Reposted in light of today's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. May God have mercy on the families, the community and the victims. The following post is a letter to a relative and friend about the unexpected death of a loved one.
On July 23rd of 2011 a man by the name of Rob, a relative of mine, sustained a severe head injury. Tragically, two days later he passed on to a better life. Rob had a heart for God and he was known across the country for his kindness. He was the oldest of three kids. The youngest of the three, Jenna, was his only sister. As Rob and Jenna had reached their young adulthood years, their relationship strengthened as they grew closer to one another. Rob was only 35 years of age when he died. Jenna, his sister, was 30 years old.
To make a long story short, in addition to trying to process her grief, Jenna was trying to come to terms with the intellectual or philosophical questions she had about God and why he would allow such a terrible thing to happen, not only to her, but to so many people who know nothing but suffering all of their lives. As an example she made reference to the sick and dying children at St. Jude's hospital. She also asked the age-old question of why God allows good men like Rob die early while others who are not so virtuous live to a ripe old age.
Time and time again I have come across people who struggle with these questions; especially during times of great crisis. For that reason, I wanted to post it on Sky View. The letter was dated August 8th, 2011.
I am glad you have been asking God about why some good people die early and others, who are not so good, are permitted to live to a ripe old age. Whenever this question is given the attention it deserves it can lead to great insights about life. Most people, however, when confronted with this question shrug their shoulders and think no more about it. Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, wrote in the 19th century that Americans are doers and industrious- always on the move. And to be sure, that is a good quality. However, every strength has a corresponding weakness.
The weakness of Americans, according to Tocqueville, was that they give too little time to meditation; but in the place of wisdom or depth of knowledge he said that Americans want ready-made opinions from other people; opinions which required little thought. And to an extent, I think that characterizes a lot of us. We’re only forced to think about the deeper things in life when we experience a crisis. At least that is what happened to me.
A Life of Suffering Then Death:
As for myself, there were times when I tasted despair and helplessness; believing at times that the unfavorable circumstances in my life were never going to end. When the rug was pulled out from under me, I began to ask questions and search for the meaning behind the painful circumstances. My thoughts then went from “what might happen to me” to “what has actually happened to other people.” That is, I began to think about other people who knew nothing but suffering, having never known the love of another human being, only to die at an early age.
As one who loves both history and theology, I wondered about the multitudes of people throughout history who were born into slavery only to die as a slave. Having known nothing but slavery and cruelty, how can such a life have redeeming value? There were also civilizations such as the Canaanite and Aztec civilizations that reared human beings, and even children, just for human sacrifices. The same applies for the gladiators in Rome. All of these people were treated as cattle. Their lives were deemed by others to have no value. (You’ll get a sense of this if you ever watched the movies The Gladiator and Apocolypto)
Due to the thoughts my suffering inspired- that is, about the hopeless plight of other people -I decided to work with sexually and physically abused children (before I went to graduate school to pursue a degree in theology). Some of these kids knew very little love and acceptance in their lives. I thought to myself, “If I were to be made aware of all the pains of this nature that take place around the world [especially now that I am a father of five children] I would be overwhelmed and literally die.” I wouldn’t be able to take it.
How Does God Tolerate It?
But how does God do it? How does he endure it or even tolerate it? Even Jesus- who was a divine person in human flesh -had to know all the sufferings, the injustices and cruelty of humanity. But there is a reason why he wasn’t in constant agony over this. There is a reason why the Lord can tolerate such a sad spectacle of events. This is where the answer to your question begins to surface Jenna. This may explain and give some meaning to the pain of having your heart torn over the loss of Rob.
If you would indulge me for just a little bit longer- and I do appreciate your patience -I would like to share two very brief stories that will lend towards the answer that I have for you; and the answer any Saint would give you. The first story has to do with finding peace and making sense of her suffering in hindsight. The second has to do with finding peace and making sense of his suffering as it was occurring. These two examples will help explain, in a small way, why God can tolerate suffering and why he allows some good people to die young while letting evil men or women live much longer.
