Project Canterbury

The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925

Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

Suffering and the Will of God
Of the General Theological Seminary, New York City

I AM convinced that a permanent charge to heal the sick was given by our Lord to His Church; that long-continued and widespread neglect of this charge by the Church's ministers has caused much spiritual damage; and that a revival of Christian healing has been needed.

None the less such a revival is attended by danger, the danger which is necessarily involved in specialized attention to, and zealous propaganda in behalf of, limited elements of Christian truth and practice. The propaganda may easily lead to unwitting caricature of what is emphasized and to consequent new error.

Some of the promoters of this revival have sought to fortify their pleas by contentious propositions. The most fundamental of these are that bodily disease is always evil in se; and that it is always contrary to God's will. The purpose of this paper is to reckon as justly as I can with these contentions and with the Christian principles involved.

I. Is Sickness Evil in Itself?

[125] No one seriously disputes the fact that in a multitude of instances sickness and evil are interconnected, and that in such cases a cure of the illness is often a remedy for the evil. The assertion with which I am here concerned goes further, however, affirming that bodily sickness as such and under all circumstances is necessarily evil.

Of course, if it is evil in itself, we cannot consistently believe that God ever wills it. But even if, as I expect to show, it is not always so, the question remains, Does He will it for men, whether as involved in His eternal plan or in specific cases? I, therefore, consider these two questions separately, and first take up the claim that, because of what sickness is in itself, it is necessarily evil.

I begin by pointing to the fact that sickness is a condition of the bodily organism, the good or evil of which is relative, and is properly to be referred in part perhaps to its causation, but especially to its final results. And it is but a passing experience, ending in any case when we leave this world, and being very brief indeed in comparison with the vast duration of human existence hereafter. As a factor in human life it may be hurtful, and to that extent evil; but if it is found to be a needed hurdle in the race-course that ends in eternal blessedness, part of the cost of reaching that goal, we should not so regard it.

The universal proposition that all sickness is evil in se is not found in Scripture; and, as will be shown in this paper, is not correctly deduced from Christ's healing work and relevant teaching. If provable, therefore, this must be by rational appeal to natural [125/126] history and human experience, viewed in the light of what we have learned of human destiny and of God's method of preparing men for it. And, as already shown, the possible lines of proof that sickness is always evil in se have to do either with its causation or with its results.

(a) Sickness is said always to be caused by wrongdoing, either of the sick person himself or of others. In the latter case, it may be the effect either of evil inheritance, due to ancestral wrong-doing; of present social wrongs; or even of demoniacal malice. The argument is that it ought not to be, because, if there had been no wrong-doing, the sickness would not have happened. It is part of the mystery of sin, and therefore is evil in se.

It certainly does appear that a large proportion of human illnesses would not have occurred if sin had not invaded this world and corrupted the conditions of good health. None the less, the proof that all forms and instances of sickness are due to the presence of sin in the world is not forthcoming. Sickness antedates the moral stage of natural evolution, when sin first became possible. No doubt the lower animals have comparatively few illnesses, and escape much of the suffering that sickness brings to man because of his imagination and anticipatory outlook. But that they do incur sickness, uncaused by evil-doing and attended by some suffering, is hardly open to intelligent denial.

The liability to sickness, and its inevitable occasional occurrence, seems to inhere in the natural order and in the process of organic evolution. A certain amount of it, accordingly, seems necessarily involved in the creative plan of God. Perhaps it is due to [126/127] limitations necessarily inhering in the growth of finite organism, and is part of the necessary cost of creation. In any case, to describe sickness as always evil in se seems like ascribing intrinsic evil to the Creator, in whose plan it has been a necessary incident—an ascription obviously inconsistent with all we know of the nature and character of God.

A further consideration logically follows. If any sickness whatever is involved in the plan of creation, we cannot rightly argue that a given illness, having evil causation, is evil simply as being sickness. Its alleged evil lies in the wrongs that led to it, in its being caused unnecessarily and in an evil manner, in its excessive occurrence.

