Why does a loving God permit pain?

(Unsplash / Ben White)

My biggest regret? Never finding an answer to the big question.

If God really is our Abba-Father, our “loving Daddy,” how can God allow his children to starve, to be abused, to suffer from terminal illnesses? Who hasn’t asked this big question: “Why does God permit pain and suffering when God could easily end pain and suffering?”

Theological explanations include the concept of original sin, Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and free will. And yet these theological theories bring no peace while reading a newspaper filled with war, cruelty, desolation. My devout Catholic mother confidently advises prayer and reflection as a means of clarity. It took me a long time to realize what that means.

About 40 years ago, I remember praying, pleading, begging, tearfully imploring God for a miracle.

I had joined fellow high school graduates for the traditional senior week at the Jersey Shore — what’s not to love about that?

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Day one, I lay 12 hours on the hot, burning sand and returned to the hotel feeling sick. The next morning, I woke up bloated, blistered, nauseous and weak. Friends administered cold creams, moisturizers, baby oil, even Vaseline on the burns. Unfortunately, the sharing from various jars infected the open blisters.

In about two months, my face exploded with six to seven large red welts — just in time for freshman year at college. Our family doctor recommended slicing into the sores to relieve the ever-swelling facial pus-bags. I asked him, “Won’t that leave scars all over my face?”

“Yes,” he said.

As I rushed out of the office, sobbing, Mom promised me, “We’ll get this fixed.” Sure enough, she did her research and found a well-regarded dermatologist at a teaching hospital. The following four years, every Saturday, week after week, Mom and I would visit the dermatologist’s. Painful facial injections of Retin-A were applied to the huge, discolored open sores. Yes, it’s as disgusting as it sounds.

Fortunately, I attended a private women’s Catholic college. The small environment, daily visits to chapel and a spiritual director provided comfort. I embraced the spiritual foundation program, enmeshed in continual prayer: prayers of petition (“Please, fix my face!”), prayers of bargaining (“If you fix my face, I’ll spend the rest of my life doing good works!”), prayers of pity (“God, you are not listening to me.”)

I spent my college years in the library completing work-study hours and at weekly dermatologist visits. Summers between semesters were spent working as a file clerk in center city. Every morning, I joined the working world on the 13 trolley. The trolley ride was pleasant enough, but the continual oozing, pus-filled facial sores made passengers stare. Understandably, people were concerned about the spread of infection. I had to hold tissues to my face when the sores seeped guck.

Many, many, many mornings, when the sores were especially active, I just wanted hide in my room. Mom’s advice: “This is a life choice you need to make. It won’t be the first difficult experience for you. You can sit in your room, mope, be unproductive, or you can get over yourself, go to work and make a salary for your college tuition. Pray to God for strength to endure this cross.”

Best. Advice. Ever. Pity wouldn’t do any good. I didn’t stay home. I sucked it up — and continued to pray for a miracle. The cliché “Time heals all wounds” had truth. In about four years, the abrasions healed and faded, just in time for job interviews.

But now, when I look back on the quality of my prayer, I am embarrassed. Then I remind myself that I was young. A 20-year-old’s depth of prayer for a miracle, while self-serving and myopic, is still a testament of belief in God. My biggest mistake confused spirituality and religion. One can be religious without an ounce of spirituality. No matter how many rosaries I recited, my sores weren’t going to magically dissolve in an instant.

One can also be spiritual without much religion. Eventually, I came to see my experience with the eye of my soul. I began to realize that the suffering I felt with a facial disfigurement was nurturing in me a sincere empathy toward others in pain — greater or lesser, it made no difference.

“Why does a loving God permit pain?” I can honestly say, for the life of me, I don’t know. But I sincerely thank God for answering my prayers in an unexpected way 40 years ago. Maybe in 1978, I couldn’t see the wisdom of a loving God providing me with a wise mom’s advice to get over myself. Surely in 1978, God gifted me with the grace to transcend a painful experience and evolve into a more compassionate person. My pain, upon reflection, became my biggest opportunity for growth.

No, I don’t have a big answer to the big question. I can give testament, however, that what seemed like endless pain at the time was really an eternal blessing.

[Maryanne J. Kane received her doctorate from Temple University in music education and teaches music on the elementary level. She has written essays in Catholic Philly and Newsweek.]

This story appeared in the Feb 24-March 9, 2017 print issue.

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