling I trust, and I am being completely transformed into trust - often in spite of what I feel. (Diary, 1489)

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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