Monday, September 21, 2015

Accepting God’s love in the face of hardship and sorrow in life.

In my outreach to people who seek counsel for their experiences of darkness in their lives, it is just natural that many of them reach a point where they question the goodness of God and the holiness of God in the face of their afflictions, and the age-old conundrum will be asked, often phrased in a statement like “if God is such a God of love and goodness, why am I in this mired situation in life?” 

This is a very upfront and honest question that even atheists encounter, but the only difference being their ultimate intention is that of disproving either God’s ineffable goodness or his very existence altogether.  But to the one who is struggling with his or her faith, and who has no intention to disbelieve in God or in his goodness, charity on my part is always to assume the unspoken narrative behind this question.  In fact, it is more akin to a plea – a cry to help the person with faith the size of a quarter of a mustard seed to see that God’s goodness is so large, so ineffable and so broad that no sorrow or pain or suffering is beyond the confines or limits to his love, and that faith always asks us to have eyes that see love beyond the ‘warm fuzzies’ that we are so addicted to in life.

Sound theological statements at moments like these are at best platitudes.  They are not wrong, but what theology doesn’t often do is to get to the heart that is aching with emptiness.  If the aim of any good and effective preacher is to touch the heart of the listener and find the heart at a state that is mellow and malleable, softened and willing to be re-moulded, I am convinced that good counsel and pastoral care at times like these need to bring God’s tenderness and paternal outreach to hearts that are in a similar state.  It is a tough call, because one cannot anticipate whether the person suffering is at that point having a heart that is tender through patience and longsuffering or forcibly softened and even scarred via experiences that have left one embittered, angry, resentful and hardened. 

There are no magic formulas that a priest or any person bringing counsel to a patient’s bedside can take with him that can immediately calm hearts that have been hitherto racing with anxiety and fraught with angst.  Much as it does seem that bringing a strong light into a world of a mind that has been through such dark times is a good thing, part of me also knows that when the eye has been too long used to very dim surroundings will find it almost too painful to be directly brought into the bright light that the one who is the “Light of the World” is.  The eye that has been too relaxed by being in the dark will struggle to adjust immediately to the light.  So too, in my opinion, is the spiritual ‘eye’ of the self.

But one thing that has served me well, one spiritual narrative that one can safely take with him in such tense moments is something that I have learnt from Fr Ronald Rolheiser that I learnt in a reflection I read some five years back I think.

He broached the topic about whether God loved some people more than others.  In fact, any question that is connected to theodicy, which is the defense of God’s goodness in the presence of evil in the world, can be rephrased the same way – If there is evil in the world, and there is, and God is love, then it does seem to show that God does love some people more than others, and that his love is biased.  God certainly doesn’t love normal healthy people more than he does people who have bodies filled with cancers that have multiple metastasis.  God doesn’t also love couples that have many children more than he does couples that find it just so difficult to conceive naturally.  And God does not love heterosexual people more than he loves people who are living with same-sex attractions in life. 

To the mind that can only think in absolute categories, those few examples just given are concrete examples that show that God and his outpouring of grace and love have some sort of preference or biasedness.  Yet, we also know that Jesus in Matt.5:44 reveals something almost hitherto unknown about the Father’s love and mercy – that it is given to the bad and the good ALIKE.  Again, dualistic thinking will never bring us to this enlightened way of viewing the world around us, and we will always struggle with the erroneous belief that so long as we are suffering, so long as we are in some kind of torment in our lives, and struggling with some issues that take us to a dark place, that God and his love are absent from us. 

But to be fair, even great and noted saints have struggled with this.  This limited way of looking at God’s blessings is not new.  Even giants and doctors of the Church like St Teresa of Avila who lived in the 1500s made such comments as “if this is how God treats his friends, no wonder he has so few of them”.  Another spiritual giant of the same name, but living some four centuries later in Calcutta India, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta despite knowing that God is love had spent not just a few months but years and years in some sort of spiritual vacuum where she was not experiencing any consolations from this same God.  Teresa of Avila had the faith to believe that it is precisely because God loved his friends that he does not molly-coddle them and end up spoiling them by only giving them consolations in life.

