Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.


He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

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14 thoughts on “Does God get off on seeing us suffer?”

  1. Ummmmmmmmmmm…..yeah, well, you must be unfamiliar with St. Thomas Aquinas and his description of God and the saints enjoying the damnation of the wicked. Or the many visions (gleefully related by Traddie Catholics on Facebook) of the saints in which they describe hell in the most ghastly of terms. Methinks I hear in their descriptions an almost certain delight in the wicked “getting theirs.”

    The whole of Western theology becomes more and more confusing to me the older I get.

  2. >>That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading.

    While I agree to the rest of the thing, I should venture to say that the statement in question is not even technically true.

    Sunday Mass is an obligation; not having to go to Sunday Mass is an exception with a reason for it.

    Using NFP to avoid pregnancy is *not*, simply is *not*, in the same way an exception as far as the use of marriage is concerned. That was sometimes held prior to Humanae vitae; but the more consequent people in this direction said [until a contrary statement by Pope Ven. Pius XII] that NFP was just as forbidden as contraception. (It is perhaps worth noting that at least for the safe fertility-preventer of total abstinence, as long as agreed to by both partners and not leading to a danger of temptation, *none* of the parties to that discussion even thought of suggesting it was in any way sinful.) But whatever the “probability” (to use the technical term) of these opinions in the 1950s, Humanae vitae quashed them, quashed them both, and quashed them rightly.

    If God had wanted us to get pregnant each time we have sex, he could have made it this way.

    Whence Humanae vitae (16): The Church is true to her teaching when she holds, on the one hand, the spouses’ resort to conception-free times to be allowed and, on the other hand, condemns the use of directly contraceptive means as ever disallowed […] In fact we are talking about two entirely different actions here: In case of the first the spouses make lawful use of a possibility given by nature […]

    In the light of this, it is not possible to read the “just causes” demanded in the same paragraph as even one shade more than, well, just causes. Think of it as said by an Italian. We non-Italians tend to associate, by instinct, that when someone says “you need a just cause” he means something really really pressing. But in the Church’s language, “just cause” means “a cause not unjust”. The Church’s law e. g. says that a priest must not say Mass without a server except for a just reason. The indisputed interpretation of this says that wishing to say one’s daily Mass combined with the fact that no server is present (and it is not entirely simple to just call one) is *already* a just cause.

    For the other thing, there is a different technical term, called a “grave necessity”.

    *yes*, it would be wrong to use NFP out of hatred to children, explicit and deliberate refusal to propagate the race of mankind, or Materialist egoism of the crassest sort. Also in perhaps a couple of cases, though I guess not in every case, to force one’s spouse to NFP when he or she would disagree and want to have a child.

    But *short of that*,
    using NFP to avoid pregnancy is quite allowed, not only in the grave necessities by consideration of other people (as rightly claimed in the article) allow it, but also, e. g.,

    * thinking that one’s work in having a decent number of children is, already, done,
    * wishing to “settle” in the sense of reaching a higher Level of Job security, first (at least if the fertility time is not running out),
    * and yes, also the thought that raising children costs time, money and effort and thus, after a couple of them, one prefers some moderate comforts for oneselves and the children present.

    Is it *meritful* to get another child even in spite of such thinking?

    In general *yes*; but it belongs to the happy realm of what St. Paul calls joyful giving. You can do it or not do it, without sinning either way. It’s a worthy sacrifice you can make or not make.

    (I think many Problems, even of the “second category”, would be solved if only people remembered that there is not always precisely *one* moral path which has to be found out and followed, and that if someone does the *better’* thing, it doesn’t mean someone else who doesn’t has acted *badly*.)

  3. I also think there is this idea that if you have another baby that will somehow bring the graces to fix other problems. Like the “every baby is born with a loaf of bread under it’s arm” but for emotions . Unfortunately I had to experience that this isn’t true. There are really limits to what you can take on as a family.

  4. This is perfect. I saw that meme too and couldn’t believe it. One thing that might be helpful to keep in mind is that children are a gift, not a right. This is a teaching usually thrown at infertile people, but it applies to fertile people too! Just because you physically can conceive, and God cooperates with normal human biology and allows the conception to occur when you have sex, doesn’t mean you SHOULD have done it. We are specifically told by the Church to plan our families responsibly.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful post. My husband and I have discerned that the child I’m currently carrying–our third–will be our last. There were many grave reasons why, but a big one was the terrible toll that each pregnancy has taken on our family and marriage. Between the HG and depression (which goes untreated during the pregnancy, because– HG), our marriage has been left badly damaged.

