Sunday Meditations: Suffering

Dr. Benjamin Corey is going through some very hard times right now.  As a long time reader of his blog, I know it’s unusual for him to open up so directly about his current life events, and it’s a really bad time for everyone concerned.

Whenever these things happen, especially if children are involved, Christians have to struggle with God’s relationship to suffering.  Peter Enns often reflects in his blog on the reconciliation of our ideas of God and trust in God with the reality of suffering and tragedy.  He wrote some time ago (I can’t find the post – sorry) about a couple of instances in his area where tree branches just fell on someone, at least one was a child if I remember correctly, and killed them, which to our minds almost looks like a direct intervention.

This is a problem for everyone, and if it isn’t or has never been a problem for you, then I would gently offer that you might not have suffered enough.  It seems like we all run across that event, whether it happens to us or another, where we have trouble reconciling the event with a loving, powerful God.

In making sense of this, Christians tend to fall into one of two camps, assuming they don’t just give up the God thing altogether:

  1. God has purposes for our suffering; we just don’t always understand it.  Romans 8:28 is sometimes quoted, here.
  2. God loves us too much to violate free will, and therefore cannot stop the horrific choices people make.

I have to admit that both of these leave me wanting to some extent or another.

Perhaps by default, I tend to gravitate toward that first option (even though Romans 8:28 really has very little to do with suffering in general).  I am not a Taoist, but one thing the Tao Te Ching teaches is that we should refrain from labeling situations “good” or “bad” because we don’t know all the variables and outcomes necessary to make that judgement.  If I twist my ankle while I’m running, we’d say that was bad, but if we knew my slower pace kept me from running across an intersection at the same time someone was careening down the road texting their friend, we’d say it was good.  There is no way to know all these things.  We don’t know what horrors await a person or the world in general if the things we think of as bad didn’t happen.

But on the other hand, there are plenty of situations where it is really, really difficult to imagine what possible outcome would have been worth the suffering or, more to the point, would justify a volitional being allowing or causing that suffering.  It’s one thing to say that my suffering improved me in some way – that’s finding the good in a bad situation.  It’s quite another thing to say a loving being who could have prevented the bad thing in the first place allowed it or caused it for the “payoff” of my improvement.

Parents may let their children make mistakes with consequences, or they may discipline them to produce growth, etc., but there’s a sort of payoff limit.  Ben uses the example that a parent wouldn’t cripple a child for life just so they would develop strength of character and their relationship would be stronger.  You get into a certain range of events, and even though I acknowledge we can’t know all the outcomes of the great webs of cause and effect, it’s hard to imagine what kind of benefit could possibly justify a willing being’s assent or even causation of some kinds of suffering.  If a child dies in intense pain in a Syrian hospital because she was caught in a bomb blast that killed the rest of her family, it’s just really hard to acknowledge that there might be some good that was worth that.

Option 2 leaves me a little flat as well, though, because it sort of questions God’s character in the other direction.  There are certain kinds of evil and suffering where you wonder if “letting free will go unimpinged” was really the most loving thing that could happen.  If a little girl is molested by a next door neighbor, it is really hard to envision the most loving thing God could do is nothing because of the all-important free agency of man.

To return to parent analogies, a parent who never imposes on their child’s free agency is what we call a bad parent.  You do let a child make their own decisions and mistakes with consequences, but you also have a limit based on the capacity of the child and the severity of the consequence.  You might let them try to climb a small fence knowing that the worst that could happen is a skinned knee, but you’d probably stop them if the fence were electrocuted.  If you didn’t, no court in the world would let you off with the defense that you loved your child so much that you didn’t want to impinge on his free agency.  It seems even from our own experience that, at least in some cases, violating someone’s free agency is actually the most loving thing to do.

The other problem with Option 2 is that it only covers situations where free agency plays a factor.  What about floods and earthquakes?  What about falling tree branches?  What about disease?  The only free agency at stake in those situations is the victims’, and one would think they’d prefer not to have those experiences.  So, Option 2, even if it were true,  doesn’t really solve the problem.

So, where does that leave us?  I can only speak to where it leaves me.

I think it is no surprise to God that, when we take the biblical testimonies about His people’s experiences with Him (which were written by them in the ways that made sense to them), and when we couple it with our own experience, problems and uncertainties arise.  And rather than dispel those uncertainties, He asks, “Do you trust me?”

Because that’s what it ultimately comes down to, isn’t it?  Do I trust my ability to understand the Bible?  Do I trust that the authors always interpreted their experience correctly?  Do I trust my philosophical abilities to free God from every possible critique or accusation based on theodicy?  Do I trust the consistency of western, Aristotelian logic?

Or do I trust God?

Maybe I just have to come to that dark, silent, and still place that was God’s original state and go, “I don’t know why all this shit happens.  I don’t know if it’s a matter of can’t or won’t or random effects of a fallen world or unforeseen goodness or whatever.  Maybe every situation is different, or maybe none of those are ever the case.  What I do know is that God has a dream for the world and Jesus, who went around loving and healing and forgiving and restoring, is the clearest picture of what God wants.  I am on board with that project, and I am on board with the God who wants that for His creation.  I trust where He’s going with all this; I trust that He hates the things that plague the world; I trust that He hates the evil we do to one another.  I don’t know why sometimes people get away with it and why sometimes they don’t.  I don’t know why sometimes someone escapes suffering while other times someone is buried in it.  Nobody ever said that I needed to know that or that I get to know that or that I have a right to know that.  Do I trust God even in the middle of this cloud?  Yes, I do.”

I admit that is a very thin cloak against the experiential reality of suffering, and the times in my life that have been the most grievous, I would not appreciate someone saying this to me.  It’s not the kind of thing that really offers comfort or assurance.  But it may be the kind of thing that keeps me in this relationship for the long haul.

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