In a world perpetually enveloped in crisis, plagued by violence, and haunted by sickness and pain of all kinds, people cry two common questions: “Where is God?” and “Why me?” Whether the hurt is trivial (a paper cut) or serious (a cancer diagnosis or damage from a flood or a wildfire) people want to know a reason for their suffering and—perhaps more importantly—to understand its meaning.
In his message for the Church’s first World Day of the Sick, St. John Paul II—himself intimately familiar with personal suffering—said: “Your sufferings, accepted and borne with unshakable faith, when joined to those of Christ take on extraordinary value for the life of the Church and the good of humanity.”
Additionally, the Bible provides several answers to the “why me?” query. Suffering may be justice for foolish or sinful behavior. Suffering may be a discipline, an experience from which we can learn and become better. Suffering may be for the benefit of others. Or suffering may be mysterious at best or meaningless at worst.
Suffering is a universal human experience. Yet when we suffer, we often feel isolated and alienated. The Old Testament lament psalms can help suffering persons break free of their loneliness.
Psalm 3, a good example of a lament, begins with a complaint: “How many are my foes, Lord! / How many rise against me!” In later verses, we read a confession of faith in God: “But you, Lord, are a shield around me,” and a profession of trust: “I lie down and I fall asleep, / [and] I will wake up, for the Lord sustains me.” Next is a petition: “Arise, Lord! Save me, my God!” Finally, there is a kind of thanksgiving: “Salvation is from the Lord! May your blessing be upon your people!” (Psalm 3:2–9).
According to Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, the last words of Jesus were from a lament: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:2). To absorb the full meaning of our Lord’s words, it is necessary to read the entire psalm, which ends on a note of vindication and celebration.
The biblical laments can help sufferers recognize they are not alone but stand in a long tradition of suffering people. These psalms allow sufferers to address God directly, to shake off their personal and religious inhibitions, and to express their feelings of pain, fear, and confusion. Also, the laments can help sufferers articulate the questions that their pain raises: Why am I suffering? Does it have any meaning? Where is God?
The laments may be the Bible’s most important contribution to questions surrounding the issue of suffering and meaning. May we also accept the admonition Pope Francis related to the youth of Poland in his Way of the Cross address to the Young People in Krakow in 2016: “In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service.”
Adapted from “Why Me? Scriptural Answers to Suffering and Its Meaning,” Daniel J. Harrington, SJ
(Catholic Update, September 2021). Catholic Update, a full-color, four-page newsletter, presents contemporary topics using everyday language to help connect Church teaching and current topics to your everyday faith life.