On the Problem of Suffering

I don’t know why I keep doing it to myself. Perhaps it is because I quickly get tired of all the variations on “Shake that booty”, which seem to characterise the contemporary popular music scene. Somehow, when I am driving, out of desperation, I eventually end up turning to the local Christian station, and evidently I am a slow learner, because invariably I will end up turning the radio off in frustration. It happened again this morning.

 

I am generally reasonably easy-going, so when the level of my ire seemed disproportionate to the statements made by the presenter on this occasion, I decided that perhaps it would be prudent to try to understand what it is about Christian media presenters that tends to make my blood pressure rise. After all, in essence we believe the same things.

 

I think the answer – part of it, at least – is their perky refusal to accept that life is hard, and their insistence on trying to negate people’s painful experiences by spiritualising them. It seems to me that modern Christianity is threatened by the prospect of engaging with the question of suffering. While we (I refer to Christians in general) are quite content to address the issue in a pseudo-intellectual way, we tend to steer clear of those who are asking the question from a place of utter brokenness. When people’s lives crumble around them, when their prayers seem to dissipate in the void, and in anguish they cry out: “Where is God?” – in other words, when the question is more than an object of academic interest, but the lived experience of real people –  our stock responses are to blame them for their suffering, to suggest that God was testing the suffererer, or to explain it away with the promise of its being for some nebulous, far-off ‘greater good’.

 

Such responses are more than merely misguided: they are irresponsible, selfish, lazy and – above all – unloving. Our patronising responses take one of humanity’s most primal questions, one of the heart’s most vulnerable cries – the issue at the heart of Christianity’s existence , ironically – and completely trivialise it.

 

I’ll give you an example – the one that prompted my latest tirade. The host of the show was encouraging listeners that if they were having trouble in their lives, they could find comfort in God. So far, so good. Granted, it sounded a bit like a used-car sales pitch, and the lack of genuine conviction in her voice was mildly annoying, but not sufficiently so to make me change stations. Then she said something that has come to epitomise for me all that I detest about the Evangelical Christian response to suffering. She said something like: “If you feel like God doesn’t hear you and that He doesn’t care, just speak the blood of Jesus over your situation. Because the devil is planting that thought. Bind the devil and claim your victory in Jesus.” Or words to that effect. That was when I angrily turned the radio off and drove home in brooding silence.

 

Maybe it is because of how many stories I have read lately of people who have been scarred by a well-meaning but ultimately abusive church (read, for example, Kelsey Munger’s blog post: http://kelseymunger.com/2014/06/23/that-chipper-hurtful-christian-but/, or pretty much anything she has written – she writes very powerfully ). Maybe my sensitivity has been heightened by the awareness of just how far removed from gracious so many people’s encounters with Christians have been. Maybe it is because my theology has (thankfully) developed so much since my arrogant and insensitive youth that I find this kind of thinking so utterly deplorable.

 

Perhaps what angers me most is the implicit suggestion that it is not acceptable to feel hurt or angry. That somehow if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that nothing makes sense, we are losing our faith and letting God down. Hurt becomes part of the devil’s scheme, to be resisted at all costs, rather than a natural and logical response to life’s realities.

 

I am sure there are a number of psychological factors at play. Subconsciously we conclude that if we allow ourselves to feel angry or devastated, then it means we believe that God is not in control (or worse, that He was, and did not act to prevent the tragedy). At this point, I think – subconsciously, at least – we equate our hurt to a lack of faith, and consequently – as a result of years of conditioning –  condemn ourselves to hell, unless we pull ourselves together.

 

And then there’s the peer pressure. Church peer pressure is not necessarily good. The compulsion to appear pure and holy produces people who live their lives shackled by shame and bound by guilt. It is compounded by our liturgies, reinforced through countless choruses that celebrate our inadequacy, and preached from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. The message is resoundingly clear: you are not worthy. And despite the emphasis most churches place on faith rather than deeds in their teachings, I practice most equate the two; your purity is your faith in the eyes of the church. Two thousand years of being able to reflect on the teachings of Jesus, to meditate on his life, and still we find ways to reject love. We define grace as God’s unmerited favour, but enshrined in the very DNA of the church is the understanding that God’s favour needs to be earned. We value purity over love. I can appreciate why nobody wants to be seen to be doubting God’s love. The thought of disappointing the church community is heavier even than the agony of loss.

