Into God’s Light | Powerlessness: Why is there evil and suffering? How can I make a difference? - Seton Shrine
Into God’s Light | Powerlessness: Why is there evil and suffering? How can I make a difference?

Into God’s Light | Powerlessness: Why is there evil and suffering? How can I make a difference?

Week Seven | An Easter reflection series with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on the spiritual and mental health crisis afflicting young people.

Click here to read the Introduction to Into God’s Light.

I am seventeen, living for the summer in a mountain village in Honduras. This country is recovering from a brief but deadly war with neighboring El Salvador, and refugees from the border have been passing through Güinope ever since we set up shop in an abandoned, two-room clinic at the edge of town.

Sue and I are high school volunteers, here to give inoculations for a myriad of childhood diseases—measles, mumps, whooping cough, smallpox. We’re excited but also filled with dread. Among these hard-working Central American subsistence farmers, we can’t help but stand out—two idealistic “gringitas” who think they can save the world.

One morning a woman appears at our door. She’s wearing a tattered dress, her feet are coated with mud, and in her arms is a bundle of filthy rags. We invite her in; shyly, she sets the bundle down on our table. Inside is a silent, wizened creature with sunken eyes, sharp cheekbones, and clenched hands that look more birdlike than human.

The mother murmurs that her baby needs help. Dehydrated by relentless dysentery, the child is also clearly starving to death. Sue and I decide to employ one of the desperation measures we were shown during training: a dropperful of warm sugar water between the baby’s lips every fifteen minutes. We keep to this schedule throughout the day, and her color starts to improve a bit. When the mother returns from the fields to pick her up, we send the two of them off with a clean blanket, a couple of unused droppers, and a packet full of sugar. But it’s impossible to tell whether the little one will survive. Everything seem stacked against her.

That night as I lie awake on my aluminum cot in this silent adobe clinic thousands of miles from home, I feel something inside me starting to die. By morning, I realize what has happened: I no longer believe in God.

Up until this summer in Honduras, I have never questioned my faith. But never have I been this close to suffering before. If this is what life is really like—filled with the undeserved pain of innocent people—then how can I believe in the all-powerful, all-good God I’ve been praying to for years?

With this awful thought comes an image of myself, all alone in a small boat in the middle of a vast ocean, completely powerless to change a thing.


If there is a predominant narrative among Gen Zers today, it is a different version of the one I embraced at seventeen: the apocalypse is nigh, and nobody, especially some nebulous divinity that people once called “God,” is coming to the rescue. Worse, the end could arrive in a number of equally horrifying ways: climate collapse, a more virulent global pandemic, nuclear terrorism, AI run amok.

While these dire scenarios also haunt the dreams of many of their parents and grandparents, the effect is more devastating for young people than it is for their elders, who built normal adult lives when the rules of the game were different.

If Gen Z’s view of reality is accurate, then “normal” life has become a luxury no longer available to them. And so they swing between anger at those who invented the Frankensteinian technology that now threatens their very existence, and depressive fatalism that says there is absolutely nothing they can do to save either themselves or the planet.

When we lose our sense of agency, we lose basic self-confidence, including the critical belief that even though we may not have a lot of control over our circumstances, we always have choices about how we will respond. If we see ourselves as helpless, we invariably stop taking life seriously, for why should we expend our efforts on anything? We procrastinate, we obsessively distract ourselves with various forms of entertainment, we act impulsively rather than deliberately. What is the point of deliberating about what to do if the outcome is foreordained?


Though the cultural narrative in Elizabeth Seton’s day was quite different than it is for today’s young people—not only was an all-powerful, all-good God still present, but most everyone assumed the whole world lay safely in his hands—Elizabeth understood what it is like to feel powerlessness.

She is twenty-nine and the mother of five small children when she sails with her desperately ill husband and their eight-year-old daughter to Italy. She hopes that there, in the warm Italian climate, he can find relief for his advanced tuberculosis. Yet there is no relief to be had; with fears of yellow fever running rampant, the coughing, shaking William is immediately red-flagged and the little family is hustled off to a lazaretto—an old stone fortress facing the sea, where sick arrivals are sent for thirty days before they are allowed to enter the country.

Imprisoned in this bare room with nothing but three mattresses on the floor, Elizabeth quickly realizes that William will not survive. She writes, “My Husband on the old bricks without fire, shivering and groaning lifting his dim and sorrowful eyes with a fixed gaze in my face while his tears ran on his pillow without one word.”

Though the cold reality of their circumstances has almost completely stripped Elizabeth of her sense of agency, she can still make a critical choice. She can collapse into despairing resignation, or she can do her best to withstand the terrible circumstances in which she finds herself.

She chooses to stand firm. But she can only do so with the help of an all-powerful, all-good God who knows exactly what is going on inside this chilly stone fortress and who has promised to never leave her, whether or not she can feel his presence.

That night, by flickering candlelight, Elizabeth puts her plan of action into a few simple words: “God is our all indeed. My eyes smart so much with crying, wind and fatigue that I must close them and lift up my heart.” And once she has done so, all else becomes clear: no matter what happens or how hard it gets or how long it takes, with God’s help she will devote herself completely to her dying husband’s care.


As the days go by and Christ’s disciples wait in the Upper Room in Jerusalem for whatever is meant to happen next, some of them no doubt feel powerless. Despite their experience of the risen Jesus, they still remember how he died.

After all, they could do nothing to stop the arrest of their beloved Teacher. They could not prevent the humiliations he had to undergo at the hands of the soldiers and the crowd. They certainly could not prevent his terrible crucifixion. And no matter how much they might be chafing at this extended pause in the story, they cannot force the next chapter in Jesus’ strange saga to begin until the time has arrived. They can only wait in patience and in faith.

Then, one day, it all begins to happen: “And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2: 2-4).


If I’d felt powerless to save the world at seventeen, I still banked on being able to call the shots in my personal life. By my mid-twenties, I was beginning to have my doubts about that. But it took the months-long hospitalization of my little daughter, followed by the collapse of my marriage, for me to finally start getting it: we don’t have nearly the power over life that we think we do. What brought me to my knees and back to faith at forty was a third great blow: the sudden death of my beloved father. He was way too young. I’d planned on his being there—gentle, wise, full of love for me and his grandkids—for decades to come. The plain fact was, I could not control much of anything at all.

What I could do was open my hands in acceptance. What I could do was once again put my trust in the unwavering love of an all-powerful, all-good God—a God who does not organize the world in such a way that nobody suffers, but who, in the midst of our sufferings, never lets us from his sight.

What I could do was place my faith, as the anguished young poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in his famous poem “God’s Grandeur,” in the notion that far beneath the frenetic, baffling, and often painful surface of life “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

For in spite of global pandemics, nuclear terrorism, climate change, and the looming specter of AI, morning always comes. And as dawn begins to break each day across our beautiful, disaster-scarred planet, “the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

To learn more about this series of seven Easter reflections click here.

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.