This post has been coming a long time. It started as a conversation with an atheist friend of mine. It is therefore rather philosophical in nature. Suffering and hope has become a bit of a theme in my life. It is very necessary to write it down and share, but I am sure there is a lot more to this.
Why would a good God sit by and allow suffering? This is also known as “the problem of pain” or theodicy. Before we answer this question, there is a very simple solution to this problem: god doesn’t exist. Or God is not good. For me this won’t do. I do believe in God and I do believe that He is good. I believe it in the deepest fiber of my being, and I believe it in the midst of the contradiction of it all. I needed to explore this idea.
There are broadly speaking two answers to this question. The first is that suffering is good for us. That God uses it to shape us. This view is dominant in the early church. Think of Paul saying things like “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Rom 5:3,4) Most people would agree that their suffering formed them and although they don’t want to go through it again, they don’t want to go without in their past. But there is something unsettling about this idea: God looking at our suffering and purposefully not intervening, because it is good for us. It doesn’t sound like a loving father, it sounds cruel. It also doesn’t begin to answer questions about suffering leading to death for the individual involved.
Today a much more dominant view is one on freewill. That God allows suffering, because if He interferes with it, He interferes with our freewill. This is of course in line with evangelical thinking. I think part of the reason this idea is popular today is simply because it is opposed to the more traditional view. The big problem with this, of course, is that no one chooses suffering. As a victim our choices are violated. And what about illness, accidents, natural disasters and any other suffering that has a non-human root?
I will touch again on both of these ideas a bit later, but we first need to set a basis for talking about them. There is an underlying assumption of separation in both of these answers. It makes it seem as if God is watching our suffering from afar. But the incarnation means that this is not the case. It means God is partaker of our suffering. Jesus himself knew pain and suffering, even doubt. But not only did Jesus experience suffering during his lifetime, He is partaking of our present suffering. This is because He is partaking of us. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.
Where is God in our suffering? He suffers in the victims and is tormented in the perpetrators. He is at the very bottom of our pit, at the very bottom of our despair.
His presence in our mess is also his active intervention. Think of the cross. Christ assumed our humanity, died our death and resurrected us. This is because death is incompatible with Life. His resurrection is inevitable and He takes us with Him. Entering our hell is how He conquers it.
This conquering is the central and most important part of my view on suffering and the problem of pain. Beyond all other ideas of growth through suffering or freewill, there is hope. Hope in restoration so complete, that it can only be understood as resurrection.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings Sam sees Gandalf again: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land.
Everything sad will become untrue. We do not mourn Christ’s death, because He is alive. Suffering will be done away with so completely that it’s past effect will become irrelevant. Every tear will be wiped away (without wiping away us)*.
*I believe this is a process of healing and I believe the process is possible in this life or the next.
When we are suffering God is suffering with us, but He also sees the healing that will follow. Like a mother who’s teenage daughter is experiencing her first heartbreak. The mother is probably in tears with the child. The daughter thinks it is the end of the world. She struggles to see any sense to life. The mother, however, knows that this pain will pass. That more good things will come. That life still has meaning.
It is like the scene where Mackenzie and Jesus lay looking at the stars on the pier in The Shack by Paul Young:
“Jesus?” he whispered as his voice choked “I feel so lost”
A hand reached out and squeezed his, and didn’t let go. “I know Mack. But it’s not true. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost.”
You might still ask why allow the suffering in the first place. The healing is more than the suffering. The resurrection is more than the death.
My sister, a music teacher, was once struggling to teach a pupil a piece of music. The girl was technically proficient, but struggled to convey the emotion in the piece. It felt bland and lifeless. The girl’s mother said that of course the girl can’t play with the required emotion, she has never been hurt. It is like a part of personhood is only birthed in suffering.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. – John 12:24
The resurrection only happened because the death happened. Don’t get me wrong, suffering is inherently worthless, but the resurrection gives it worth. Our healing or our growth from the healing adds value to something absolutely wasteful.
Please understand, I do not think God creates the suffering to make us grow, but I think He doesn’t fear suffering as we do. I think He uses it, not because it is good, but because it is there.
We bring God our mess and He creates a beautiful story from it. Paul Young says that God is like the weaver at the edge of town. Everybody brings the colours of their world to Him. He takes the colours of our lives, adds his own colours, and begins to weave a beautiful tapestry. He doesn’t care if Satan brings those colours, or circumstances, or our own stupid choices. He will take whatever those colours are and begin to weave purpose.
Good out of suffering might sound similar to the first argument about growth, but it can only be understood in the light of complete healing and restoration having the final say. It means that suffering is not as scary to start with.
Let’s go to the idea of freewill. Imagine for a moment a world where God very actively prevents suffering from ever occurring. No rape or murder has ever occurred, because God prevented it. Rapists are struck by lighting before they act, every single time.
Compare this imaginary world to our world. In this imaginary world there are possibilities which are off limits. There is something that simply can’t happen. It is as though God is as afraid of suffering as we are. Now consider our world. Where there isn’t a possibility that God is afraid of. We might be terrified, but knowing that there is nothing resurrection cannot reach, He knows it will be okay.
What if God’s goodness is not found in His ability to prevent evil, but rather in His unceasing commitment to open up new opportunities to live and laugh, despite evil. – Andre Rabe
Paul says (Rom 9:38,39) “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is not exactly what we want to hear. Not “God will protect us from these thing” but “these things can and will happen, but it is okay”. But it gives me hope: none of it will truly interfere with the love of God. What is there to fear.
Recently I went through a small crisis in my life and someone dear to me wanted to save me from it. Her plan was grounded in desperation and fear. I asked her to stop. Her fear made me fearful. More than a far fetched plan to save me, I needed her to have confidence that even if the worst happens I am still okay. A confidence that nothing can truly separate me from the love of God.
All of this not only gives me courage for my future. It gives me a hope beyond hope for the world. An extreme optimism in me that sings that the resurrection has the final say. You might ask me if this will make me socially negligent, thinking that I don’t have to worry, everything will be okay. Definitely not! It wakes something in me that want to usher in that healing.
That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. – Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
For me hope is healing me. That very healing and hope in me, is the healing and hope for the world. This is simpler and more personal than it sounds. It is simply love. Seeing the resurrection in my neighbour awakens the hope for it in my neighbour. This is what changed my life .
In conclusion, an atheist might look at all of this and say it is very convoluted. A more elegant solution to the problem of pain would be to simply reject the notion of God (or of a good God). But that idea leaves us stranded in the face of very real suffering. It leaves us hopeless**.
Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
That is why I believe in restoration. It serves me, it gives me courage to face my past, present and future suffering. And it brings me hope.
**Don’t get me wrong, atheists can still hope for a better future and work for it (I think some atheists do this better than most Christians). I’m talking about hope for suffering being undone, hope for ressurrection.