 

And underneath it all is the ever-lurking fear: what if we are wrong? What if there is no God? That is a perfectly reasonable response to tragedy, but it is not a question many Christians want to contemplate. The possibility of coming to the conclusion that our whole way of life, the very framework through which we make sense of the world, is wrong, is too great a risk to take. So we avoid asking that question (and thus the consequent journey, which – conversely – could actually strengthen our faith). It is easier to embrace cheerful and superficial truisms than to reconstruct a world.

 

It is a complicated picture. And it complicated further by the existence of the prosperity preaching that underpins so much of Western Christianity. What the prosperity gospel does so insidiously is put the power straight back into our hands. It allows us to feel safer because it suggests that we are in control of our own lives. Our wellbeing and our faith are – such teaching would have us believe – inextricably linked.

 

Now while I certainly do believe that we are responsible for much of what happens to us, and strongly advocate the necessity for responding proactively rather than reactively to life, the fact remains that much of what happens to us is completely beyond our control. It’s a tough reality to face, and the prosperity preachers help us avoid it.  They make their money by providing us with a feeling of security; they feed us the impossible promise that the universe can make sense. It is a terrible thing to have to face the fact that we are helpless against the currents of time, against injustice and hardship. It takes courage to face the truth that suffering is visited on the morally good and the morally despicable alike.  We want to believe that – as in all our childhood stories – good triumphs and evil gets what it deserves, but our experience tells us otherwise. I understand the attractiveness of the prosperity gospel.

 

But it is a lie. One cannot wield the “blood of Jesus” like a talisman to ward off the evils of life. We have no power there. Read Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in John 16:33 again:

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

While Jesus certainly promises relief in that he (not we) has overcome the world, he also suggests that the time for that to be fully realised has not yet come, and that we must expect (an understatement) trouble. It is unavoidable.

 

If you are bewildered by God’s silence, if you sometimes find the injustice of life too much to bear, know that the expression of your agony is not the same as a lack of faith. Many of the Biblical heroes felt it too:

 

2How long, Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not save?

3Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

4Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted.                 (Habakkuk 1:2-4)

 

 

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.      (Psalm 13:1-4)

 

 

20“Why is light given to those in misery,

and life to the bitter of soul,

21to those who long for death that does not come,

who search for it more than for hidden treasure,

22who are filled with gladness

and rejoice when they reach the grave?

23Why is life given to a man

whose way is hidden,

whom God has hedged in?

24For sighing has become my daily food;

my groans pour out like water.

25What I feared has come upon me;

what I dreaded has happened to me.

26I have no peace, no quietness;

I have no rest, but only turmoil.” (Job 3:20-26)

 

 

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Matthew 27:46)

 

I have no answers for why a loving God allows suffering on the scale He does. I still believe He is a loving God, though. Like Habakkuk, I trust that in God’s time, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14), and like Job I can only trust that because God’s ways are above mine, “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). Nobody is exempt from pain and hopelessness and fear. And, frankly, the world does not make sense. I won’t blame it on the devil or on my own lack of faith. I will simply cling to Jesus’ promise that although I must endure this, for reasons I do not understand, this current pain will pale into insignificance when he returns:

 

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:21-22)

 

 

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5 thoughts on “On the Problem of Suffering

  1. A painful adjunct to physical suffering is grief at the loss of a loved one. Once the initial shock and all the formalities have paled, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding any mention of the departed. Perhaps people are uncomfortable around the bereaved,; perhaps they think that they are being courteous and caring. In fact …. the bereaved doesn’t broach the subject, knowing that it causes discomfort. In reality, every fibre of their being is silently screaming … “please acknowledge the existence of my loved ones by talking about them; reminiscing about the good times, character quirks and shared adventures.” Keep their memories alive by sharing them in a loving, empathetic, compassionate way.

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    • Yes! I think people find it difficult to know how to respond appropriately to loss. They recognise that most of what I described is not appropriate, but don’t know how to speak to others’ loss appropriately, and so choose silence. I used to be very closed with sharing my hurt, but I learned that in order not to resent others and to still have my need to speak met, I would need to take responsibility for it. So I chose a few friends I felt I could be vulnerable with and when I wanted to talk, I broached the topic. I discovered that most people are willing to talk if you make the space safe.

      You did inspire me for a future post. Thanks 🙂

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  2. Pingback: To Those Living in the Land of the Shadow of Death | Vapors In The Wind

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