    I have to remind myself that my vocation was not to pregnancy, but to marriage (and the resulting motherhood).

  6. Things really do get easier once the fertility diminishes to the point where you are pretty sure that you won’t be having any more children . It’s quite a relief to be blunt. When I had my last two late losses, we kind of went out on a limb and decided not to use NFP at all. It was a little bit irrational (fueled by the emotions of loss) –but if we hadn’t done that we would still be burdened with worrying and thinking we needed to abstain every month. The last four or so pregnancies were very brief. It was a bit sad, but the faint second line on the test, when it shouldn’t have been faint pretty much prepared our hearts for what would happen. It’s a little bit strange because the only difference now is a 27 day cycle, and no more positive tests. Everything else seems the same. It makes me wonder if there are still pregnancies but not enough of the right hormones to get to a faint positive on a test.

    It also makes me wonder if after a life time of marriage women discover they have dozens of children in heaven that they never knew about.

  7. I’m a young mama with two kids, 4 and almost 2. My deepest desire is to have more children. However, in both my pregnancies and postpartum recovery, my husband suffered severe depression which took a terrible toll on our relationship. We’ve had a little therapy but some wounds are not yet fully healed. It took me a long time to accept his physical, mental and spiritual limitations and let go of MY desire and MY Catholic guilt. I have been learning that while children are the greatest good of marriage, the measure of your love for God (and your spouse) is not directly tied to how many babies you can pop out (despite how much this is hammered into the minds of young Catholic couples). Pursuing marital healing, mental health, emotional well being is, at least for now, more important than the number of people in our family.

    1. My husband also suffers from clinical depression, and has for as long as I have known him (we met in college). Sometimes things are good for him, sometimes not so much, even with medication and therapy. I’ve had postpartum depression, too, and our oldest child also began to suffer from depression at about age 12. Thanks be to God, we found good care for her and she has been able to thrive through her teen years–no suicide attempts, no self-harm, no acting out with drugs or sex. She’s about to graduate from high school and is looking forward to college!

      We have five children and I wish we were psychologically resilient enough to have more, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible before we get too old! (Also, I have some physical issues that make it difficult.)

      I’m trying to say I hear you, and I sympathize. It’s very hard dealing with depression as a family, but when I look back I see so many blessings and so many happy times even in spite of our troubles. I think it is important to accept some psychological limitations just as you would physical ones, and know when to go easy on yourself (and your family). At the same time, it’s worth stretching a bit for what’s truly valuable: my husband and I have certainly taken on some challenges we would never have chosen for ourselves for the sake of our kids, and mostly it works out.

      I pray that your family will be blessed, and enjoy greater health through God’s care, and that you will be blessed with more children when the time is right.

  8. This is such a needed word in the NFP using Catholic world. I am trying to think of God as my Father who wants to see me be fruitful (which may include suffering as part of my deeds and choices aimed towards doing good) but does not want to see me choose despondency or grim resignation as we are on the journey of growing and raising our family. Thank you, Simcha.

  9. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. When I read a similar point in your book, it provided me with so much comfort. Like many other couples, we have had our share of struggles: multiple miscarriages, post-partum depression, physical complications, etc.. However, even though my husband and I were always in agreement, the times that we needed to postpone pregnancies I felt such guilt. Since reading this point in your book, I have had more peace both when we needed to postpone pregnancy and when we have been able to welcome more children because we have considered our whole family and our complete circumstances. Thank you!

  10. “We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out… don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God.”
    This is something I have to remind myself of over and over again. Thank you, Simcha.

  11. Hmm… I’ve had similar thoughts about various penances…at some point, i am inflicting penance on those around me. A couple of small examples…I can drink my coffee black as a small penance. It affects no one but me. Or I can give up coffee, suffer a migraine and exhaustion for several days, and inflict my crabby self on those around me (yes, I’ve done it. Yes, it’s that bad.) I can give up evening computer time and have time for more prayer. Or I can give up sleep and inflict my sleep-deprived self on everyone the next day. I guess if I was saintly enough I could suffer sweetly and quietly and not let those things affect my behavior. But I am not.

    1. YES! My husband has said that very thing to me when I didn’t want to take medication for a headache or some other pain that I can’t endure without being terrible to everyone. “Don’t make us suffer for your headache!”

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