Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.
In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”
Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.
To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.
Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.
Saint John Paul II wrote a wonderful Apostolic Letter On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. In it, he reflects on suffering in the light of Job and the Gospels. You can even read it for free on the Vatican website: Salvifici Doloris.
In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.
Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.
Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.
Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.
Suffering: The Catholic Answer: The Cross of Christ and Its Meaning for You is a meditation on the Stations of the Cross. The author examines Christ’s suffering to find meaning and purpose in suffering.
In another favorite of mine, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Fr. Jacques Phillippe offers a path to interior peace. Phillippe focuses primarily on finding peace in suffering rather than trying to explain suffering itself. His spirituality is similar to St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Alphonsus di Liguori.