(The following is largely a summary of insights gained from PART ONE of Timothy Keller’s Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.)
The Problem of Suffering
In philosophy, the attempt to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering experienced in this world falls under a category called Theodicy. It is, admittedly, an intellectual problem.
Every statement of this problem is a version of the ancient Epicurean version:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” — ‘the Epicurean paradox’.
If God is powerful enough to make us happy, if he’s capable, why doesn’t he just do it? Does he not love us? Does he not want what’s best for us? Does he not want us to be happy?
From a finite human standpoint, this is a problem. It’s a problem for everyone who believes in God. Culturally, many have adjusted by choosing to not believe in God. While this smacks of an attempt at revenge against a God you now believe doesn’t exist, nonetheless, it appears to be an increasingly popular one for young westerners. What’s interesting though is that it doesn’t actually get rid of the problem of suffering. In fact, eliminating God now actually gives you less resource for dealing with the inevitable suffering of life.
Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon who specializes in treating cases of leprosy around the world, has said:
“In the United States … I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.” – Dr. Paul Brand, The Gift of Pain, pg. 12.
Is this true? Are we Americans actually LESS equipped to handle the unavoidable pains of life than many of our less educated, less technologically advanced, less progressive counterparts on the planet?
America is the “Land of Opportunity.” America is the country that teaches children “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up so long as you work hard and put your mind to it.” In other words, America is a country that strongly believes that we are the controllers of our own destiny. In the culminating line of the Back to the Future trilogy, protagonist Marty McFly asks his mentor, the Doc, about events that might cause the future to be altered. And the Doc, enlightened by his many travels, now proclaims, “Marty. The future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one!” That’s American thought in a nutshell. We love it. And we all unavoidably operate, to some extent, with that mentality.
Do you see, however, the problem this presents when suffering arises? If the future is what I create, and the present is misery, that means that the suffering I have before me is not simply a product of a flawed world, but it’s the direct result of me making wrong decisions in the past! This DOUBLE suffering. It’s suffering combined with crippling regret.
Dr. Brand may be on to something – we’re ill-equipped.
Historical Positions on Suffering
The vast majority of the world has historically believed in God/god/gods or at least some notion of higher power/force over mankind. As a result, every culture has been able to make some sense of suffering. For instance…
Hinduism (a form moralism) – Suffering is seen as the result of failing to live rightly. Commonly known as karma, the cosmic scales have tipped against you because of your selfish behavior. If you repent of your bad ways, you will bring forth newer, better life.
Ancient Greek Stoics & Buddhists (a form self-transcendism) – Suffering is largely the result of heightened attachment to the that which is material and transitory. Detach your heart from mere sensory perception and you will find greater happiness.
Ancient Northern Europeans & Muslims (a form fatalism) – Suffering is inevitable. Deal with it by surrendering your will to the fate of an omnipotent, inscrutable God.
Ancient Persian Zoroastrianism & more modern Marxism (dualism) – Suffering is caused by an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil. Sufferers are necessary casualties of a war that is constantly purging evil until good is victorious.
To process all of this suffering, moralistic cultures call sufferers to live differently. Self-transcendent cultures call sufferers to think differently. Fatalistic cultures call sufferers to embrace one’s destiny nobly. And dualistic cultures call sufferers to put one’s hope in the future.
So, how does this differ from modern westerners? Consider the thoughts of biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I’d personally consider one of the top several influencers on American thought today:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. … In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, pgs. 132-133
What, according to Dawkins, is the purpose of suffering? That’s right….there is none. If you find yourself suffering, that means nothing much more than random misfortune. There’s no purpose. There’s no meaning. There’s no silver lining and thus no relief. Try drinking from that cup when your cancer is discovered and see if you find any satisfaction. Even more of a challenge, try explaining this to your child when he/she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. “Sorry. You had some bad luck.”
This reality – western thought’s inability to attach meaning to suffering – does not disprove atheism/agnosticism, nor does it prove theism. It does, undeniably, suggest that Christianity (and for that matter, really any form of theism) provides remarkably greater resources for processing suffering than modern western thought.
In other words, while suffering is indeed a problem for the believer, it is, nonetheless, an even greater problem for the non-believer.
Philosopher Charles Taylor has said that as belief in God has faded from the west, so has a sense of cosmic ordering or meaning to life. In what he calls the western world’s “anthropocentric turn”:
“The sense begins to arise that we can sustain the order [of the world] on our own….Western society’s “highest goal is to … prevent suffering.” –Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pgs. 373-375
That’s the hollow place we find ourselves today. The purpose of life is to prevent suffering. The purpose of life is comfort, feeling good all the time…until we die.
Dawkins says life is meaningless, so be as happy as you can while you’re here, regardless of how that might affect others. He’s a consistent thinker and I applaud him for that. But I challenge you to find me one person, even Dawkins himself on the right occasion, who doesn’t truly sense there has to be more to life than that?
A Uniquely Biblical Approach to Suffering
While you may find Christians on occasion offering “pat answers” about human suffering, you won’t find the Bible doing such a thing. The Bible offers a multifaceted, balanced, remarkably nuanced view of suffering. Some suffering appears to be a direct result of God’s righteous anger over rebellious unbelief (Gen. 19:1-16; Numb. 16:1-20; Acts 5:1-11). Some suffering appears to be corrective chastisement, altering the thoughts, attitudes, hearts, and behavior of God’s people (Jon. 1-2; Gen. 22:1-19; Job 42:1-6). Some suffering appears to come not despite, but directly because of our attachment to Jesus (Matt. 16:24; John 15:18,20; 1 Pet. 4:12-16).
While many Christians are inclined to confidently offer sentiments about suffering, often to alleviate the awkwardness of being in the presence of someone who is suffering, that Christian is often hastily assessing what he/she does not know. Study the wisdom literature of Scripture and you simply will not come to a neat synopsis on the causes of or prescriptions for suffering. Proverbs tends to emphasize the justice of suffering, i.e. that much of our suffering is related to our own wrongdoing. Job and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, specifically cite how much of suffering is not caused by us.
It’s not black and white. It’s not even gray. It’s largely unknowably mysterious.
Consequently, a Christian must be very careful not to arrogantly proclaim why specific suffering has occurred. Even though making sense of suffering is a natural impulse, the confident WHY of suffering is a line that even inspired writers of Scripture learn not to cross.
So the first uniquely biblical teaching on suffering is the claim that no one, except God himself, understands the “whys” of suffering in totality.
Still, while we cannot know why suffering always occurs, what God does reveal to us is what he’s willing to do about it. He comes and suffers with us, and even more than that, for us. Let me say that again so that we don’t too quickly bypass this incredible claim that no other religion dares to purport. Because of his great love for us, God voluntarily suffered…
With us – “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Heb. 2:18), and
For us – “We do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:9)
That’s all you need. See, you and I really don’t need to know why we’re suffering. If we did, would we know how to stop it? For how long? Would we prevent aging entirely? Death?
Ultimately, while it’s a curiosity, it makes little difference why we’re suffering. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. What we really need to know is that our suffering will one day come to an end AND that while we endure it, we won’t have to do it alone. The gospel proudly proclaims that God loves you enough and is powerful enough to do both.
Current American thought is uniquely ill-equipped to deal with suffering. Fortunately, the gospel is uniquely equipped to remedy that.