Why do good people suffer?

In 1999, I began to feel that there was something not entirely right with my life. Actually, it was not a new thing, I had known for years that something was wrong, but this problem began to assert itself even more noticeably so that it was difficult to dismiss or push it to the back of my mind.

It asserted itself in a sudden desire to push everyone who cared about me, and whom I cared about, out of my life. I separated from my husband, and cut ties with my church. I kept working, but that was more from necessity than from desire.

I wanted to sleep a lot. I could sleep for hours and wake up still tired, and I woke frequently throughout the night, feeling enervated enough to run a marathon…if I had the courage to get out of bed.

Then, one evening, early in 2000 as I sat on the train on my way home from work, my mind went into overdrive. It is very difficult to explain to anyone who has never had this happen to him or her, just exactly what went wrong.

I was sitting there one moment, thinking about getting home and what might have been prepared for dinner (My husband had moved back home by this stage); and wondering what was on telly.

Suddenly, my mind went into high gear and my heart seemed to stop. Everyone on the train seemed to be staring at me. Everyone seemed to be talking about me. Many of them even appeared to be laughing at me and mocking me. I broke out in a cold sweat. My heart remembered how to beat…but it could only do so in a fast, staccato rhythm that left me panting for breath and feeling faint. I was consumed with an irrational desire to leap from my seat, tear open the electronic doors and throw myself from the train. I had no thought of killing myself, only of escaping.

I’ve been told since, that I had experienced a panic attack. I could believe it. I was certainly panicked. I’ve never had anything that severe happen to me since, but that episode marked the beginning of my ongoing battle with depression and anxiety.

I used to think, from the sanctity of sanity, that people who suffered from mental illness didn’t know that they were ill. How wrong I was. You see, people who have depression and probably any other mental disorder know that their behaviour is irrational. We know that the thought processes and patterns we have are unreasonable, but knowing what is wrong does not mean we can fix it.

Like the doctor who diagnoses his own myocardial infarct yet has no power to save himself, I watched myself sinking lower and lower into depression and despair, but had no power to stop it from happening.

I am a Christian, and have always held dear the belief that God can heal anything. Yet in this, He seemed deaf to my entreaties and cries for help. I recall writing in my journal:

“There is something undeniably unfair in the concept of a Deity who calls one to relate to Him – yet, allows one to be afflicted by a disease which prevents her from seeking and maintaining a meaningful and deep relationship with Him.

This is only compounded by well meaning people who utter empty platitudes about His ability and willingness to heal. If He heals, then where is my healing?”

In the quiet moments of my nights, I ponder on these things and sometimes ask for a reason. One is never given. I have hope that some day I will escape this and know why it was allowed to happen, yet I am prepared to live with the fact that there may never be an explanation.

The Psalmist wrote this question that echoes in my mind day and night in my thoughts before God: “Why are you cast down within me, oh my soul?” It is a universal cry from the heart of all men, “Why am I unhappy? Why am I discontent? Why?” But there is no answer, only resounding silence. “The heavens are as brass.”

What is it that causes us to feel in our moment of direst need, that God or fate or whatever one believes in “has closed the door and double bolted it on the inside.” C.S. Lewis.

Is it really that we have been shut off from help, or is it only that our own mind’s clamour for help drowns out any hope of hearing a reply?

C.S. Lewis wrote in his treatise: The Problem of Pain:

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Lewis contended that God uses pain to alert the soul to the fact that something is wrong ie that the person experiencing pain is in a state of sin and “in danger of losing his or her soul.”

Small comfort for someone who has done his or her best to live a good and upright life, calling on God and naming Christ as Saviour, yet finds this problem of pain overcoming even the strength to hope and trust in God.

The book of Job very plainly sets forth to prove that suffering can also afflict a righteous man. I have seen it happen again and again, that the good and faithful Christian is the one who suffers, who loses a child, or his own life when the unrighteous man lives on untroubled for many years.

There is no doubt that suffering afflicts the righteous as well as the sinner, yet Christians who are suffering are very quickly surrounded by advisers who tell them to repent of their sins in order to be healed.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do is to offer compassion and help to someone who is suffering for no apparent reason. That this is our Christian duty though is undeniable. The problem lies in being able to set aside any thought of asking why a person suffers, to lay aside our judgemental side and reach out with God’s love.

Certainly, if we know that a suffering person has some attitude in his life that may cause this pain, we ought to pray that this will be revealed to them. To point it out to him or her, is something that can only be determined based on our closeness with the person.

Mother Teresa‘s philosophy was to love a person to God. Not to judge, she said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

It is my conviction that God Himself is capable of pointing out to His children where they err. Our only ministry and work is to be the vessel that opens the heart of the one suffering to hear.

In closing, the words of CS Lewis again spring to mind.

“I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” (The Problem of Pain. Preface, p. 10)


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