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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Robert Barron - Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Robert Barron - Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading is taken from the fifty-fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Can I recommend something? Someone teased me, by the way, on the comments because I'm so used to preaching in churches. I say, "Now, when you get home, take out your Bibles". And someone said to me watching this video, "Bishop, we're already at home". So, you're already at home. Get your Bibles, go to this section of Isaiah, chapters forty through fifty-five. It's, I think, one of the high water marks of Old Testament theology, one of the richest explorations of the nature of God. Our passage today is taken from the end of chapter fifty-five.

Now, what do you find in forty through fifty-five of Isaiah? You find consistently the insistence that God is at the same time infinitely close to us and infinitely transcendent. St. Augustine, much later, put it this way: that God is "intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo". That means he's closer to me than I am to myself, and he's higher than anything I could possibly imagine. Well, you find this back in the prophet Isaiah. For example, in our reading for today, we find, "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near". The nearness of God. Of course, God's the Creator and sustainer of all things. It's Isaiah 49, so in that same section, the famous passage: "Could a mother forget her child? Even if she forgets, I will never forget you because I have carved you in the palm of my hand".

That's how close we are to God; how close God is to us. But at the same time, as you look through this section of Isaiah, you're going to find lots of passages emphasizing the strangeness and radical otherness of God. I'm going to give you just a few, all taken from chapters forty through forty-six of Isaiah. Listen: "To whom then will you liken God"? Another one: "To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal"? Another one: "I'm the Lord, my glory I give to no other". Another: "I'm the Lord, and besides me there is no Savior". Another: "Is there any God besides me? There is no other Rock. I know not one. I am the Lord. There is no other. Besides Me there is no other God. To whom will you liken Me and make Me equal"?

Those are all from the same section of Isaiah. Closer to us than we are to ourselves; I've carved you in the palm of my hand. And I'll use that lovely Latin phrase, "totaliter aliter". That means, totally other. Seek the Lord while he may be found, yeah. But listen to the other thing we hear from our reading for today. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord". Listen: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts". Infinitely close; infinitely far at the same time. Now, think about something, everybody. I mentioned the fact that God is the Creator of all things. Does that indeed mean he's intimately connected to all things? Yeah, because he creates and continually sustains the whole universe. Absolutely.

So, again, Aquinas can say, God is in all things by essence, presence, and power. There's no place to run from God. God's in and through all things. But by the same token, precisely as Creator of the universe, God is not some item within the universe, right? He's the Creator of the whole operation. Therefore, he's not one of the denizens of creation. This is a mistake by the way that atheists both old and new make all the time, as though we think God is some big being in the world. "I'm not finding any physical traces or any evidence of this being. Where is he"? Well, that's precisely what God is not, because God is the Creator of the whole universe. He's not an item within the universe. Intimately close and "totaliter aliter".

Now, I'll give you one more philosophical reference. St. Thomas Aquinas typically refers to God, not as highest being. So, for example, if I'm looking at planet earth, I'll say, "Well, there's planet Earth". And then what's bigger than Earth? Well, I guess Mars is bigger than Earth. Then what's the biggest planet in the solar system? Well, I guess that would be Jupiter. Well, okay. I'm talking about, big, bigger, biggest. But all three are planets within the solar system. They're all comparable to each other, right? Or, "Boy, that guy's smart. That guy's smarter. And boy, Einstein, he's the smartest of them all". Okay. I'm making comparisons within a certain set of beings. Listen again, though, to Isaiah. "To whom will you compare me"?

See, God isn't the biggest thing around. He's not, "Oh, boy. Above all the impressive things in the universe, he's the most impressive". No, no. That makes him comparable. So, Thomas Aquinas, again, doesn't say God is highest being. He says, God is "ipsum esse". That means the sheer act of to be itself. In all things? You bet, because nothing in the world would exist without the influence of God. Above all things? Absolutely, because God's not one of the items in the universe. Okay. Now, you're probably thinking, "All right, Bishop. This is all really, really abstract stuff. Maybe it appeals to philosophers".

But listen to me. Listen to me. I'm going to show you exactly where the rubber meets the road. I'm going to show you exactly where these clarifications are of enormous practical import. And it's all around the problem of suffering. Now, I trust I got your attention. I've found all my years of preaching, all you've got to do is mention suffering. Everyone perks up. Why? Well, because everybody hurts sometime. Wasn't it REM said that? But everybody suffers. Everybody suffers. And what's the question now for religious people? Well, the question is, "If God is infinitely close to all things", God is my friend, God is the one that sustains me in being, he's in and through all things, "then how in the world could God be presiding over this terrible calamity? God's closer to me than I am to myself. Well, okay. I get it. But then why is he permitting me to go through such suffering"?

