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Jessica Ptomey contemplates what happens when we look for - and find - God's presence amid suffering.

“Life is pain, highness!” replies Wesley with a hardened expression to his sweetheart in The Princess Bride. While the melodramatic exchange between Wesley and his love takes place on-screen within of a comedic fairytale, sincere words of such despondency have been uttered up and down the centuries, from ancient to postmodern times. Life involves great pain, and one does not need to look far for suffering.

I recently heard this sentiment expressed during a conversation between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Conner, of Cosmic Skeptic. Toward the end of their moderated discussion, titled “Christianity or Atheism?”, Alex made the comment that suffering — not evidence of God — was the most obvious phenomenon in our experience of the world. For that reason, he said that you had to start with the question of suffering, from which he has not found a path to evidence that God exists. Bishop Barron disagreed with that metaphysical starting point, explaining that there are various problematic philosophical conclusions to which it might lead.

However, aside from this philosophical line of argument, which is most important to such a discussion, there begs a vital experiential question — is suffering actually more observable than the presence of God? It is to the perception of this atheist; and, in fact, he is arguing that such a conclusion is objectively true. What would a Christian say? A Catholic? The question stayed in my mind for quite a while after viewing this discussion.

What would most people’s experiential knowledge reveal? Do people in general experience suffering more frequently than they experience the presence of God? Is the experience different for the average person who believes in God? Other than saints like Catherine of Siena who spent regular hours a day in ecstasy, would most Catholics agree with Alex O’Conner that they feel the presence of suffering more often than they do the presence of God?

metal cross viewed from below with grass in the foreground

About the same time, I was reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom with my Well-Read Mom book club. Corrie wrote in that autobiography of her horrific experiences with her sister Betsie in Nazi prison and extermination camps after their arrest for hiding Jews and participating in the underground opposition to the Nazi party in occupied Holland. If we want to talk about suffering, we don’t get worse than Nazi atrocities. So, with this question fresh in my mind, I asked it of Corrie and Betsie as I read their incredible story. Did these women experience the presence of human suffering to a greater degree than they experienced the presence of God? No. Shockingly, No! I don’t think a reader could come away from Corrie’s account with any other honest conclusion. These women witnessed God at work in the midst of the worst kind of human pain.

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If we look for God in all the pain, both small and great, perhaps we will discover that He is more present than the pain. #catholicmom

But why this discrepancy of the human experience? Why does Alex O’Conner (and others with him) have one experience and the Ten Boom sisters (and others with them) have another perception? I certainly can’t draw universal conclusions about people’s personal experiences (or lack thereof) of God; nor can I make theological claims for why God seems to make himself known to some and not to others. But I can look at Corrie and Bestie’s experience and draw one conclusion quite confidently for myself. They looked with eyes of faith for God to be present in their suffering, and they saw Him.

If we start with the expectation that suffering is meaningless and devoid of God’s presence, then not only will we continually seek to avoid it, we certainly won’t look for God in it. And if we are not looking for Him, I doubt highly that we will see Him. What I saw over and over in the Ten Boom’s story, and what I see continually in similar accounts of so many faithful Christians, is that they look for God in all circumstances, especially in suffering.

If “life is pain,” and we are averse to looking for God in it, then perhaps we modern Catholics may come to the same conclusion that pain is more present in our world than God. But if we look for God in all the pain, both small and great, that we are sure to experience in this life, perhaps we will discover to our astonishment that He is more present than the pain.


Copyright 2021 Jessica Ptomey
Image: Allef Vinicius (2016), Unsplash