Kissing the Hands Who Harmed Me:
It has something to do with what a former Sudanese slave who converted to Catholicism had to say about her torturers. Her name was St. Josephine Bakhita. She was bought by an Italian merchant (around the turn of the 20th century), brought to Italy and was introduced to the Catholic Faith. If I remember correctly, she then became a consecrated sister in a religious order. She died in 1947 and was canonized a Saint just recently. As a slave in Sudan, she was tortured, beaten and neglected. But after she found Christ in Italy, she discovered a love and a kind of liberation she never knew. This gave context and a whole new meaning to her past sufferings. As such, she was inspired to say the following: “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”
For her, the suffering and the injustices she endured were not only meaningful but they were, ironically enough, the very instruments God used to bring about her conversion and salvation. To the world, Jenna, this is utter folly. But she understood that even the most of painful of circumstance could be life-giving.
The Work of God is Not God:
And then there was a Catholic bishop in Vietnam by the name of Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (he was cardinal when he died in 2002). He was taken prisoner in 1975 by Communist North Vietnam. For thirteen years he lived in squalid and inhumane conditions. Nine of those years he spent in solitary confinement…in a hole. He recounts how such horrible circumstances were reconciled with his faith. In fact, he believed God spoke to him in his cell. He said:
"Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people.One night, from the depths of my heart I could hear a voice advising me: 'Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God - everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, evangelizing non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!'”
This divine message of reproof, he went on to say, gave him a peace that never left him in that prison. He simply trusted that God would make up and compensate for his absence; that he, the Lord, would take care of the people who were formerly entrusted to the care of the bishop. The peace this good bishop enjoyed (later to be cardinal) during that difficult time was only had by trusting God; that God would take care of everything; that God’s plan was in his best interest. The good bishop ended up ministering to and converting some of the Communist prison guards and comforted those prisoners who were in utter despair. There was a reason why God allowed him to be there.
There is Something Better:
St. Josephine Bakhita and Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan experienced a joy and peace that was just a small foretaste of heaven; a fraction of the real thing. It is no exaggeration to say that heaven begins here, in this life, on earth. But it does not end here. The fullness of that joy is only to be found in heaven. By the Lord allowing the good to die an early death and evil people to live a longer life takes on the appearance of injustice only if we see this world/this life as the best it ever gets- as the pinnacle of our happiness. In this context, Rob’s death at the age of 35 years of age would appear to be most unjust if there really is a God. But Scripture, our Catholic Faith and the Saints tell us that this earthly abode ours is but the vestibule to a much more beautiful house. Life really begins when we give up our body. This is why I sent you those links [Beyond and Back near death testimonies]. Whether or not you believe in those particular accounts (and we are certainly not obligated to believe them), hospice nurses from all over the nation/world will tell you similar stories; that those who lived a life of faith, love and sacrifice anticipated and even reached out to the great joys that awaited them. Indeed, countless people who had experienced the “light of God” on the threshold of death didn’t want to come back! It is a recurring theme in these stories.
And this addresses the very heart of your question: The worst of human suffering and cruelty on earth is far outweighed by the reality of eternity. Eternity- and here I refer to heaven –is so full of compensation, so all-encompassing, so permanent and so full of happiness that people who go there would gladly endure a life of suffering. I know that is tough to imagine. But as Scripture states, human life is but a vapor, appearing one moment and disappearing the next. God sees our life on earth- with our trials and joys –simultaneously with our life in eternity. He knows exactly what we need and allows only what is in our best interests. And our best interests, Jenna, is that our eternal happiness is secured in heaven. If the soul is not saved, nothing is saved.
But for the atheist and the liberal who gives no thought to the supernatural order, when confronted with those cases of people who knew nothing but suffering, are forced to shrug their shoulders and say, “It sucks to be them. They got the short end of the stick.” However, when we suffer and we find ourselves in desperate situations, this attitude does not suffice. It doesn’t satisfy a heart that longs for happiness.
Rob's Greatest Gift:
Rob’s greatest gift is our greatest pain. But our greatest pain will turn into our greatest gift when it comes time for us to enjoy what Rob is now enjoying. And yet, at the same time, our entry into eternity will be a cause of pain for others. And the cycle goes on.
I will pray that you can, over the coming months, entrust the gift that God has given you, namely, Rob, your love for Rob and all that you feel deprived of. Entrust this, as best you can, to the care of the Lord. It may take time.