Reflections on Suffering, Pt. 1

This is part one in a four part series on suffering. I will be posting the remaining parts on Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, and Holy Thursday. The whole series is published here.

            My own very limited experience of suffering and grief is in part born from my unique and perpetual singleness as a celibate gay man. The loss of a future husband and the physical erotic expression of my love and affection have led me to find consolation in reflections on suffering and grief in general. Like me, a number of celibate gay Christians have found some outlet for their pain in the theology of suffering, Wes Hill being a good example. Other celibate gay Christians like Eve Tushnet have never resonated as deeply with a theology of suffering in the midst of their celibacy. In the pages that follow I will attempt to share some of my own experience and reflections on suffering, as well as the numerous contributions of other far greater thinkers who have wrestled with grief, suffering, and the goodness of God.

So what even is suffering? Where does it come from? Can we explain its existence with the existence of an all-loving, good God?

Various people have attempted to create categories or lists of suffering. Generally these could be broken down into four groups: suffering that comes about from the fall’s impact on creation (natural disasters, genetic defects, birth defects, disabilities), suffering that comes about from the sins of others (war, abuse, rape, persecution, racism), suffering that comes about from our own sin (self harm, addictions, legal repercussion for our actions, broken relationships), and suffering that comes about for righteousness sake (persecution, self-sacrifice, missionary endeavors, etc.). Other issues like grief, loss of identity, loneliness, unemployment, and the loss of a relationship, can also contribute to human suffering but don’t fall as easily into explicit categories. All suffering comes about from the fall and is to use Cornelius Plantinga’s term, “not the way it’s supposed to be.” No matter how we list or categorize the kinds of suffering it is safe to say that suffering is unavoidable. It is all around us and while we can numb ourselves to its reality, it is a part of the very fabric of life in our fallen world.

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

When people of faith who believe in a good God who created and ordered the world according to his loving plan encounter suffering, it is understandable that they might begin to wrestle deeply with the seemingly impossible dichotomy of a good and loving God who allows horrible suffering. The theological and philosophical responses to this dilemma are categorized as theodicy. The poet Scott Cairns sums up this dilemma when he writes in his book, The End of Suffering,

Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere it is—a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock—there’s no arguing that it isn’t something of a crapshoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood-take your pick. And lest we forget the human hand in our crapshoot’s wealth of crap, we must remember to add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, and genocide.

And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?[1]

Answering this question through philosophy, while an admirable and helpful response, has in my experience done little to actually speak to people who are experiencing inexplicable suffering in their own lives. While I might not go so far as Stanley Houerwas when he argues that theodicy has virtually no point, I do believe that other than as a philosophical and possibly apologetic exercise, theodicy does little to comfort someone in the throws of anguish and suffering. Others, like D. A. Carson, believe that if a believer is well instructed in theodicy their faith will not be as terribly shaken than if they hadn’t been educated on Christian approaches to theodicy. Teaching and instruction on the philosophical arguments for how a good God allows suffering is emphasized by Carson as deeply pastoral and needed to help prepare the faithful to encounter pain and suffering. While I don’t want to totally reject this approach, I struggle with the example of the great theologian, C. S. Lewis who wrote a great work of theodicy, The Problem of Pain. Later in his life he wrote A Grief Observed where he recounts nearly losing his faith in God because of the suffering and death of his wife. If theodicy is seen as a way to avoid loosing faith then C. S. Lewis’s example is at best disruptive to such a notion.

My response to theodicy is that answers to the problem of pain and suffering are found less in abstract philosophy and more in the concrete examples of our own stories of suffering. And most importantly in the story of Christ’s suffering. I need then to share part of my own story of suffering to put flesh on what could easily become abstract musings.

[1] Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009) 108.

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