Friday, January 28, 2011

Suffering

Mark at Christian Doubt, linked to an article on George John Romanes, a gifted scientist during the 19th century, whose scientific beliefs led to a prolonged period of questioning his faith and God. He suffered declining health, so his friend, Canon Scott-Holland, including this exhortation within a letter of sympathy to his friend:


It is a tremendous moment when first one is called upon to join the great army of those who suffer.

That vast world of love and pain opens suddenly to admit us one by one within its fortress.

We are afraid to enter into the land, yet you will, I know, feel how high is the call. It is as a trumpet speaking to us, that cries aloud—‘It is your turn—endure.’ Play your part. As they endured before you, so now, close up the ranks—be patient and strong as they were. Since Christ, this world of pain is no accident untoward or sinister, but a lawful department of life, with experiences, interests, adventures, hopes, delights, secrets of its own. These are all thrown open to us as we pass within the gates—things that we could never learn or know or see, so long as we were well.

God help you to walk through this world now opened to you as through a kingdom, regal, royal, and wide and glorious. My warmest sympathies to your wife.


These words are not necessarily easy ones to hear while in the midst of deep suffering. In fact, we may recoil in protest and anger that any one should have the audacity to encourage us to "play our part" during our suffering. There are some forms of suffering I pray I never have to endure, despite what "hopes, delights, and secrets" I may gain through the experience. However, I cannot help but be aware that there often are valuable gifts and depths of wisdom that the sufferer earns should she choose to endure and stand through the experience. In fact, they may not be gained any other way. As I try to make develop a worldview consistent with my knowledge and experiences, I ponder the role of suffering in the world. Does it make more sense that there is suffering, though often much of value to be gained through it if a benevolent God is ruler over creation, or if we were given birth in a quantum vacuum, which has no awareness of our existence? What do you think?

9 comments:

  1. Wow, you pose a tough question. I've never been all that keen onthe "good of suffering." It just seemed like suffering at the time. I think that there may be something to be gained from chronic suffering. One has to learn to deal with pain that is not temporary. One can merge it I guess with some empathy for those who suffer through no fault of their own.

    I don't see God as causing pain and suffering, so I don't find some purpose in it. I think I believe more in a God who encourages the reliever of pain to gain more knowledge to reduce suffering.

    But I guess in the end, I'd prefer suffering feeling that God was present to my suffering rather than that I was alone in my agony.

    Guess I don't really have a good answer. :)

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  2. witshadows,
    Obviously I don't have a good answer either, which is why I ask!

    Regarding God causing pain and suffering, I'm not sure I can divorce God from it. After all, he created the earth and everything in it. everything from childbirth to our final breath is often accompanied by great pain. Teeth coming in, learning to walk, the fevers that help fight our infections...We really cannot survive without some level of pain and suffering. Where would we be without our nervous system letting us know we're getting too cold and ought to go inside before we get frostbite? I must add here that there is a difference between suffering and harm/evil. we can suffer with the pain that comes from exercise, but exercise strengthens instead of harms us. Sometimes I think God has a much different view of suffering that do we. Maybe there is no way to exist without suffering. I don't know. No doubt much suffering is brought about by evil (which is not inherent in God's existence). some is brought about by our physical existence. Some is brought about by a conflict in free wills.

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  3. Some suffering we understand. As you say, we need a little physical pain, or the potential of it, to keep from injuring ourselves, and the lack of it is a pitiable condition. So we're vulnerable when things go wrong.

    Similarly if we actually care about our neighbor, the disasters and corruptions of the world are going to cause us pain of a different sort--and if you don't mourn for your friend's trouble, do you actually love them?

    Those pains are pretty easy to understand, if not endure. (I am not a big fan of kidney stones.) Others aren't quite so obvious, and get into the "different view of suffering" God has. Sometimes there is some growing and cleansing and sometimes I just can't see it--the sufferer gets worse by every measure I know.

    If you'd told me before I got married that 3 of our children would be in the autism spectrum, I'd have rabbited out of that church and still be running. But I'd do it all again. (aside from a few {OK, many} blunders and sins) Don't ask why; I can't put it in words. Somehow it was worth it (and we're not done yet).

    And, since God is maintaining our world and our choices in things that conflict with His nature, can we say that He suffers too?

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  4. "Does it make more sense that there is suffering, though often much of value to be gained through it if a benevolent God is ruler over creation, or if we were given birth in a quantum vacuum, which has no awareness of our existence?"

