The Human Face of Suffering

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About a week ago, I wrote on a article that I read from Having never really been to this site, I have now found myself with the same sort of reaction one has to a horrible car accident … I just have to look. On the bright side, I think that any conservative blogger could find a lifetime of material on which to comment in but a few short days of perusing Slate’s archives.

Yesterday, there appeared a very emotional piece by a mother of a child with Tay-Sachs. My heart and prayers go out to this woman – I can’t even begin to imagine the daily struggles and emotional roller-coasters that she goes through. Yet there is something terribly unsettling with her story. Her opening paragraphs read:

This week my son turned blue, and for 30 terrifying seconds, stopped breathing. Called an “apnea seizure,” this is one stage in the progression of Tay-Sachs, the genetic disease Ronan was born with and will die of, but not before he suffers from these and other kinds of seizures and is finally plunged into a completely vegetative state. Nearly two years old, he is already blind, paralyzed, and increasingly nonresponsive. I expect his death to happen this year, and this week’s seizure only highlighted the fact that it could happen at any moment—while I’m at work, at the hair salon, at the grocery store. I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death. This is one set of absolute truths.

Here’s another: If I had known Ronan had Tay-Sachs (I met with two genetic counselors and had every standard prenatal test available to me, including the one for Tay-Sachs, which did not detect my rare mutation, and therefore I waived the test at my CVS procedure), I would have found out what the disease meant for my then unborn child; I would have talked to parents who are raising (and burying) children with this disease, and then I would have had an abortion. Without question and without regret, although this would have been a different kind of loss to mourn and would by no means have been a cavalier or uncomplicated, heartless decision. I’m so grateful that Ronan is my child. I also wish he’d never been born; no person should suffer in this way—daily seizures, blindness, lack of movement, inability to swallow, a devastated brain—with no hope for a cure. Both of these statements are categorically true; neither one is mutually exclusive.

I want to try very hard to not be callous in my comment, but rather pastoral in the best sense of the word. As I stated from the beginning, this woman’s story is clearly one of great suffering.

That being said, what is the proverbial “missing piece” from this philosophy? I can think of three such pieces that are worth considering.


1. Suffering is Redemptive

There is something drastically “new” about the Christian take on suffering. If we define suffering as that gap between desire and reality (or between what we want and what we have), the ancient east and the modern west have opposite takes on how to close the gap. The ancient east suggests solving the problem by eliminating desires. According to Peter Kreeft:

We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g., life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.


The modern west takes an opposite approach: we attempt to eliminate suffering by bringing what we have up to the level of what we want. This is true in both modern medicine and modern economics.

Although both work in opposite directions, the goal is the same: to eliminate suffering.

Christianity, through the Paschal mystery, takes a radically new approach: it redeems suffering and thus allows us to see it as a value in and of itself. As Christians, we are called to embrace suffering for the redemption of ourselves and of the world. I am reminded of the scene from Passion of the Christ where the Lord has hold of his cross and the soldiers ridicule him saying, “Look, he embraces his cross!”


2. God is the Author of Life – and the Soul is Eternal

It seems to me that this is an essential tenant of the Christian faith. The very first thing we learn about our nature from the Book of Genesis is that we are created. In other words, we are not our own, and nor are we each other’s. God is the author of life, and only God can decide when “it is time” (for lack of a better phrase). None of us ever wants to see an innocent child suffer to the degree that this mother has had to endure, yet even in these difficult cases, it is not our decision to make. Let us not forget, however, that the human soul is immortal. It has an existence well beyond the confines of time. Further, we know for certain that a baptized child not yet of the age of reason will be welcomed into Heaven – so whatever this child suffers here on earth, it will pale in comparison to the joy he will experience when standing for eternity face to face with the Living God.

There is actually something very laudable with the mother’s desire that “no person should suffer in this way.” While we embrace our own suffering, we also should work to a certain extent to minimize the suffering in others. Yet the line is crossed when first things fail to be kept first. The “first thing” in this case is the notion that God is the only one who takes the blessed soul from their suffering and welcomes them into eternal life.


3. God’s Ways are not Our Ways

This is so impossible to fully understand, and every one of us is guilty of crying out for justice, mercy, or some seemingly illogical combination of the two when faced with the hardest moments of our time here on earth. Few of us will experience moments as challenging as this mother’s trials, and virtually none of us will have to undergo the pain experienced by her son. Yet as hard as it is to grasp, the truth haunts us in the quiet of our hearts: as finite beings we are incapable of seeing the “whole picture.” We do not yet know everything that God has planned for both the world and for a particular individual. Only when it is all said and done, and we are granted the opportunity to “understand the whole” will we be able to find true solace in the events of this world.

What is curious about this point is that it is either a source of great consolation or bitter confusion. One either sees in the mystery of a plan not-yet-fulfilled a God who is a great architect that ever so slowly reveals His design, or one sees a tyrannical dictator who hides the truth from his subjects. It all comes down to the fundamental lens through which one sees the drama of life.

