‘God forbid!’: The strange refusal of some Christians to embrace suffering

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One of the strongest rebukes recorded in the gospels is directed at Peter, the rock on whom Christ built his Church. Jesus refers to him as Satan. What does Peter do that provokes Jesus to call him such a strong name? He says to Jesus, “God forbid” that the Lord be rejected and killed in Jerusalem.

And for that, Jesus brutally chastises him: “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me'” (Mt 16:23-24). Jesus humbles Peter, the man who would lead the Church, pointing out the fundamental error of Peter’s judgment and promising the disciples that suffering would come to them all. Jesus makes it clear that accepting the cross is the cost of discipleship.

Today, Christ’s disciples continue to follow Peter’s early example, though, when we tell each other that God does not want us to suffer X or Y. We say:

    • God forbid your cancer will spread.
    • God forbid you will never marry.
    • God forbid you will never bear children.
    • God forbid your child die.
    • God forbid your parish will close.
    • God forbid you lose your job.
    • God forbid your spouse will die young.
    • God forbid you will be the victim of crime.

But of course, followers of Christ have experienced all of those things and more. If our framework is that of the world — Peter’s early framework — then we will continually have crises of faith as terrible things happen to those we love. Christians are not exempt from suffering because we love God, but rather, are asked to embrace the suffering that comes — that will surely come — and to help each other carry the cross. We need to avoid thinking that we know what crosses God would or would not allow a loved one to carry.

Where does it come from?

The desire to say “God forbid” comes from a good place; a compassionate, generous place. We say “God forbid” because we imagine ourselves being given that cross and we find it unbearable. When it comes to things not happening, it is often blessings that we take for granted in our own lives. It is happily married people (not the unhappily married) who say, “God forbid you will never marry.” It is women who have conceived and given birth relatively easily who say “God forbid you will never bear children.” Women who have struggled with infertility or miscarriage don’t say that. The fact that we have received a gift does not mean that the gift is given to everyone. Part of maturing is growing in the consciousness that everything is a gift (or, as St. Thérèse put it, everything is a grace).

We don’t always use the words “God forbid,” of course. Most often, we just say things like, to the single person: “I’m sure you are going to meet someone!”; to the childless: “Don’t worry, I had my last child at 43”; to the friend awaiting a diagnosis: “I’m sure it’s nothing.” To all these comments, Christians have to say (to themselves, not to the well-meaning friend necessarily): “Get behind me, Satan.” People saying those things do not know the future, and neither do you.

God’s knowledge and providence

The gift of Christianity is the firm knowledge that certain things happening or not happening do not change God’s love for us or his plan for our salvation. Christians must accept the cross, and no one knows what cross may be laid on those we love. The cross that each of us receives — tailored exquisitely — is the one meant for us and no one else. This makes accepting it both harder (“Why me?”) and easier (“Why not me?”) — and as Jesus promises, his yoke is easy, his burden light.

I do not think people mean to question God’s will by assuming that God would not let someone suffer in X or Y way; it may be that they just don’t know what else to say. Might I suggest simply not saying anything predictive at all, and remembering that, “The future belongs to God, not to us,” wrote Cistercian Brother Christian de Cherge. “The future is like a tunnel. You can’t see anything inside, and only a fool would expect it to look the same upon exiting as upon entering it.”

A fallen world

Even the popular saying that “God would not give you a desire that he does not intend to fulfill” is, as far as I can tell, nonsense. We live in a fallen world; many good desires go unfulfilled. Many people wanted more children than they were able to have; many people have a heart for ministry or the arts but have to take other jobs to support their families; many people would have liked to be a doctor but could not pass organic chemistry.

None of us can know what may be asked of anyone else by God, and this includes our parents, spouses, children and friends. Lent is a wonderful time to focus our attention on our habits of thought or speech that could line up better with God’s than they currently do. So before we make comments about the future to the people we love, perhaps especially our children, we should make sure those comments focus on the only things that never change: God’s love for them and his plan to save them.

These are the only hopes and prayers we ought to hold on to, and they are always true, no matter what crosses come in the future. If we follow this rule, no one will be able to compare us to the tempter, as Christ did to Peter.

Sara Perla is the communications manager for The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America. She sits on the board of directors for the Gabriel Network.

Sara Perla

Sara Perla is the communications manager for The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America. She sits on the board of directors for the Gabriel Network.