On Suffering ‘More Than One Can Bear’

When tragedies strike, people often say, “God will not put on you, more on you than you can bear.”

I too, used to say this to others in the face of human tragedies, but since I’ve become a chaplain I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most frequently used statements of bad theology that is spoken by people of all ages and backgrounds.

The simple fact is, that the majority of true human tragedies do not have anything to do with the will of God.  God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message by allowing tragedies to enter our lives. That is simply not how God works! The simple fact really is, that the majority of human tragedy comes from the hands of the world, Satan or people not to unlike ourselves.  How?  Let me briefly explain…

Believe it or not,each nation in the world uses specific tools to influence and guide its citizens into thinking, acting and using (or notusing) their freedom in specific ways.  In any nation these tools are generally or typically its culture, its laws and its media.  The culture of anynation – especially for those who are born into it – is often very difficult to truly critique and acknowledge the truth about.  This difficulty is akin to truly acknowledging and evaluating the very families or/and loved ones we find ourselves in relationship with: we are blinded by both our closeness to and our love for them.

The Old Testament reveals this human reality through the life and struggles of the nation, Israel. Despite having God’s laws revealed and God’s prophets sent to it, Israel still struggled against being blinded and influenced by its surrounding cultures and nations.  Today, many Christians ignore this scriptural truth and simplify the struggle to live God’s law down to an individual ‘free will’ issue.  These people are ignorant of or outright refusing to acknowledge the power of culture to influence human thought and freedom. Many of these same people even think that judgment is solely an individual reality and that God does not judge whole nations anymore…

For decades, the Catholic Church has critiqued American culture as something called, “a culture of death.”  “A culture of death” in the nutshell and simply stated is a culture that teaches, preaches and presents deathas an answer and solution to life’s problems.  In a culture of death, abortion is seen as an answer to a problem of an unplanned birth.  Euthanasia, or as some call it mercy killing, is seen as an answer to the crippling realities of aging, pain and disease.  Violence as the tools of death – physical violence, words of violence, the chemical violence of drugs and the use of all forms of weaponry – are seen and presented as an answer to everything from social inequities and political realities (war) to personal vendettas against private enemies – just look at our top rated games, movies and media programs regarding this last point.

The evil one influences each nation to live against God’s will by warping its culture in unique ways that teaches its citizens both reasons and methods for justifying and living against God’s will – or living out a culture of death.  With such teachings and methods taught by the culture and made legal, individuals of every nation are trained to exercise their free will in ways that are inconsistent with or out right against God’s will.  Because “the wages of sin are death,” death and suffering are spread far and wide around the earth and all people – rich, middle class, poor and people of every race and ethnic background – suffer greatly at the hands of others who are exercising their freedom in unholy and culturally sanctioned ways that are against God’s will.

It should be clear from above that one of the subtle powers of every nation’s specific culture is its ability to shape and form our – supposedly free – will.  It should also be clear that what we call free will it is often not in fact, free at all – but is often a function of the culture that we grew up in or presently ascribe to.  It should finally be also clear, that many are victims and suffer because of our culture, not simply or only because of isolated individuals making ‘free’ but bad choices.

So, in an American culture where illicit drugs are rampant, prevalent and cheap… A culture which teaches and presents a pharmaceutical reality that now, there is a ‘pill available for that’ to answer every problem… A culture in which our ‘war on drugs’ seemingly loses each and every battle…   The horrific tragedies of continuing opioid abuse and overdoses, drug battles ‘over turf’ in our inner cities and people of all ages and backgrounds becoming addicted to pharmaceuticals  in order to do everything from ‘passing a high school test’ to ‘having pornographic like sex’ are a function of our contemporary culture.  In these tragedies, real lives are ruined and there are many victims… And these tragedies are not sent from or find their root in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on or send any parent/loved one’ any death of a loved one by overdose or the death of one’s moral/character/will by becoming addicted to drugs or becoming a drug dealer, etc..

In an American culture and nation that is more armed than some other nation’s whole army… Where gun violence and death in my own city, Chicago, is so bad and common that the majority of it goes unreported by the media…  In a nation where the physical, moral and institutional violence against women and minorities continues often unchecked… These are very real tragedies rooted in our culture that continues to kill victims and victimize families…  …And none of it is or has ever been sent from God.  Nor is it rooted in God’s grace and will.  In short, God did not ‘put on any parent or sibling,’ that senseless murder of their son, daughter, brother or sister…  As God did not put on anyone the deaths that continue from police violence, violence against women and new forms of contemporary slavery, etc..

The simple fact is that the majority of the tragedies encountered in our lives, has everything to do with a warped and human free will that has been blinded and influenced by Satan through each nation’s unique culture of death. If God’s foreknowledge always stopped people from exercising their giftedfree will to participate in evil, we would not truly be free to really love as God loves – who ALWAYS chooses the good and holy! To love,requires human choice; if God stopped us from choosing evil, we would become programmed ‘goody two shoe human robots,’ and truly incapable of loving each other as God does.  The consequences of living in a culture of death, is a warped free will, victims from every walk of life, unchecked human and spiritual suffering, and widespread human tragedy and death – burdens which canbecome too much for many to bear…

No, God is not punishing us for past sins or getting back at us for bad attitudes or trying to teach us some subtle message through suffering and by allowing tragedy to enter our lives.  That is simply not how God works!  God does work to be present with and to carry us through the very real suffering we encounter, like as presented in the commonly read, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem. Through it all we are invited to struggle to suffer with faith and by grace.

By strugglin’ in faith to walk by grace through our suffering, God is then able to miraculously and eventually ‘write straight with the crooked human lives’ that we have been dealt.  We find ourselves being somehow, able to forgive those who have hurt us as we are also to somehow break those chains seeking to enslave us in emptiness and suffering. God’s grace is miraculously able to eventually restore and to give us new meaning and purpose in our ‘crooked lives that have been punctuated by real suffering.’   God’s love and Spirit continues its saving work, empowering us who were broken and now healed, to love and help others who have also become victims of the culture of death, who find themselves suffering in similar ways as we have.

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

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