Regardless, my heart goes out to this woman. In fact, I can agree with her on not just one, but both of her points, properly understood. As such, I agree that they are no mutually exclusive. I believe with everything I am that she is telling the truth when she says, “I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death.” I also believe that she deeply wishes her poor innocent son would not have to endure the suffering that he has already had to go through let alone that which is to come. Moreover, I too wish that I had it in my power to save him from any more suffering in his life. In fact, I even agree that his “life” would be better if he were already in the presence of God. Nevertheless, I cannot agree that taking a life of which we are not free to take, making a choice that we are not free to make, is a viable option towards such an end. The end can never justify the means.

I have already decided to dedicate a part of my Lenten spiritual reading and preparation to both this mother and her very blessed child, and I encourage others to do the same. Through all the suffering, it is clear that his mother as an authentic love for him, and that is something that many of our “healthy” children lack so desperately.

More to explorer

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  1. It would have been terribly easy to rant against this woman, to assail her apparent hypocrisy and to begin dissecting the illogic of her statements.

    But, Mr. Tawney, the example you have given is one of the best exemplifications of “the Corinthian love letter” that I have read in some time. The peace offered by your commitment to love this woman and her child regardless of anything is what’s so badly needed in so many corners of the world.

    May The Lord Bless you and keep you, sir. May He make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May He turn His face toward you and give you peace.

    I will remember you and for your intentions in my daily prayers.

  2. Man needs more than bread (the temporal) to live.

    Without God this is unbearable.

    I bet the world will judge me “odd.” I believe the child eternally will be with God in Heaven after a finite period of worldly suffering.

  3. My few thoughts…

    1. As you note, suffering is redemptive only for the Christian. We do not know what the woman’s spiritual state is, so we can hope for her conversion.

    2. We know that she acts from a place of being confronted by, and powerless to change, evil. Her indication is that she would have tried to stop the evil by committing evil, namely killing her son in utero. I say this while remaining cognizant of her suffering and her likely lack of culpability in feeling this way, and therefore hopeful for mercy for her soul.

    3. I stand with David Bentley Hart and others in the same vein who say that God has no part in this suffering, and that this suffering is not part of any sort of His action. God’s ways are inscrutable to us, indeed. However, it seems to me that we must be very careful in arguing to those who are suffering that they should have hope because God has some sort of purpose in or through the suffering of the child.

    4. Similarly, I have difficulty calling the son in this story “blessed” simply because of his suffering. His mother suffers, then states that she would kill the child or others like it because of the suffering. I do not think that suffering, in and of itself, confers any sort of blessing, except in Christian experience of it.

  4. Jonathan,

    A couple of thoughts:

    – my son, too, suffered greatly at the outset of his life and will always have medical complications due to his birth defect, however, his suffering was what ultimately brought me to my knees and made me realize how much I needed God. I believe that by allowing this suffering to happen, he also allowed my son to touch the lives of thousands of people who have been brought back into communion with the God they had forgotten about.

    – through the magic of internet, a mother who doesn’t understand why suffering exists in this world (and specifically in her child), has made it possible for all of us reading this post to be reminded of the beauty that is found in the Church’s teaching on Redemptive Suffering. Trivial as that may sound, it may be saving the life of someone whose caretaker was strongly considering Euthanasia. I believe strongly that God does have his hand in this suffering.

  5. I think the key distinction here is between the redemptive power of God in the face of suffering–which is indeed the vital center of any thorough Christian analysis of the problem of evil–and the temptation to say that because God can redeem suffering, that this means that God “has a hand in this suffering” or causes or needs suffering. The former idea seems right on: Grace takes even the most daunting and hopeless of cases and can use them to convert sinners and lead us back to the mystery of the cross. The latter idea can lead us to a vision of God that is not Love, but sheer Will, a God who willfully inflicts suffering on humans in order to save them. I think that God’s grace can and, with cooperation from the human will, turn suffering toward the good; but to say that therefore God CAUSES such suffering is a tremendously horrifying error. Satan causes and loves suffering; God never intended suffering to be part of our lives, and in the person of Christ, shows us how to destroy it forever.

  6. Wayne,

    I do not think I could stomach a God who permitted suffering in order to bring people to Faith. However, God allowing the experience of grace because of the suffering is different. That is God bringing good out of evil, not allowing evil for the purpose of the good.

  7. Our first child was born with cystic fibrosis, which brings a 1:4 chance with every pregnancy. We’ve had 5 more without it, and now our newborn probably has it. The Church’s teaching on redemptive suffering pulled me out of an angry, depressed pit of hating God (We are now converts, thank God.). We all suffer. This is not heaven. Like the child in utero who can’t imagine the other world, we have another unimaginable world. This article is wonderful ; I’m having my teens read it and offering our “suffering”, which now seems small compared to this mother, for them, as well. Thank you for taking the time to put this to writing. Warmly, Allison Howell

  8. I firmly believe suffering can be redemptive and even worthwhile. Though I would argue suffering is not necessarily always created by God, He most certainly can use suffering for good. Opening ourselves to that possibility can make all the difference. Easy? Most certainly not. But that process could have positive affects on other relationships and be cascading in purpose beyond our even our visibility — not always driven to immediate “faith conversion”, but healing in some many other facets of life. I’ve seen families brought together, activities created, hope nourished.

  9. Thank you for writing this. You have given me much to ponder……..for starters: a reminder that my life is not about me.

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