I add a thought to which I shall recur later, and which is pertinent even if all sickness is due to the presence of sin in the world. The inviolable laws of nature effectually insure that the same sinful working which causes sickness to prevail or increase, also either creates or increases the need and utility of its infliction. God orders the course of nature with a view to the actual needs of His children, whose sinfulness is foreshown by Him, and is apparently incurable without the dispensation of suffering. Accordingly, He has established the beneficent natural law that sin shall produce the sufferings which make for its cure. The cause of sinfully induced illness, therefore is not sin simply, but also and significantly God's law and method of meeting sin.

(b) We come to the plea that the natural consequences of sickness are evil, even though God may overrule them with beneficent results.

We are told that it often shortens the natural, and therefore divinely intended, term of earthly life, [127/128]  reducing its educational and probational opportunities. It is true that sickness often shortens our time of probation, and if this occurs through creaturely fault, that fault is a grave evil. But the assumption that shortness of earthly life itself is always evil needs proof. The value of our earthly probation is determined by its spiritual outcome as estimated by a Judge who cannot err, rather than by its duration and wealth of experience. An early death may be, apparently often is, God's predetermined purpose for the individual concerned.

Again, it is urged, sickness necessarily interferes with efficient service, which is a chief part of Christian duty. I answer that the kind of service in which each Christian ought to be efficient is that which he has God-given opportunity to fulfill; and its efficiency is not always rightly estimated in quantitative terms or by the requirements imposed upon those in good health. Sickness often affords opportunities for service of priceless value, which the individual concerned would otherwise fail to perform, and which those in uninterrupted good health naturally tend to neglect. Thus the sick have exceptional leisure for intercessory prayer, and a chance to help others by a form of patient submission which has high exemplary value. They often become splendid specialists in these lines of service. Moreover, the enforced leisure for reflection which sickness affords impels many to an entire readjustment of their life-plans, and permanently quickens and enlarges their subsequent service in all available lines.

I here venture the egotistic remark that, if my numerous volumes of theology represent service of any value to the Church, their production was plainly [128/129] due to my physical infirmity of deafness, which diverted me from more external activities, and protected me from distractions that would have made such work impossible.

Again, it is urged that sickness naturally hinders personal welfare and happiness, and cannot do otherwise unless God intervenes and overrules evil with good. The current stress on utilitarian ideals makes this plea especially persuasive. But these ideals are being pressed in a manner subversive of Christian perspectives. The happiness and welfare that God wills for us is primarily that of eternal life, and secondarily such happiness in this life as ministers to our faithfulness and success in attaining eternal life. Immediate welfare and comfort cannot be our chief aim, either for ourselves or for others, without spiritual disaster. The cross is the cost of the crown; and this means that hindrances to immediate happiness and welfare should not be treated as necessarily evil. A very comfortable world would not be favourable to our final blessedness; and to identify discomfort with evil is a dangerous error. Our present sufferings, rightly endured, are the needed birthpangs of eternal life.

These considerations meet the further plea that sickness is naturally prejudicial to spiritual progress itself, causing rebellious discontent and reducing the mental energies upon which spiritual progress depends. This is no doubt often so; but sickness serves, none the less, as a providential soul-testing, having blessed results when rightly accepted as such. And much experience proves that these results do not depend upon mental energy so much as upon moral submission, submission quite within the God-given power of all who retain consciousness and sanity. I feel [129/130] justified in asserting that the results of sickness, and of all forms of suffering, when rightly and spiritually estimated, always bring spiritual profit to those who would meet any form of probation with the moral response upon which spiritual progress invariably depends. And this is true even of suffering that is sinfully caused.

(c) It remains to summarize positively the values of sickness and suffering in general, partly natural and partly made available by special providence. They are often disparaged and disregarded, although open to common observation.

In the first place, sickness affords needed warning of vital dangers which, if not thus made known and remedied, will unduly shorten life or, at least, permanently limit or hamper our natural powers and divinely willed welfare. It is significant that those who are subject to frequent ill-health are often for that very reason notably long-lived and successful in their appointed life-work.

Again, when illness is visibly mortal, it effectively warns the sick to set their earthly and spiritual affairs in order. And such warning appears to be needed, for those in good health are notoriously apt to be negligent in this matter, frequently with grave results.

