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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S.September 7, 20185 min read

Suffering, Stephen Colbert, and the California Wildfires

Can suffering be a gift? Some people think so.

“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

This is not a quote from the Book of Job, but from JRR Tolkien, quoted in turn by Late Night Show host, Stephen Colbert, in an interview with GQ:

“Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. ‘So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.’”

He said this in the context of explaining how he could be so joyful and positive when he had suffered an incredible loss early in life--the death of his father and two closest brothers.

Most of us are troubled by what seems an unanswerable charge against God. Why is there suffering in the world? And is it a punishment?

NO Easy Answer

There is no easy answer when you are suffering. But there is an answer even if it is a hard one and comes at a price.

The textbook answer for a Christian is an explanation: that suffering is a result of sin, first the sin of Adam and Eve and all the subsequent free will choices made by their progeny since the Fall.

God created us with free will. Unless we want to be robots, space has to exist for us to make choices –we must be equally free to make bad, selfish, malicious choices, or good, loving, positive ones. The negative choices manifest themselves, sooner or later, in a mess and a heap of debris that buries us and others.

And yet the Easter cry ‘O happy fault…’ is shouted with pious exuberance every year, but must strike a discordant note in the hearts of any who reject the idea that suffering can be “good.”

Even the reminder in the words of St. Paul, “We know that all things work for the good of those who love Him,” can strain against the pounding waves of grief when you are drowning under them.

There are deep theological waters to swim in here.

Despite the “answer”, the human desire for happiness still pokes its head around the corner shouting, “But what about me?”

“I can’t tell if it’s killing me or making me stronger.”

Can we suffer and be happy? The answer is: it depends.

It depends on how you answer some questions.

Do you view suffering as punishment or a kind of defeat? Or are you willing to put up with some temporary discomfort--physical, emotional, psychological--to achieve a long term goal? For the sake of another person? For the sake of your workplace, community, country? Do you have the good habits that would even make that possible? Or an understanding of the goal and purpose of your life that could make sense of that?

What does happiness mean to you? What kinds of things, conditions, circumstances define happiness for you? Is it about feeling happy or being happy? What kind of living will produce lasting happiness? Have you ever thought about it clearly? And the ultimate question: is it all about you?

(Fr. Spitzer has developed some excellent resources to help you answer these questions and map out a path to transform your life. See especially pp. 19/20 of the Activities pages)

What do the California wildfires have to do with all of this?

The California wildfires have been raging for weeks. Although not as devastating as those of 2017, the current fires’ impact, both environmentally and on the lives and health of the valiant firefighters and others, cannot be minimized.  

There are also reports of dramatic sunsets enhanced by the drifting clouds of smoke and ash.

sun sets in sky filled with smoke from wildfires

What an analogy for suffering! A wildfire causes real time pain, devastation, a need for perseverance and sheer hard work, but with time and distance, it can create beautiful effects in unexpected ways.

Steven Colbert said it was his mother’s example--she was broken but not bitter--that showed him the way to move forward:

[S]he drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. (emphasis added)

So there it is: we can learn how to suffer well through the example and support of others. What Colbert also learned through his mother’s example was clear: the meaning and significance of suffering is bound up with the transcendent, the sacred Other and the otherness of eternity calling to the human soul.

Christians link this to the idea that all our suffering can be united to Jesus who provided the ultimate witness to the value of suffering. And if we are unsettled by having to live with the consequences of freedom and sin, let’s remember the mystery of sin pales in comparison to the mystery of God's love.

His Love is like the desert...vast, beautiful, terrifying in its fierceness. Why does He pursue us so relentlessly? Why such a violent profession of His Love on the cross? It inspires fear and awe but of a reverent kind. And yet even seen in all Its vehemence, a recognition of God’s love can bring peace and serenity though storms arise and chasms open before our feet.

It is glorious and frightening and life-giving all at once.

Yet the pat and pious answer embraced too quickly offers little consolation when you are engulfed in pain.

Suffering is meant to bring us up short, to stop us in our tracks, to remind us there are things we cannot see clearly or understand fully. It humbles us. And if we are to believe St. Paul, it is when we are weakest and most vulnerable that we are strong.

We must choose –because we are free--to embrace all that suffering means in the darkness of our pain and face the pounding waves of grief as we wait for the dawn.

People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But he asks you to trust him." - Saint John Paul II


Maggie Ciskanik, M.S.

Armed with a B.A. in Philosophy and a minor in science, Ciskanik landed in a graduate nursing program. With the support of her enthusiastic husband, an interesting career unfolded while the family grew: a seven year stint mostly as a neurology nurse, 15 years as a homeschooling mom of six, and a six year sojourn as curriculum developer and HS science teacher (which included teaching students with cognitive differences). These experiences added fuel to her lifelong interest in all things related to God’s creation and the flourishing of the human spirit—which has found a new home on the Magis blog.