BEFORE THE CROSS | Bear unmerited suffering in faith

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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What if we have to suffer — how do we bear it with faith?

This week features readings from the book of Job, so it's a good time to ask that question.

An important feature of Job's story is unmerited suffering. He suffered the loss of oxen, sheep, camels and children — all in one day. His friends asked what sin he had committed to deserve this punishment. Job insisted — truthfully — that he had committed no sin.

In the context in which it was written, that was precisely the point. The book of Job helped the Israelites reflect on unmerited suffering, both individually and nationally.

Without spoiling the ending, the book details how Job reacts to the losses, his dramatic confrontation with God, and how he finally experienced a resurrection of his fortunes.

I don't intend to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people. Instead I'll raise the question of how we can bear suffering when it happens — especially when it isn't our fault.

One important step is realizing that the story of Job not only has an internal logic within the Old Testament, but also foreshadows the life of Jesus. Like Job, Jesus suffers without having done anything wrong. Like Job, Jesus suffers the loss of all earthly goods — not only symbolically but literally losing His life. Like Job, Jesus cries out to God in the midst of His suffering. Like Job, Jesus' loss of earthly life is followed by a resurrection.

But the parallels don't end there. At the end of the week we celebrate the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese's life echoes the pattern of Job and Jesus: unmerited suffering, death and resurrection.

As a young child, St. Therese lost her mother; then her older sister became like a second mother to her. She lost this "second mother" when her sister entered the Carmelite convent; she got her back when St. Therese herself entered the convent. She became ill and died at the age of 24, but she became one of the great miracle workers of the past 150 years in her resurrected life. The pattern didn't end with Jesus; it continues in the lives of His saints.

What do we learn from Job, Jesus and Therese about how to bear suffering in faith?

If and when we face unmerited suffering, it's important to place ourselves in the context of salvation history: This has happened before. It's also important to place ourselves in the context of faith: God is planning some kind of resurrection here.

In that way, faith and history give us hope. Not hope that everything will get better in this life — that isn't always how it goes. Not hope that God is doing this for a reason — God doesn't need evil to bring good. But a sure hope that God will bring good out of suffering — because that's what He always does when we let Him.

Job's life is a foreshadowing of Jesus. Jesus' life fulfills what the Old Testament foreshadows. The lives of the saints — such as St. Therese of Lisieux — echo the mystery of Jesus' life. And us? We can be great in the Kingdom of God by following this pattern, letting Jesus' life echo in ours. 

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