by Peter Corney
The recent tragic events in Haiti (13/1/10) raise this question acutely for us once again, but the question is always with us because we all experience suffering in some form or other in our lives and the lives of those we love.
There are no simple or glib answers to this question, but if one is to live in hope and not despair it is essential to think it through. The following is an attempt to provide a Christian framework from within which to consider the question.
1. We need to observe that suffering has different causes:
(a) It can be the result of human decisions and actions that are selfish, exploitive, cruel, unjust or evil. E.g.: Economic exploitation, war and other forms of armed conflict, pollution that leads to disease, individual life style decisions that lead to alcoholism or drug addiction, heart disease or diabetes, etc. Human actions can also compound the effect of natural forces like flooding or seasonal cycles of cyclones when people are forced for economic or political reasons to live in flood prone areas like parts of Bangladesh or Burma. Climate change is another example of this. The tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti is compounded by the political corruption, instability, poverty and lack of infrastructure in that sad country.
(b) As a result of the natural physical order; Storms, earthquakes, volcanic activity, etc. The creation is dynamic; it is continually evolving and changing. We humans are part of the natural physical order and our suffering sometimes occurs when we interact with it. While it is largely predictable it is not static. Often we take risks in our interaction with the creation, e.g.: building in flood prone or volcanic areas.
(c) Diseases, genetic distortions etc., that seem to be part of the ‘natural order’. We will return to these later.
2. The religious answers to the reality of suffering are many but two of the most significant are Christianity and Eastern Mysticism (EM), but they are very different.
(a) In EM the basic answer given is ‘detachment’ or disengagement. Suffering is caused by our desire for things; money, health, love, power, recognition, possessions, etc.
When we don’t have them or they are taken away we suffer. The answer is to get rid of our desires, detach, and disengage from the world. This is attempted through mental and physical exercises like Yoga. The ultimate detachment is where self consciousness is absorbed into the so called ‘cosmic consciousness’ and disappears in a kind of self annihilation. The other idea in EM that affects the attitude to suffering is that the material world with its particularity and differences is really an illusion and so not important. So the East’s answer is disengagement!
(b) Christianity on the other hand is the complete opposite to this; it is about engagement with suffering, in particular Christ’s engagement with suffering. It is based on the following seven ideas. It is essential to the Christian understanding of and response to suffering to understand these key ideas.
The seven key ideas:
The first four concern the way we understand God’s relationship to the physical order. We understand that:
1. God created the world and set in place certain physical laws like gravity.
2. God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way; which means that even though he has the power to interrupt or intervene, generally he follows and upholds his own physical laws in a consistent and reliable way. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but generally not . Later we will discuss an example of his intervention.
3. Because God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way the world is both a marvelous and consistent place. The seasons come and go the sun rises and sets, etc. This means scientific and medical research is possible. But it is also a dangerous and risky place for humans particularly as they pit themselves from time to time against the powers of nature. Mountains are exhilarating to climb but gravity is a danger! The sea and sailing can be a wonderful experience but storms are dangerous!
4. God created us as ‘embodied’ people; which means we can experience pleasure and pain, love and grief, rest and exhaustion. As embodied people in a world of powerful nature this carries with it certain implications. We also need to recognize that pain has an important protective role.
(The last three key ideas concern God’s relationship to the people he has created and certain ‘moral and spiritual laws.)
5. When God created us he set in place certain moral and spiritual laws (like his physical laws); e.g. Knowledge of and freedom of choice between right and wrong; the power to affect the creation for good or ill; relational choice – to relate to God or not, to relate to others rightly or wrongly, etc. Now God interacts with us like the rest of his creation in a self limiting way; which means according to his moral and spiritual laws. So he allows us the freedom to choose wrongly or selfishly as well as rightly and that may cause suffering for ourselves and others. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but not normally. His aim is to call forth from us a free response not coerce us.
6. The sixth key idea is what Christians call ‘the fall’. The Christian faith holds that God’s original creation has been disturbed by humanitiies challenge to God’s authority. The story, described in mythic and theological language in chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis, explains what happened and the results. Our rejection and assumption to ourselves of God’s authority disturbs our relationship with him, with one another and with the creation. The natural intimate relationship with God is replaced with estrangement, fear and guilt. The man and the woman’s relationship is also disturbed. Mans responsibility for the creation remains but is changed, thorns and weeds grow with his tilling of the soil, the work is now hard. Finally in chapter 4 we see violence and death enter with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God pronounces judgment on Cain, he will be alienated from the soil, from other men and from God, cursed to restlessly wander the earth never finding his true home. It is such a prophetic picture of the alienation experienced by contemporary people, environmentally, relationally and spiritually, and expressed in much art and literature. (See the article on the website “Is the 20th C’s scream of alienation still echoing in the 21stC?”)
This is why many things are not the way they were meant to be and so produce suffering and disease. The created order is ‘fallen’, out of joint, the world is broken. The rest of the Biblical story is essentially God’s response to this and his rescue mission.
7. The intervention! I said earlier that God does sometimes intervene and takes the self imposed limits off himself. Generally it is difficult for us to know when he does this, but the big intervention and the one we can be sure of, because he said it was, is the ‘incarnation’. (John 1:1- 18) God stepped into our history in the person of his son Jesus Christ, took on human flesh, identified with us and suffered for us and with us. Here we see the great difference with EM. God engages with us, enters into our brokenness and suffering. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation, it is about attachment not detachment, engagement not disengagement with the real world. God is with us in our pain.
But he not only identifies with us in our suffering, he confronts its major cause – our wrong and selfish choices. In his death on the cross he takes on our evil and guilt. God absorbs the power and effects of evil and death and suffering and it judgment in himself and then rises to new and eternal life.
So by his death and resurrection he banishes death and decay and suffering. His resurrection releases Gods renewing and recreating power to renew the whole creation. When a person ceases rejecting Gods authority over their life and submits to it and trusts in Christ they are reconciled with God through Christ’s actions. They receive the Holy Spirit of God and God’s life enters their life. This is like a down payment on their future transformed life in Gods’ renewed creation. Christians do not believe in annihilation at death nor do they believe we will exist in some disembodied consciousness but in real renewed bodies in the new heavens and the new earth where all pain and suffering will be wiped away. (Romans 8: 18-25)
Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order but a restoration of the fallen natural order. God did not create a world with disease and death in it. Jesus’ miracles were signs of the future complete restoration that is to come (1)
This understanding leads Christians to be in the forefront of caring for those who suffer. They created the first NGO’s for aid and development, the first hospitals and orphanages, etc. Like Jesus they are driven by love for the broken world and a desire to be signs of the vision of the future God has in store.
The alternative to this is stark. Richard Holloway expresses it with disturbing clarity in these words:
The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends by believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness. (2)
References: (1) Tim Keller ‘ The Prodigal God’ p112, Hodder, 2008.
(2) Richard Holloway ‘ Paradoxes of the Christian Faith and Life’ p29, Mowbray, 1984