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Annual Scripture Day examines the ‘Mystery of human suffering’

By David Myers
Southwest Kansas Register

Was Hurricane Katrina God’s punishment for the nation’s sin of abortion?
Does God cause suffering, or does He merely permit it?
At the annual Scripture Day gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Oct. 30, Father Robin Ryan, C.P., explained that the reasons for human suffering are just as much a mystery today as they were during the era of the Old Testament.
“The Book of Job and Beyond: The Mystery of Human Suffering” was presented in English by Father Ryan, and in Spanish by Father Rafael M. Ramirez, S.D.S. More than 300 people attended the event, which began with a haunting lament sung by Father Don Bedore, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Great Bend.

Was Hurricane Katrina God’s punishment for the nation’s sin of abortion?

This provocative explanation for Katrina and the suffering it caused was made by “700 Club” host Pat Robertson soon after the devastation. He wasn’t the only one attributing the destruction to God’s wrath: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on Jan. 16, 2006, “Surely God is mad at America.” Ovadia Yosef, a prominent Israeli rabbi, blamed God’s punishment on President Bush’s support of the 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip. Minister Louis Farrakhan blamed it on racism and warmongering.
It’s called the “Law of Retribution,” and it’s found throughout the Old Testament. Father Ryan explained, “It is the idea that the righteous people are rewarded with blessings, while evil people are cursed with misfortune.” It is one of several reasons for suffering noted in the Old Testament.
Much like today, people were struggling to come up with some way to grasp the notion of suffering.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?”

Does suffering occur due to the abandonment of God, as the writer laments in Psalm 22? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, far from my prayer, from the words of my prayer?”
“The psalms were the official prayer book of the Hebrew people and of Jesus,” Father Ryan said. “There are 150 psalms, throughout which you’ll find the whole gamut of human emotion.” He said the most numerous are psalms of lament.
“These were not people who suffered in silence,” Father Ryan said. “Nothing is out of bounds in our conversation with God.”  
The words from Psalm 22, which we hear from Jesus in the Books of Mark and Matthew when he is hanging on the cross, needs to be read in its entirety, Father Ryan asserted. “You have to read the whole psalm, not just the first part. Taken as whole, Psalm 22 is a message of trust.” In doing so, one learns that Jesus did not experience abandonment on the cross. It was instead an image of union with his Father.
Psalms, in particular the laments, teach us that while contending with our own suffering, “nothing is out of bounds” when speaking with God. “Nothing is precluded or inappropriate; everything belongs to this conversation of the heart.”

Eli Wiesel and the Book of Job

At age 16, author Eli Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He later published his memoirs under the title, “Night,” which became one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature.
“After World War II, Job could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel said. “In times of stress it is to his words that we turn to express our anger, revolt or resignation. [Job] belongs to our most intimate landscape, the most vulnerable part of our past.
“What I try to do is speak to God,” Weisel explained. “Even when I speak against God, I speak to God. And even if I am angry with God, I try to show God my anger. But even that is a profession, not a denial of God.”
As Wiesel asserts, to many Israelis, Job may have been representative of them, Father Ryan explained.
Job is a righteous man, a man of faith.
“He has a great business. He goes golfing at the club. He’s a Grand Knight [Father Ryan said to laughter]. His children are all smart and good-looking. God is proud of him.”
Then an argument ensues with God – not from the fallen angel Satan, but from someone that Father Ryan explained was more of a member of a Heavenly parish council. A grumpy one, to be sure.
This heavenly parish council member argues with God: “Of course Job is a man of faith. Look at all that you’ve given him!” Is Job a man of faith because he loves God, or because he has been granted such a fine life?
God allows everything to be taken away from Job: his family, his belongings, his health.
“Job thinks God is doing a bad job,” Father Ryan explained. Job becomes so steeped in misery that he curses the day he was born, and yet, his deepest anger and resentment are all “part of a conversation with God.” He becomes so angry that he wants to take God to court.
“The only problem is that the plaintiff is also the judge,” Father Ryan said, chuckling. “You don’t want that when you’re going to court.”
Yet, even in anger, Job clings to God with faith that allows him to serve when he has nothing.
“He desperately clings to the hope that God will be his redeemer.” In the end, he “repents of his sorrowful attitude.”
“Lament,” Father Ryan said, “has an important place in the life of faith. Job is granted an experience in communion with God. It was terrible, but transformative.”

Pathos of God
What was God doing when six million Jews and countless others were being slaughtered during World War II? What was God doing during Katrina?
“He was grieving,” said Father Ryan in explaining the image of a passionate God versus a god as “wrathful judge” or “cold lawgiver.”
Quoting from author Terence Fretheim, Father Ryan said, “God suffers because of the people’s rejection; God suffers with the people who are suffering; God suffers for the people.”  God suffers, Fretheim said, because God is affected by what happens to people. “He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.”
But does any of this explain why God allows suffering?
No, said Father Ryan.  
But, we can draw comfort in knowing that whether suffering is due to moral evil (such as war, crime, the Islamic State, etc...), or natural sources (such as Ebola, earthquakes, cancer, etc…), through the gift of Christ’s death on the cross, “God is in solidarity not only with suffering humanity, but with all of creation.”
“God became human so that he could suffer with us,” Father Ryan said.  

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