This is an essay about the influence we can have on others
With those famous words, God overturned thousands of years of conventional wisdom about the rewards for being good and loving Him.
At that moment, a medieval woman named Theresa was traveling a Spanish road when her cart got caught in mud, and she was unceremoniously dumped into the mire. And how did she answer God’s startling revelation about how he treated his friends?
St. Theresa of Avila tartly answered, “Well Lord, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Thus, she established the tenor of the relationship and the depth of intimacy that we are allowed with God.
We are allowed to answer tartly, to question and to cry out from the depths of our despair. We are, in fact, allowed to wrestle with God as Jacob did before he was renamed Israel, which means "I have wrestled with the Lord and prevailed."
St. Theresa, whose father was a half Jewish Converso (a convert from Judaism to Catholicism in 15th Cenury Spain), was very aware of Jewish tradition. Although a devout Catholic, she had an acquaintance with Kabbalah, the Medieval Jewish mysticism and knew about Jewish theology.
Besides Theresa and Jacob, however, Abraham also questioned and argued with God, as did the prophet Elijah. When God killed the son of a widow, Elijah declared, “You do evil.”
So although the story told about St. Theresa is humorous, there is, in fact, a long faith tradition of questioning God.
Indeed, theologians, both Jewish and Catholic, assure us it is ok to be angry with God. The real heresy is to ignore God. To give up in despair and lose your belief. In fact, that was Judas’ sin. He was not damned because he betrayed Christ. Even that could have been forgiven, we are assured. It was that he despaired and hung himself. It was the despair that led to the act of suicide that caused his damnation, not his betrayal of Jesus. After all, Christ knew that Judas was going to turn him in to the authorities and still offered him communion. Then he told him, “Go do what you have planned.”
None of this answers the questions about why suffering occurs, the “problem of pain,” as C.S. Lewis put it.
There are the classical answers of the theologians.
First, there is the tradition that goes back to the Bible, that suffering is punishment for our misdeeds and sins. Indeed Scripture, especially Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament), is replete with examples of God punishing the children of Israel.
But there are two problems with the punishment model. The first even occurred to the writers of the Bible early on. Lots of righteous people, who didn’t deserve it, had great suffering and tragedy. Meanwhile, lots of downright bad, mean people seemed to thrive.
That’s what led to the Story of Job, which is generally not believed by theologians to be a literal tale that is historically true but an allegory. Nevertheless, it is the story that is most often told to those going through great pain to comfort them.
As scholars of all religions agree, according the to the punishment model, usually when the Israelites were being chastised by God, three things were going on: 1) It was collective punishment, such as all being expelled from the land; 2) Usually the punishment fit the inequity – it was “measure for measure;” and 3) There was usually a prophet around to explain why the people were suffering. Under the punishment model, there wa no guesswork on the part of the people. There was certainty about why they were being rebuked and even a prescription for how to end it – turn back to God to be forgiven.
On the other hand, when an individual, today, falls ill, loses a loved one, is victim of a crime, or falls victim to any number of other tragedies, there is usually not “measure for measure.” Nor is it usually clear what transgression, if any, the person might have committed.
Indeed, very often the degree of suffering appears all out of proportion to anything the person might have done to deserve it.
As an example, there are decent people who have witnessed the wrenching tragedy of losing a child, or who have died of an excruciating and lingering illness. What deed could they have done to merit such intense suffering? Meanwhile, haven't we all seen truly evil people who seem to flourish?
They live long lives, are prosperous, are prominent. Yet they have treated others cruelly and even wrecked lives.
Another answer is that they are getting their rewards on earth. The good who suffer will get theirs in heaven. There could be truth to that argument, though, like so much in religion, it’s not provable.
Catholics have a whole theory of redemptive suffering – a theology of the Cross. According to it, the sufferings of the good not only redeem them, but also redeem others, who are in Purgatory.
But there is another answer.
Sometimes the suffering of one person is actually for the benefit of another. Sometimes, the answer is, “because you never know who’s watching. Here are two stories that illustrate what I mean.
The first involves another saint. When Edith Stein was still an atheist, she went to comfort a friend who had just lost her husband in World War I. The husband and wife were both close friends of Stein's, and when she went to make her mourning call, she was shocked to find that it was the widow who comforted her instead. That other woman’s faith was so strong and although grieving, she had an atmosphere of peace about her. That night, Edith Stein, a guest in the widow’s home, read the Catechism and an autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila and declared, “This is truth!”
She went off, found a priest, studied Catholicism, converted, and wrote movingly about a theology of the Cross, which she herself tragically lived. She was martyred at Auschwitz for both her Jewish heritage and her Christian faith.
The second example of how one’s suffering might actually influence somebody else is a bit more humble but just as powerful.
I had a good friend who was a practicing Christian who lost a friend who was a young man. At the time, I was doing a lot of searching and when my friend, Debbie, told me about her loss, her eyes filled with tears. But she also had a serenity and joy about her as she spoke movingly of her expectation that she would meet him again sometime.
Of course nobody can know or prove whether that’s true. But the peace and comfort her faith gave her was deeply moving. It influenced me greatly. And it made me aware that just as we sometimes “entertain angels unknowingly” so too we sometimes influence people through our actions even if our influence on them remains unknown to us.
Debbie wasn’t trying to convert me. She was just living out her faith. But what a powerful influence her suffering and her faith had on another person.