The mystery of pain in general, and the beneficent part that it plays in organic life, should be reckoned with. Its most obvious value lies in its being a symptom of disease or injury to the bodily organism, which would escape notice with dangerous results if pain were lacking. But pain is more than a symptom. Even in momentary forms, it is an interruption of bodily welfare, an inceptive disease; and its values are related to, and throw light upon, the values of [130/131] sickness in general, which are largely contingent upon sickness being painful.

Physical pain appears to be an inevitable cost of natural evolution. It is comparatively slight in lower organisms, because the dominance of instinct in the control of animal behaviour renders the admonitory warnings of pain less needed. But with the development of reason, and of more complex motives for action in the higher levels of life, the protective function of instinct becomes less effective. Pain, made more acute by the development of reflective and anticipatory imagination, largely takes its place as a safety factor in life.

The emergence of sin among men has also greatly increased pain and disease, so much so that disease is apt, as we have seen, to be regarded as part of the mystery of evil. But, as I have also indicated, sin enlarges the need of pains and sickness; and the natural law that sin causes their increase is a beneficent one. The real evil is sin; and the very evident fact that its painful consequences are also its naturally provided deterrents, not only nullifies the argument that sickness is evil because of sinful causation, but proves that in a sin-stricken world it is a needed good provision by God—by God, because due to natural law, to the order of causation which He has created.

Pain also challenges sympathy, and seems to be essential to a full development of that virtue, and of loving service. It is certainly a stimulus, for example, in connection with hunger, and in relation to many forms of achievement, and to the progress of our race. Sociological experience teaches that a comfortable circle is apt to be self-indulgent and lacking [131/132] in noble achievement. A world free from suffering, in view of human nature, would be a world drifting into barbarism and its attendant evils. High character and achievement, whether secular or religious, could not exist without the admonitory and driving dispensation of pain.

II. Is Sickness Contrary to God's Will?

It is contended that God never sends or wills human sickness; that although He often overrules it with beneficent results, His will is always for its healing and abolition; and that the traditional teaching that we are often called on to submit to illness as a divinely imposed discipline, is not truly Christian.

I believe that the assumption that sickness is always evil in se chiefly explains the denial that God ever wills it, and the new interpretation of Scripture in support of such denial. Accordingly, I have devoted what would otherwise be disproportionate space to showing the falsity of that assumption. In doing so, I have given reasons for concluding that pains and sicknesses are useful natural factors of evolution, and of nature's reaction against sin, therefore presumably of the Creator's willing. But the clearest indications of God's will in relation to sickness are contained in Scripture, to which I now turn.

(a) Our Lord went about healing the sick, and gave charge to His ministers to continue this work in His name. This proves that healing the sick is God's will and a vital part of Christian service in this world. But it does not require us to infer that the original sickness is never by God's will. And only when it becomes clear that a given illness of divine willing [132/133] is intended to be permanent are we to argue, as some do, that God's sending illness precludes Christian efforts to heal. The truth seems to be that God usually sends illness for temporary purposes, and therefore wills its cure in due course, such cure becoming incidentally an appointed part of Christian service. The manner in which we discover in particular cases that God is using the sickness for continuing discipline, and wills patient submission, is through failure of every natural and spiritual method of healing. In such case, God's answer to the prayer of faith for healing takes the form of grace to profit by suffering.

(b) But, we are reminded, our Lord certainly attributed illness in one case to the devil; and several of His healings were linked with the casting out of devils. On one occasion He is said to have "rebuked" a fever. These facts prove that an important proportion of the illnesses cured by Christ were of demoniacal causation, and in that relation evil. The sickness most likely to be brought to Christ's attention were probably of the baffling kind, the kind most apt to have demoniacal causation. As a homiletical generalization, therefore, St. Peter's reference to Christ as "healing all that were oppressed of the devil," was justifiable. None the less, neither the actions nor words of our Lord recorded in the Gospels warrant the inference that every illness is contrary to the will of God. Indeed, if all illness represented demoniacal activity, no illness would be curable by natural means, a supposition contrary to general experience.