What's the answer? I'll stay with Isaiah. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways [are not your ways], says the Lord". Is he close to us? Yeah. In our suffering? Yes, indeed. But will we understand the purpose of God vis-à-vis our suffering? Not usually. "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts," says the Lord. Okay. Let me make this a little more concrete first with a somewhat silly example then a more serious example.

When I was a little kid, I was seven years old, my father bought this wonderful dog. We called him Tiger because we lived outside Detroit and we were Detroit Tigers fans. Tiger was a beautiful dog, a sable collie, so think Lassie but with black fur. Beautiful dog. I'm seven years old. My brother was eight. He became our best friend. We loved him. Well, Tiger, like all dogs that I've ever known, hated going to the vet. And we always had to get him in the car and drive him to the vet. Somehow he always associated the car with the vet's office. You'd put Tiger in the car, he's a very happy dog, but he would immediately start to tremble. So, we get to the vet.

Now, here's the event I'm thinking of. Maybe he was three years old at the time, so I'm ten. We bring him to the vet just for shots. There was nothing dramatic, but he had to take some shots, right? So, he's trembling and the vet, I was there with him, the vet turned to me and said, "Why don't you just hang onto him"? And so I hugged him around the neck like this. Then the vet was giving the shots, and Tiger's already a basket case. Now things are even going worse, because now he's going through the pain of these shots. Well, here's what I want you to see. As this was going on, Tiger is ... I've got him right here. Tiger looked at me. Dogs, they don't have quite the expressiveness that we have. We can convey all kinds of emotions and thoughts through our expressions. Nevertheless, dogs are pretty good at communicating what they're feeling.

So, Tiger looked at me, and I can still see it in my mind's eye. The look said, "Why are you doing this to me"? He knew, what? I was his best friend. He knew that I was his master. I was his best friend. I was there to take care of him. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I was always there to help him and pet him and support him. But suddenly, and from his perspective, inexplicably, there I was presiding over this calamity. And the look was, "How could you be doing this to me"? Now, here's the real point I want to make. Even then at the age of ten, what occurred to me was, even if I wanted to, and indeed I did, even if I wanted to explain the situation to Tiger, I couldn't. I could say, "Tiger, trust me. hese shots, they're good for you. I know it's hurting you right now, but they're good for you".

I couldn't even in principle explain it to him. Now, why? Why? Because there was a qualitative difference between his capacity to understand and my mind. There was something "totaliter aliter," totally other about my way of imagining and seeing the world and his. It's occurred to me over the years... I know it's a somewhat silly example, but it's an analogy to God's relationship to us. Do we go through sufferings over which God in a way is presiding, I mean, God is present to it? Yeah. And do we look at God with that same look that Tiger gave me like, "How could you be doing this"? But now the difference in capacity between our minds and God's.

Okay, that's the relatively silly. Now let me give you a somewhat more serious but along the same lines. This was during my years of pastoral ministry. A young dad, he had a kid about three, a son who had to go in for some very major surgery. I forget now why, what it was, but it was major surgery. The dad brought him to the hospital and then was there when he came out of surgery. And as the young kid is recovering, he's just in great pain and discomfort. The dad came to see me. I was the parish priest at the time. And he said, "Father, here's what's bugging me is I want to explain to him why he's going through this. But I realized I couldn't possibly explain it to him. He's too young to take it in, to understand surgery and its purpose and why this pain has to be endured and this is actually good for him in the long run".

And again, I thought, it's an analogy to God's relationship to us when we suffer. Is he close to us? Yes. Could a mother forget her child? I mean, even if she forgets, I would never forget you. I've carved you in the palm of my hand. Does that remain true? Yes. But at the same time, "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are... my thoughts above your thoughts," "my ways above your ways," says the Lord.

God is intimately close to us and "totaliter aliter". How come we suffer? It's not a cop out. It's just the truth to say, typically, I don't know. I don't know. But I'm like Tiger at the vet. I'm like the young kid in the hospital. I mean, I don't know. And there's someone who loves me, who's present to the situation, but who can't even in principle begin to make sense of it for me because of the radical difference. Hard truth? Yeah. We all struggle with it. But I think this section of the prophet Isaiah, and read it, forty through fifty-five, sheds a good deal of light on this very unique, even strange way that God necessarily relates to us as creatures. And God bless you.
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