This is a part of a larger article on God, Suffering, and Evil published by the Gonzaga Socratic Club.
A French journalist once asked Mother Theresa why certain people are destined to suffer so much. Why, she asked, do I not suffer as do those desperately poor and sick people with whom you work? Now, the journalist later admitted that she was fishing for a political answer: she wanted Mother Theresa to say something like "because people living in wealthy countries do not care" or "because governments are not responsible enough." What Mother Theresa actually said, however, was "perhaps you do not suffer as they do because you are not worthy enough." Needless to say, the journalist was left rather puzzled.
To say that Mother Theresa's point of view is not one well understood today is certainly an understatement. The reason why is suggested in Dr. Calhoun's comment that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was a watershed for Christian theological reflection. Why should it have been a watershed? Christendom had seen many large earthquakes and other natural disasters long before the eighteenth century. So, what was so special about Lisbon? What had changed?
The answer, of course, is that the people had changed. Unlike many modern people, Christians of the early church would have found Mother Theresa's understanding of suffering unsurprising and unobjectionable. The idea that suffering is natural and, therefore, good was a commonplace in their world in a way it certainly is not in ours. If one accepts that there is a natural order to reality and that order is good, then natural disasters are not evil and pose no problem. Now, one can, of course, see such a disaster as objectionable with respect to one's desires or expectations. Yet this says nothing about the value of this event in itself. If the earthquake shakes down my house and causes me hardship, I may be unhappy with this and decide to respond by complaint rather than acceptance. The earth itself, however, is simply tectonically doing what the earth does and this is what it is supposed to do. It would not be the earth it is, if it failed to do this. It would not have all that earthly goodness -- good even in limited human experience -- if it violated its nature.
If one lives with a worldview that takes natural order seriously as a reality, then what is experienced by one as suffering is simply part of what should be. If one understands reality as full of purpose, then what is experienced as pain can also be understood as part of a greater good. In such a world, even the disagreeable aspects of something can be part of what we find good in that thing, as when we enjoy the fruits of an achievement for which we have labored. Without the effort of that labor, as painful as it may have been in itself, the fruits would not be nearly as sweet.
By Michael W. Tkacz, associate professor of philosophy and Director of the Institute for Christian Philosophy & the Natural Sciences at Gonzaga University, USA.