Why is this happening to me? Why did this happen to my child? What have I done to deserve this? Is God punishing me? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
I hear questions like these frequently. As a priest and a chaplain to suffering patients their families, I get the “why” question a lot. Sometimes people express it with anger, mad at God for allowing their cancer to spread or their loved one to die. More often, people ask such questions in bewilderment. They want to believe that God is on their side, but can’t see any evidence that He is. It may take different forms for different people in different situations, but inevitably, whether one is a firm believer, a skeptic, or somewhere in between, when one suffers in a serious way, the “why” question always comes up.
How do you answer such a question? Where would you even begin? Maybe you don’t. At least not right away. Perhaps it’s better just to be silent, to hold the person’s hand, let them cry, maybe even cry with them. That’s what Jesus did when Mary asked him why Lazarus had to die (see John 11:32-35). But if you do speak, there are three answers to the why question that I would recommend.
First answer: “I don’t know, and I’m sorry”
This is the simple truth, and it’s important to acknowledge. Whether you are a friend, a chaplain, a priest, or the Pope himself, you are a human being who cannot begin to grasp the counsels of the infinite God.
Acknowledging the limits of our understanding is important, especially when we are confronted with questions about human suffering. The “why” question is one that we cannot fully answer in this life. So the first answer to this questions is always “I don’t know.” I don’t know the mind of God. I don’t know what God’s reasons are for allowing this or that person to suffer in this or that way. I can’t see the big picture. When it comes to the workings of God’s providence in the lives of His adopted children, I am ignorant.
Admitting “I don’t know” shows people who suffer that I am with them in their bewilderment. Telling them, “I’m sorry,” lets them know I want to be with them in their sorrow. There are, of course, limits to my sympathy. I can’t feel exactly what a grieving mother feels or understand just what a terminally ill man is going through, and it would be inauthentic and demeaning to pretend otherwise. But I can show compassion. I can be sorry. And it can be helpful to say so.
Second answer: “God loves you”
When people suffer and pray and things just keep getting worse, they might easily doubt God’s love. They might think, “If God loved me, He would help me, He would listen to me and answer me.” Despite what may seem like evidence to the contrary, we need to reassure people that God does love them, and is with them, and will help them. In response to their “why” questions, our answer is, “I don’t know, but I do believe God loves you.”
That answer makes sense only because God, in His great love for us, has a plan for our good that is infinitely greater than anything we could plan for ourselves. If God merely wanted for me what I want for myself, God would answer my prayers by giving me just what I ask for. But God wants more. God’s plan is greater. So somehow, in ways that I cannot now understand, God means to make my present suffering contribute to the attainment of my greatest good. As St. Paul says, “We know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Third answer: “Jesus suffered”
The ultimate answer to the “why” question – the question of suffering – is that Jesus suffered. God doesn’t just execute His benevolent plans for us “from above.” God’s answer to the question of human suffering was to enter into it, take it upon Himself, and make it the path to new and everlasting life.
Jesus suffered. Therefore our suffering can no longer be a reason to suppose God doesn’t love us. God the Father most certainly loves Jesus, His “beloved Son with whom [He is] well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Yet God willed that the “cup” of Jesus’ suffering not pass from him (see Matthew 26:42). God lets us suffer for the same reason: so that, united with the suffering of Jesus, our suffering will lead us to the life of Resurrection and participate in the redemptive work of our Lord.
The “why” question always comes up, but the answers cannot always be received. Jesus answered Martha with the promise of Resurrection. He answered Mary with tears. Whether we speak or stay silent, God’s love is always the answer. May we always be witnesses of that love to our brothers and sisters who suffer and wonder “why?”