“The thread of suffering runs so deeply through the fabric of our existence that were it pulled free the remnant would unravel beyond recognition.” Judy Hirst, Third Way Magazine
Last time I suggested that some suffering may simply be a normal and necessary (albeit highly unpleasant) part of life, not really requiring in-depth theological explanation.
However, where I think suffering does become a theological problem is in the extraordinary and exceptional cases, those which go far beyond anything most of us will experience in the normal course of our lives.
These are the terrible cases of human brutality and evil – the Rwandan genocide or the Nazi holocaust; the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Dunblane massacre; the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church and currently in the BBC; the abduction of Madeleine McCann. These – and countless other – cases of human evil defy our comprehension. And worse still, they nag away at us that deep down we may all have greater capacity for evil than we care to admit.
In a different category, because not clearly human in origin, there are the terrible natural catastrophes which wipe out countless thousands of people, often the weakest and poorest – the Philippines Typhoon; earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tsunamis, famines and floods. There are the terrible disease epidemics which lay waste to whole populations, and also the preventable diseases which kill thousands of children every year in poorer countries. (These last, if not human in cause, may at least be in our power to solve.)
It’s these terrible cases of suffering which defeat our neat theology and leave us without answers. Yet in a sense even these are just the extreme manifestations of the pains, sufferings and losses – and yes, evils – which are naturally built into our world, apparently as a necessary part of it.
The evils are a little different, I’d suggest. These are by definition not good; however, they are inextricably interwoven with good and for now cannot be removed without risking that good. That’s certainly what Jesus seemed to suggest in his parable of the wheat and tares. Evil has got itself into everything, including us, and it mostly can’t be taken out, only gradually overcome.
Who’s to blame?
When we undergo or witness suffering, we tend to look for reasons for it, or for someone to blame. This is entirely understandable, but not I think fruitful. Even if we can successfully locate a cause or a culprit, that generally doesn’t solve anything. What we can more helpfully do is seek ways to redeem the suffering, to bring good out of it.
Nonetheless, I do think that we all bring much (not all) of our suffering upon ourselves – unwittingly and unintentionally of course, and this is not to apportion blame. But we are all too often our own worst enemies, following patterns of thinking, behaving and relating that do not lead to our happiness or health or freedom.
Is human sin the root cause of all suffering? I don’t know. I’d rather say that human flawedness is a contributing factor in a lot of suffering, both self-inflicted and other-inflicted, but I’m not sure that it’s the sole cause (again, Genesis notwithstanding).
How we experience suffering
But at the risk of sounding glib or judgemental (which I really don’t mean to), one contribution our human flawedness may make to suffering is in how we experience and respond to it.
I think we have at least some measure of choice in how we respond to suffering – to wallow in recrimination and self-pity or to accept and seek to transcend the suffering. Far easier said than done I realise, and we may have to go through the self-pity stage before we can get to the redemptive one. (Also I’m talking here only about ordinary, low to moderate suffering – I’m in no position to say how anyone facing extraordinary suffering ‘should’ respond.)
On a deeper level, our flawedness can I think profoundly affect how we experience suffering in the first place. If we’ve never trained ourselves in the ways of delaying gratification and of living through minor discomforts and disappointments, we’ll find it hard to accept even ordinary suffering as anything but evil. And if we’ve tended to avoid or anaesthetise all our small pains and losses, we won’t be ready to face greater suffering when it comes.
This isn’t to point the finger. It’s just to say that I think we can make our inevitable sufferings harder or easier to bear depending on how we’ve prepared ourselves throughout our lives.
I’ve long been suspicious of theological attempts to justify suffering or why God might ever ordain it. When we look at terrible disasters or unthinkable human holocausts and genocides it seems ridiculous and blasphemous to imagine that God might be in any way involved, except in healing the harm.
Yet I am beginning to wonder if there may be at least some times when pain and suffering may simply be the only way to make certain kinds of changes to the world and to our hearts and lives. Perhaps this is in part because of sin and evil – our blindness and inherent flawedness means that we often cannot take the easier, more pleasant paths to fulfilment and flourishing. Or perhaps it’s just how things have to be at this stage in our development.
I mentioned recently that we seem to be oddly mis-adapted so that we crave unhealthy things and don’t tend to enjoy what’s most good for us. So there is inherent ‘suffering’ in following a healthy path.
I also think it’s true (though I wish it were not the case) that there are certain things that only pain and suffering can teach us; certain necessary changes that only these hard realities can bring about in us.
What suffering can teach us
Suffering can work profound transformation in our souls, developing in us unparalleled depth, strength and maturity of character and faith.
Suffering can teach us to trust, and can make us truly compassionate, kind, loving people who understand and care about the sufferings of others.
Suffering also puts things in perspective. It teaches us the hard way that we are not in control, and we are not the centre of the universe. It shows us that all we have is a gift and privilege, not a right or a possession.
Our human tendency is of course to flee pain and to do anything we can to avoid it, given half a chance. Unfortunately sometimes we need to face and even embrace pain in order to change and grow. All too often we shy away from what would bring emotional growth because it means facing up to painful realities about ourselves or about our parents or childhoods. But in so doing, we remain less than we can be – less real, less whole, less ourselves.
We all know the well-worn phrases ‘No pain, no gain’ and the Christian equivalent ‘No cross, no crown’. These are clichés; yet it’s probably true that few really worthwhile things can be achieved or significant changes be made without a degree of difficulty, even pain. But if we know there is a point and purpose to the pain, that at the end of it is the prize of what we’re hoping to achieve or become, then we can perhaps more easily bear the difficulty along the way.
All this doesn’t mean we should masochistically seek out opportunities for pain, nor that we should never seek to alleviate or end suffering – quite the contrary in many cases. It simply means that if pain does come our way, particularly emotional pain, we might do well not always to flee from it, but rather to face it.
I would suggest then that preparing to face suffering may be one of the most important tasks of our spiritual lives. For a degree of suffering will come to every one of us. If we’re ready for it (or as ready as anyone can be), then we may be able to live through it and come out stronger at the other end. If not, there’s a danger we may be crushed by it.
How the universe works
As I started to say last time, I suspect that a measure of pain and suffering are simply necessary corollaries of a universe set up to produce consciousness, relationship, love, and moral autonomy. It seems that this is the only way for these good things to emerge.
So we appear to have a universe that is set up to evolve from simple to complex, from immature to mature, from incomplete to complete. And this process – evolution, development, growth, maturing, learning, becoming – inevitably seems to involve a measure of difficulty, adversity, pain, suffering, and perhaps even at times evil.
Yet ultimately these things are swallowed up in redemption, in restoration, in the glorious fulfilment of the renewed cosmos that we call the Kingdom.
And above all, we do not worship a callous God who metes out and observes our suffering from a safe distance like a lab experimenter. Rather we worship the crucified God, the one who has become one with us, who has suffered and suffers for us and with us, and who brings good and hope and meaning out of our sufferings.
The cross is in part about God identifying with us in our sufferings. But I believe it’s also about the only way evil and harm can be overcome by love and goodness. Love doesn’t fight evil with violence or power; rather it takes evil upon and into itself and disarms it. The answer to the world’s sufferings is the cross, where God suffers because that’s what love does in the face of evil.
And the cross is also an example for us of how to respond to evil. Often we have to overcome suffering and pain and evil by bearing with them and going through them; not avoiding or escaping them but learning to master them, turning them to the good.
Ultimately, love is both the cause and cure of our deepest suffering. Without love, we would have no heartbreak, no bereavement, no sting of rejection or loneliness. Yet without love we would not be truly alive; and in the end, love is what redeems all our pains.