On the Problem of Suffering

lonely-tree-psychotherapy-counselling-manchester1
Courtesy of Manchester Psychotherapy

The problem of suffering is a different beast altogether from the problem of evil. The problem of evil asks, how can there be a good God when there is so much evil in the world? The problem of evil asks, why does evil happen? And it targets God for attack. The problem of suffering however is not so direct, not so philosophical or theological. It is profoundly existential and it does not simply challenge God belief, it challenges everyone, everywhere, all the time, over everything. For suffering finds its way, like air, into even the most joyous contented scenes. We excuse it and overlook it when it’s just a scrape or a bruise. But when it mounts, when nothing good seems to come of it, and when suffering seems meaningless, the full force of the problem of suffering bangs like a hammer on the handle of that knive–and we are cut to the heart.

One of the best answers to the problem of suffering is found not through idle reflection but in the cauldron of suffering itself. It is found not in the comfortable skepticism of ivory towers or in syllogisms and analysis. The most fundamental answer to the problem of suffering is not a what but a who. This seems like pastoral slight-of-hand, but it’s really true. When we hurt the worst we of course want the pain to go away, but that’s only part of the problem. We want to know that that pain is not ultimate, that it gives way to greater meaning, and most importantly, that we are not alone in our pain.

Consider the rantings of Job. His friends accuse and assault him with bad theology. His wife reverberates with despair and surrender. Still Job takes his case before God pleading for a trial to vindicate him and end the injustice. How does God answer? God does not answer with detailed schematics of the advanced calculus needed to balance the free-will of the man, the contingency of the world, the lawful ordering of the cosmos, and chaos of sin, all spread across a perfect knowledge of every human heart and the whole of history. No, God answers with a question, “Do you know who you are talking to?” But more important than the question is the God who’s arrived. God first and foremost has answered Job with his manifest presence. GOD SHOWS UP! When we demand an answer for the problematic pains in front of us, we do not have the grand vision of God that makes those worries look small in comparison.

But no one is saying this is easy.

Still, if we want to take our questions to the Bible it helps to ask questions that the Bible attempts to answer. The God of the Bible is not as interested in answering our questions of, “Why God?” That’s not a bad question. It’s not evil, nor out of place, at least not all the time. But that question just isn’t as important in light of God’s presence. The Biblical answer to felt suffering is not a propositional exposition of why God lets bad things happen to good people, the biblical answer is God himself, “Fear not, for I am with you.” “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” “Lo, I am with you always even to the ends of the earth.”

Few could say this better than Britt Merrick. You may have heard of the “Pray for Daisy” campaign. Britt’s daughter Daisy passed after having acquired cancer for the fourth time. She was 8 years old. Here he preaches a sermon, very aware that his daughter will most likely die before the year is out. I was moved listening to this message from Britt. I have not known the trials his family has endured, but I’ve seen my wife go through cancer and fight against chronic sickness. And I’ve asked the why question many times. But he is right, the “Who” question is far more important.

I know enough to know that I don’t know much. But if I know who knows, then I know enough. I usually don’t know the “why” behind specific evils, but I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the goodness of God and have seen Christian theism vindicated time and again, in history and science and in the abstract studies of philosophy and theology. A deep and abiding awareness of God’s immanent presence is as heartening a truth as any can be. It is the last abiding island. Sure, skeptics can gawk and chortle, but they have to find their own answer to suffering.

Doubting God is hardly a solution to evil and suffering, if anything, it’s a premature abandonment of the our last saving hope, it is a leap from the creaking but steady ship of faith into the vast existential ocean. There in the frigid nihilistic waters death waits, suffering chokes us, meaninglessness chills our bones, and we can only hope to squeeze out a smile or a joke before we tire of treading water and sink.

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