(c) It has been urged that the Christ of the Gospels could not have inflicted disease; and that, because He was the perfect manifestation of God, in fact was Himself divine, the same unwillingness to do so [133/134] should be ascribed to God. The answer is simple. The issues of life and death are in the Creator's hands, and that it is wrong for man to inflict disease is clear. Although Christ was God of God, in taking our nature He submitted in it to the law for man. Only so far as required by the specific redemptive mission given Him by the Father could He rightly do what we are forbidden to do. And since the disciplinary or chastising element of God's rule did not lie within this mission, we cannot rightly use His human absentation from inflicting disease as basis of the inference referred to.

(d) The fact that when St. Paul thrice prayed for the removal of what he describes as a "thorn in the flesh," his request was refused with the answer, "My grace is sufficient for thee," is usually and naturally taken to show that the continuance of sickness, even when it is a buffeting "messenger of Satan," is sometimes willed by God. The contrary interpretation that the "thorn" was spiritual rather than physical, disregards the added description, "in the flesh," and involves the strange supposition that the God who is said never to will the continuance of physical illness, does on occasion will that of mental or spiritual illness.

(e) Finally, there is the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which asserts that "whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth," so that the absence of chastisement is a mark of "bastards, and not sons," the explanation given being that God chastises us "for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness." It is urged truly enough that the sufferings which occasion the sacred writer's language are those of persecution for [134/135] righteousness sake, not those of sickness. But, however occasioned, the passage affirms in universal terms the law that God inflicts chastisement—that is, suffering,—upon all His true children as needed for their profit.

When that lesson is once accepted, the form of suffering, and manner of sending, become of minor moment. It is the chastening pain that Scripture teaches to be profitable; but it is just this pain that primarily explains the modern notion that sickness is evil in se, and therefore can neither come nor continue by God's will. Furthermore, the species of suffering which the sacred writer interprets as divine chastisement, or persecution, is wicked in its immediate causation; and this drives us to the conclusion that evil causation by man does not prevent its being God's means of chastising His children for their profit. It is the creature's mode of fulfilling God's purpose, therefore, rather than suffering itself, that is evil. And there is no ground for saying, that, although God chastises us by persecution for our profit, He will not do so by sickness, and that too when the secondary causes of it are sinful.

The undeniable mystery of concurses is involved, the mystery that God unites with creatures in bringing effects to pass which are sinfully intended by the creature, but are righteously purposed and used by Himself. The mystery of the Cross is the crowning example; and in so far as it is the Christian's vocation to take up the Cross in imitation of Christ, the sufferings which are involved in this do not cease to be of God's willing because brought about by sinful men. And the value of the suffering in se is to be estimated [135/136] in the light of the Father's loving purpose, not in that of its results when rebelliously received.

III. Divine Providence

The present propaganda against the traditional Christian view, of sickness and suffering has constrained me to devote the greater part of my paper to reckoning with its arguments. In doing so I have mentioned incidentally various useful ends, both natural and spiritual, which sickness and pain by divine providence are made to serve. But my paper will be defective unless I round up these hints in a coherent and non-argumentative summary, necessarily concise, of divine providence in relation to suffering, answering the threefold questions as to how God may be thought to send sickness; for what ends; and under what limitations.

(a) The sending of sickness and suffering by God comes under the two heads of general and particular providence, the former being the general arrangements and laws of God's world, in so far as they involve the factor of suffering; the latter consisting of special manipulations of existing conditions, whereby the laws of the natural and spiritual orders are made to work out particular results.

The methods of particular providence are usually beyond scrutiny, its reality being known only through its results in personal experience. I content myself, therefore, in this direction with noting the fact that, since the propagandists whose arguments I have been discussing admit a particular providence in the results of spiritual healing, they cannot reasonably deny its possibility in the origination of sickness; that is, [136/137] unless they can prove,—and I have shown that they cannot prove,—that sickness is evil in se.