    Definitely an interesting question, though what is the value to be gained? Heaven? Simply insight into the suffering of others? Empathy? Other than heaven, I think these would come about with or without god. We are "fairness weighers." We want to make sense of things. Malice occurs because we maliciously intend it upon others via violence, slander, and the like.

    Therefore if "the universe" deals us symptoms of malice... there must be a "person" behind the symptoms. Someone whose mind is in control. And since we can't fathom that such a mind is an evil one, we like to believe that there is a reward for our suffering... that all will be "made right." That's my read on things, at least.

    The question can be dissolved: I want to believe whatever is. That's that. I don't know that either "makes more sense." The question makes me think of someone asking something like whether it makes more sense that there is a closet that leads to Narnia somewhere and the realm of magic intersects our world here... or that there isn't such a closet and there's no magic at all.

    The question almost has a way of painting one answer as miserable... but it might only be so because it's being compared to magic! Should we mourn the loss of imagined things or live in what is?

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  5. Hendy,
    I wasn't actually trying to ask a leading question or paint one answer as better, though maybe it sounded that way. In trying to understand what is, I find myself searching for which conceptualization of the world actually fits with my observations: a world designed by a creator (benevolent, malevolent, indifferent) or a world produced by chance. Suffering, or the problem of evil, has long been one of reasons given supporting an atheist world view. I guess another way to phrase my question is: when we view suffering as an intrinsic part of our existence, and acknowledge the ways it sometimes benefits us, does that strengthen or weaken (or neither) the argument against God? I truly don't have the answer.

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  6. @DoOrDoNot: good to know -- I may have seen more into it than was there! When rephrased... I don't know that I have the answer either.

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  7. Arguments from textual and literary analysis seem to be working on the periphery. I tried Wright's book, but couldn't finish it before the due date. While Wright seemed to be competently addressing all sorts of issues about how the era understood words, nothing seemed as compelling as noting that when Paul wanted to prove the resurrection he said the equivalent of "go talk to the witnesses," and that the early Christians were willing to die rather than make little tweaks to the implications of Jesus' resurrection.

    Why not have continuing miracles to validate the resurrection? I haven't a clue, though see below. Are reasonable and fitting miracles (however ancient), together with a chain of witnesses to the events, sufficient to validate it? Yes, surely. Are the accounts we have, with their variations, reasonable and reliable? There's the question. John was a witness to some of the events, and Luke (from internal evidence) had interviewed at least Mary and possibly other women. The others were putting the information they had in narratives. I am not thrilled with the resulting variations, though I've heard worse about recent events. And I'm not happy with the creaky attempt to establish a timeline I read once. But it is clear enough that something happened; something dramatic enough to change lives and extraordinary enough that they had trouble believing it themselves until Jesus pressed it home to them.

    What about those who never heard of the resurrection, or only heard it garbled? I'm kind of a Matthew 25 man on that question...

    ....

    As to continuing miracles or mystical experiences:

    I like to consider myself an analytical sort whose first love is finding things out, but my coming to Christ was the result of what I have to classify as a mystical experience.
    I'd become a materialist atheist, but found that this didn't square with experience: most notably it didn't have room for justice. So I tried on various other approaches--immersing in them for a while and then realizing that this didn't work either. In parallel I went in for introspection, and discovered that there was something in me that hungered for destruction. This "what the hell" moment shook me pretty badly--if I can't trust myself I'm in trouble; and I seemed not to be turning out to be a very good person (which acquaintances could probably have assured me of, and at length).
    One morning about a year later it suddenly struck me, with a clarity I've never had before or since, that everything fit together and made sense through Jesus. It was humiliating to have had the answer under my nose all along, and it wasn't for a few more weeks until I decided to go with it. Since then there've been episodes of--I don't know--recognition? as some aspect of life links to Christ. Raising kids (including Aspies) suddenly linked up with the theme that if we were made for love we were made for service. (Years too late for me to do my best, unfortunately) After too many years I realized that sex wasn't as simple as our culture made out and that there was something substantial to the business I skimmed about "one flesh." Suffering people didn't want explanations so much as someone to be with them--like the One who joined us. And so on.
    So much for the A implies B implies C analytical mindset.

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  8. James,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Ultimately, we have to find a framework for understanding our life experiences, so I'm not surprised that it was a mystical experience rather than cold hard facts that won you over. It's interesting that you were an atheist for a time. I've only experienced the Christian worldview myself.

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  9. Why me, and not (for example) a daughter who desperately wanted such an experience to substantiate her faith? That's one of those little questions that ties in with the resurrection question that started this off. (on the other post--my fault.) What constitutes enough evidence--do you have to have the experience yourself or can you trust someone else's?

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