Wondering is better than answering
I admit that this age-old question might be the fundamental philosophical question in all of history. What is the meaning of suffering? Why do we suffer? And why doesn’t God stop it? This is the question that the writers of the Bible wrestle with throughout the text. And because of the suffering that covid-19 is causing, it is one many people are wrestling with now.
I want to start by saying that it is a grandiose prospect to offer a clear answer to this question because of its magnitude. We see through a glass darkly, as Paul tells the Corinthians, and so any answer we have to this huge question is really our best guess. That doesn’t mean that our thoughts are useless, but I think they should be measured with the idea that we are approaching ideas that are above all of our paygrades. What that means is that we should be free to express our opinions on the matter because it really is up for discussion, but we also shouldn’t condemn someone else’s answer as foolish or ignorant. Everyone is doing their best, I think, and most people are entering this discussion in good faith. In general, this is why trust relationships are important for forming theology—and why doing so in community is my advice. But also why theology really should be seen as our imagination about God, instead of “facts about God.” Let’s keep holding onto the fact that God is much bigger than our imaginations. That shouldn’t end our imaginations, but give us freedom to imagine.
I often start out my thoughts on the problem of pain with two stories that help shape the mysterious nature of the philosophical and theological options we have before us. You can find my whole seminary paper here if you want to read something a little heady about the subject.
God is a loving parent
Michael was 21 when he killed himself. He suffered from paranoia, and it had gotten very bad. The health insurance and medical system in the United States did him no favors. He could only be admitted when he was vocally a threat to himself. And he was released once he said he wasn’t. Michael, like many others, believed the hospital and the medication were all part of the elaborate system of control, manipulation, and conspiracy that he thought many of us were subject to. Michael, in order to free his parents and friends from this shadow system, killed himself and made it seem like he drowned in his parents’ pool. It is a tragic story.
I couldn’t say no when Alice, his mother, asked me to preside over his funeral. I was a family friend and even though I was early on in my life as a pastor, I took on the challenge. Alice struggled with her faith after being faced with this tragedy. She needed to be reassured that her son was in heaven, and furthermore, she needed to be assured that not only did God not will this to happen, God had no knowledge that it might, and had no power to intervene. Such a theology is an explicit violation of Christian theology surrounding God’s sovereignty, and what are sometimes referred to as the “omnis.” That God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. For Alice, though, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing cannot also be all-good. So she was faced with a predicament: lose her faith in God as she knows God, or succumb to a confusing God that killed her son, seemingly, or at least knew of her son’s choice and withheld from stopping his death for some other-worldly reason.
God is powerful too
On the other hand, Rachel was suffering when her husband John, an Arab immigrant physician, was accused of sexual assault by a few patients. It is not unlike the stories that are coming out now about celebrities and politicians. Her husband said he had done nothing wrong, but took a “no-contest” plea, to avoid the pain of a trial for his family (and also to not put his patients through a rigorous trial bent on denying them their experience). He spent six months in the county jail.
One of the refrains that comforted Rachel during this time is that “God is in control.” She cited Romans 8:28 as an anthem of comfort: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” In her mind, her husband was suffering in jail for no reason, except for the abject racism against immigrants in her predominantly white rural Pennsylvania county. She could not imagine any reason that God would allow this to happen besides working toward some ultimate good (the answer to which she does not currently have).
But for her, it was elemental that God be in control of the situation, which allowed her to act peaceably about it. Her violence and anger against the women who accused him, his expensive lawyer, and the justice system, was curbed by her belief in the sovereignty of God. She trusted that God has bigger plans, so she was able to respond with some peace and receive some comfort. Her theology was important to that response.
Mystery fills in the gaps more than rationality
And therein lies the mystery of considering God’s power and goodness. Two different cases, two different needs, both deeply personal and not simply subject to an abstract summary of God… God is mysterious, and so not subject to our terms about God… For an oppressed Arab immigrant with no power on her own, an all-powerful God is elemental; for a grieving mother, a victim of senseless violence and systemic injustice, an all-powerful and all-good God is not one she wants to follow.
For my part, when it comes to suffering, I like the two options that the stories above present: either God is all powerful and in our ignorance we simply don’t understand why there is all of this suffering, or God is mysteriously powerful, and it’s unclear to us how God’s power and sovereignty work.
I will say this: I do believe that God will make all things right and is making all things right. And that all of the suffering that we undergo as individuals will be taken away from us in the age to come. I think that is the expression of God’s love is an end to suffering and so as Christians we want to partner with God in alleviating suffering wherever we see it. We think about this holistically, too; we aren’t just trying to numb pain (that is to say not feel it) but get to the heart of it and root it out. I think we need to do with this with grace and compassion, with love and truth.
Liberty and utilitarianism don’t work
An option about God’s response to suffering that is hardest for me to use is that God is committed to our “freedom” even if it means it will hurt us. I think that free will and liberty, even in ignorance, being better than going without suffering is a uniquely Western idea. Here, it’s not that the suffering is happening mysteriously under the care of an almighty God, but rather, the almighty God values our freedom more than that almighty God values us going without pain. I’m not sure my liberty is more important than my well-being.
On the other hand, I’ve also heard that some people think pain is a tool that God uses for us to develop. When asked whether or not they could live without suffering, someone responded to me with the idea that they couldn’t, because their suffering has been so formative. Granted, my suffering has also formed me, but leaving someone in pain so that they change while reserving the power to change them without pain seems to lack compassion to me. If God can take away our suffering because God is all powerful, why doesn’t God? Because our suffering improves us? Why wouldn’t God just find a better way to do that?
Add to that, there is so much senseless suffering that apparently lacks utility. What of that suffering? There are so many children, even babies, that suffer needlessly. Turning suffering into a utility may be possible for those of us who have relative privilege, but it doesn’t really work for the not-so privileged.
The issue here isn’t that God is or isn’t almighty, but rather that God uses suffering as a utility. Insisting on finding the meaning of suffering is the issue at hand. It’s not elevating God’s sovereignty that is the problem. Rather, it’s insisting on humans to have a complete answer to questions that can’t be answered.
I’m not surprised that Western theologians insist on personal liberty and intellectual certainty when it comes to developing their theology. Westerners love to know things and love freedom! The Greek constructions for God that influence the New Testament writers, and really any Christian at all, are normal because those are the questions that the Greek philosophers try to answer. I’m sympathetic because that’s the philosophical environment these people live in. We should also be constructing theology that translates into our context.
As such, for my part, following a God that gives me the freedom to suffer when God can save me, or following a God that uses my pain to improve my character (when an almighty God could clearly use other means) seems odd.
But when we move beyond the insistence to be free or the insistence on knowing, we allow some mystery to enter in, which allows us to be gracious with one another as we try to navigate our world full of suffering.
Jesus is the main event
While I don’t claim to know how God works, and while I entertain many possibilities for the answer to suffering, I want to end with this. What I know from the New Testament and from Christian theology is that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the man Jesus is God’s big play at saving and redeeming the world and ultimately ending suffering. God combated evil and suffering, made a payment for evil and suffering, and showed us how to live a life despite of suffering and evil. And in fact, lived that life alongside of us. The person of Jesus is God’s big response to pain and evil and suffering. And although theological musing and imagination can be helpful, at the end of the day I follow a suffering servant who I know suffers alongside of me and who will one day deliver me. I don’t know why I suffer though, and I’m OK with being suspended in mystery with the rest of you. You might have the faith that leads you to think God has a plan for all your suffering, or you may wonder about the mystery of God’s power in this in-between time. I think that’s OK. I will have faith and wonder with you too.