Do We Suffer as a Result of our Choices from Free Will?

Question: Redemptive suffering: I accept my sufferings and offer them up for specific intentions. I get very lost and confused when I think about free will and suffering. We have a wonderful God that allows us free will. Free will — I can choose what would be God’s will or against — that being sin. I’m hoping I have a correct understanding thus far, maybe not. Where it gets blurry is that I want to do God’s will and I pray about it, but I don’t always know what God’s will is. I understand whatever is in my life, good or bad, God has allowed it — because of my free will? And so sometimes we are suffering as a result of our choices from free will? And then we can offer up those sufferings for specific intentions? But what about suffering as a result of my free will, where I choose wrongly — not intentionally, just that I asked God for His help in making a decision, I prayed about it, I went to Eucharistic adoration about it, I talked to Him about it, but I never “heard” or “felt” Him guide me in the right direction, and the time comes and I have to make a decision (I’m talking about months of prayer and reflection), and that decision results in unhappiness and suffering. Did I go against God’s will and he is allowing me to suffer?

You’re correct that free will means that we can choose to follow God’s law or to disobey it, and that knowingly, freely and intentionally disobeying God’s law is called sin. But that’s a simple explanation for a reality that is never that simple. Sin is more than our specific, individual transgressions of God’s law. It is a power which goes beyond particular actions; it is how we name the brokenness of our world and a way to describe what separates us in this life from complete union with God. Even if you pray fervently and deeply desire to do God’s will, your understanding of God’s will is always imperfect, clouded by the reality of sin. Even the holiest people are limited by our broken world.

It may help to remember that you are not the only one who has free will — everyone else has it, too. That means that sometimes others sin against us, which causes suffering. This certainly does not mean that God wants you to suffer, although it is fair to say that God allows suffering to exist. Suffering is part of the reality of our sinful world, a world that has already been redeemed and yet is still being redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Everything that is rests in God’s hands, and God is capable of using even our darkest moments to draw us closer into loving embrace. We are invited to offer up suffering that we experience through no fault of our own, uniting our travails with the experience of Christ on the cross as a form of prayer for our needs or the needs of others.

It sounds like you might benefit from spiritual direction, especially if you are facing a significant life decision. Another set of ears can sometimes help us listen more deeply for God’s voice. Sometimes the right decision does not lead to happiness, at least not right away; conversely, sometimes the wrong decision appears to make us happy, at least for a time. A trained director can help you to sort out the feelings of consolation or desolation that accompany a decision or an experience. Inquire at your parish for a referral to a qualified spiritual director in your area, who may be able to help you discern where God really wishes to lead you.

Neela Kale

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.