Ultimately, what enables one to see goodness even in a bad situation, to see light despite being steeped in darkness and to allow one to believe in God’s unconditional love despite not having a direct taste of this love for oneself has to be faith.  It is the faith (and humility) to acknowledge that one is not God and that one doesn’t see as God sees, and thus cannot ever begin to love as God loves, and to forgive as God forgives.  Yet, the call to one who is a disciple of Christ is to be holy as God is holy.  We forget this easily when we are in the thick of the battle in our afflictions and strife. 

Your life right now, dear reader, may not be one that is mired in suffering and steeped in pain.  God be praised if this blog finds you in this state in life.  But as for the reader who, when her eyes landed on these words, find the struggle that I strained to make explicit and even graphic something that she can definitely resonate with and identify as real in her life, my prayer is that these words act like a salve to a wound that she may be nursing.  And may that hardened and calloused heart that has covered a once-loving and docile heart begin to beat anew with the hope and the knowledge that even in suffering and trial, God is still a loving God, who does make his sun rise on both the bad and the good in equal amounts. 


  1. Blessings unto you Father... A piece of writing that touches myself, and i'm sure many many more, just when and where it is needed. Thank you for your gift of writing and communication.

  2. Hi Father,

    I'm not a baptized Catholic but I'm in the process of journeying in my faith.

    I came across your blog today and want to congratulate you on this carefully considered and sensitively phrased piece. I really like that you acknowledge the difficulties lay people face in coming to terms with the contradiction of their suffering and God's love.

    Could you please clarify though, for a person of little faith like me (albeit in the process of growing my faith) how I ought to "believe in God's unconditional love despite not having a direct taste of this love for oneself."?
    You point out that faith is the key to believing in His love but therein lies my problem.. I have been badly scarred in many aspects of my life, yet I want to believe that He loves me and is with me through my struggles. Yet I stumble because I feel repulsed by the perceived lack of reciprocation in my relationship (or perhaps friendship for now) with God.

    Peace be with you,
    Someone unworthy

    1. Dear Someone unworthy

      The nomenclature you chose is something that describes all of us. We are all unworthy of salvation, and of the tremendous gift that Jesus is to us. But in your opening sentence of your comment, you have also revealed the reason for your 'problem' that you took out as a quote from my blog entry. As you are not a baptised Catholic, but are in the process of journeying in your faith, you have yet to come to that point to believe in God's unconditional love shown in Jesus' life, passion, death and resurrection. You have yet to have a direct 'taste' of God's love, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

      In your journey of the process of nurturing your faith, (and I am assuming you are doing this through the RCIA journey), there will be ample opportunities for you reflect and share how God had been shaping your life and made small dents to open that heart of yours to his presence. All this happens when you take the sharing sessions of the Breaking of the Word seriously, and courageously share how your 'badly scarred' aspects of your life were actually the entry points through which God comes in through a vulnerable heart. Jesus shared this brokenness with us most vividly on the Cross and this is one way how he truly is our salvation. Jesus' way of the Cross thus becomes our way through our crosses, leading to the glory of the Father which is the call for all of us who are disciples of Christ.

      I hope this will encourage you in your ongoing journey in the faith.

      Fr Luke

  3. “Ultimately, what enables one to see goodness even in a bad situation, to see light despite being steeped in darkness and to allow one to believe in God’s unconditional love despite not having a direct taste of this love for oneself has to be faith.”

    These lines above resonate with me. It is so ‘our culture’ to identify a lack of physical, social or emotional wholeness with lack of blessing. And so when recently, I had a relapse of a medical condition, concerned friends suffocated me with assurances of an avalanche of prayers to ‘storm heaven’ and plied me with lots of ‘powerful’ prayer leaflets so that God would remember to bless me once again. I am truly grateful for all these attention and kindly efforts to help. But I felt a bit like Job. In the Book of Job -his reply to his wife – “If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?” seemed so common-sensical and logical that I feel that the humiliation and sometimes the gross physical disfigurement caused by pain and disease or side-effects of the treatment is also anchored in the rhythms of Life.

    Besides - the Author of Life himself was humiliated and terribly wounded, ultimately giving up His life so that He could give humanity fullness of Life. Could anyone who stands where He stands asks to be excluded from pain and suffering? One who professes to be a disciple cannot ask for this - but can ask for faith and deeper love so as to have the courage to move through this darkness of unknowing, to keep striving forward keenly believing that even this dark stretch is part of His plan for one......that is, if one does not fall into the error of having a ‘victim complex’ –but rather a loving surrender to His will.

    God bless u, Fr