I’ve been half-consciously avoiding blogging about the Philippines typhoon. What else can anyone say that hasn’t been said? How can we express the sadness and awfulness of it all, and the helplessness and even guilt which we comfortable western watchers feel? What can we say except that it’s yet another terrible thing that we don’t understand, and that we feel we ought to be doing more to help?
Religious leaders are often asked to comment at such times, but the wiser ones tend not to attempt explanations or theology. The truly religious response is practical compassion to the suffering, not attempts to explain the inexplicable.
I’m not yet so wise, so I’ve written several times about different kinds of suffering, disaster and tragedy. I’ve blogged about earthquakes and natural disasters and about whether suffering is ordained by God. I’ve written about the Sandy Hook tragedy and about Madeleine McCann. I’ve written about getting angry with God for natural disasters that hit the poorest hardest. Each time I write on suffering I’m conscious that I’m rushing in where angels fear to tread. So this time I intended to leave it.
What changed my mind was the untimely death last week of the composer John Tavener, and specifically some remarks he made about pain and death which challenged my own views.
John Tavener and the problem of pain
Tavener was a strange soul by all accounts; a deeply spiritual mystic not entirely at home in this temporal world. He was plagued by ill health throughout his life and experienced considerable pain. Rather than driving him away from God though, his experience of suffering seemed to drive him deeper into contemplation of the divine. Towards the end of his life he said that he was convinced that pain was divinely ordained and part of God’s plan; that each of us were given pain that we might transcend it (or something along those lines).
Now I have long resisted and objected to the idea that God ordains human pain and suffering – particularly the idea as it’s presented by certain evangelicals and neo-Calvinists. There seems in it almost the idea that God punitively and vindictively enjoys making us suffer in order to improve our souls, or to punish our sin, or just for his own glory. I find such ideas repugnant. I believe in a God of the deepest goodness and love, a true heavenly Father. I wouldn’t deliberately inflict terrible suffering and pain on my children, so why would God?
However, Tavener was no Calvinist. He was a profoundly spiritual man and his religious thinking sat broadly within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Furthermore, he was someone who had experienced much pain and suffering himself. To such a man I will listen, even if I’m not sure I can yet agree.
Speaking about suffering
Tavener’s deep personal experience of pain qualifies him to speak where others would be wise to remain silent. We all experience pain of course; but when it comes to the suffering of others, anything we say will sound either glib or callous. If I said that those in the Philippines were suffering because God so ordained it in order for them to transcend their pain, I would be stepping well over the line. But if someone in the Philippines expressed the same belief that what has happened to them was God’s plan for their ultimate good, they wouldn’t be.
Pain is too personal – and too painful – to theorise about, to comment on or pass judgement on. We can only talk meaningfully about our own pain and how it’s affected us, for ultimate good or ill. When it comes to the pain and suffering of others, we do well to reverse the response of Job’s friends by remaining silent on theology but acting with compassion. Jesus modelled this way many times in his earthly ministry, notably with the man born blind in John chapter 9.
Of course, there are many different kinds of pain in the world with many different causes, and they are not all equal or equivalent.
There is pain that we inflict on ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly. There is pain we inflict on others or they on us. There are the necessary pains of growing up and of facing our fears and battling our darkness. There are the agonies of childbirth which no mere male can know and without which the human race would cease to exist. There are the inevitable but nonetheless tragic pains of bereavement and loss inherent in the natural order of this current world. And there are inexplicable pains of natural disasters, famines, diseases and the untimely death of the young.
For myself, I remain agnostic on whether God ever ordains pain and suffering. If he ever does, I believe that it is always for our ultimate good, for our redemption and our freedom. I am convinced that it is never merely punitive or vindictive, nor taking any sadistic pleasure in our suffering. There are times when I certainly feel that I deserve pain or that to feel pain would be appropriate. But whether God ever inflicts such pain I cannot say.
However, the understanding I tentatively tend towards is not that God ordains pain but that pain is simply part of the natural order of this as-yet imperfect world. Pain and suffering of many kinds are inevitable for this present time, but God works in and through our pains to redeem them, to bring good out of them, to bring healing and hope, transformation and renewal. Evil, tragedy and disaster never have the last word; love always does.
On a similar note, Tavener also said that there is no death, there is only light. I’m still trying to work out whether that’s deep spiritual wisdom or just bonkers mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps the two are almost indistinguishably close sometimes…