Natural and revealed knowledge suggest to us that God sends sickness in three interconnected ways. He does so in the first place, by so creating, and ordering the world that its development involves suffering, proportionate in amount and degree to the several levels of organic life. And this suffering appears to be a needed factor, and inevitable cost of the process, and of God's holy purposes. Secondly, He sends sickness by so constituting nature that human blunders and sins bring, by means of suffering, just the manner of enlightenment and discipline that the ignorant and sinful are most likely to understand. Thirdly, He sends sickness by immanently and co-operatively energizing in the human actions that induce illness—that is, by the mystery of concursus—His holy purpose therein beneficently overruling the creature's unholy aim. And inasmuch as the illness thus comes from Him as well as from the creature, what is overruled or counteracted is not the sickness, but the creature's wrong-headed purpose.

(b) The supreme and controlling end of the dispensation of sickness and pain is to promote God's Kingdom and the eternal life of His rational creatures. In particular: in the first place, to defend the natural conditions of our earthly probation from fatal disturbance by ignorance and wrong; secondly, to afford needed stimulus for personal and social effort and social progress, and to develop mutual sympathy and service; thirdly, to make sin bring some immediate and deterring punishment; fourthly, to call individuals either to repentance, to special form of service, or to final earthly duties, which would otherwise be neglected; [137/138] finally, and as lightening the problem of "undeserved" suffering, to complete the perfecting of the righteous by chastening them for their profit that they may be partakers of God's holiness.

(c) The dispensation of suffering has obvious limitations, this being a branch of the wider fact that the creation of a finite moral order, justified though it be by the end in view, involves possibilities of evil which cannot be abolished even by almighty power.

There is first of all, the fact that the part of sinful agents in widening the range of suffering cannot be forestalled, although it can be, and is, made by God to serve as a deterrent of the sins which cause it. Secondly, in a moral world men cannot be compelled to derive from suffering its divinely provided spiritual benefit; but the obstinately hardhearted can be reached by no form of spiritual appeal or discipline. Thirdly, the increase of illness in the world by sin, justly falling on sinners, cannot fail to extend to the righteous; but, as we have seen, God makes it serve in their case for their profit.

Finally there is the beneficent limitation that sickness is not intended of God to outlast its utility; and when its appointed function is fulfilled, He wills its cure. To that end He provides natural remedies, and has instituted the Christian ministry of healing.

Even though a given illness is willed of God to be life-long and "incurable," it has no continuance beyond the grave. It is absent from the final and major part of human existence, serving as a needed and valuable hurdle in the earthly race-course, but being in no sense ultimate. "All things work together for good to them that love God."

I trust that I have made clear in this paper my [138/139] strong belief in the need of a revival of Christian healing, for which, if my arguments are sound, there is an abundant justification in traditional doctrine. The neglect of Christ's charge to His ministers has had evil effect.

But my arguments have been controlled by the belief, based upon careful study, that this revival is being associated with a theoretical propaganda which is one sided and essentially, although in some of its promoters unwittingly, utilitarian and pagan in logic. The premise, in particular, that bodily sickness is always evil in se, and the argument by which it is supported, reflect the influence of an increased sensitiveness of moderns to every form of discomfort and suffering. And this sensitiveness is not due to new light on the problem of pain, but to a vast and rather sudden increase of physical comforts and luxuries, the moral and spiritual bearings of which modern Christians have not yet had time sufficiently to assimilate.

The belief that bodily sickness is evil in se makes patient submission to pain well nigh impossible, and greatly increases the difficulty of belief both in the justice and in the love of God. It is not to be reconciled satisfactorily with the Christian obligation to take up Christ's Cross and follow Him in the way of suffering. It drives out of sight the priceless value of patience under suffering, and caricatures the doctrine of faith in prayer for healing.

A final word on this. In offering petitionary prayer, enlightened and dutiful Christians are mindful of the fact that the answer rightly to be expected is in terms of spiritual welfare, and therefore not always in the terms of the petition. The new teaching, that we must believe not only in God's power to heal, [139/140] but also in His exercising this power whenever we ask Him with sufficient faith, necessarily induces a presumptuous frame of mind. More than that, it endangers faith itself by leading to the inference, when God does not answer our prayer with physical healing, that He has failed us.

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