Thoughts to Ponder are my musings regarding community, things of the Spirit, and living as a Christ-follower. I don't offer the words of a professional or an expert; just a fellow traveler and explorer. Please don't take my musings more serious than I do. I've discovered a long time ago that I do not hold the keys of knowledge or wisdom. If I did, I misplaced them somewhere...typical.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Suffering Revisited

Recently I have run across the title and brief summary of a book about suffering. It is called God's Problem by Bart D. Ehrman. The brief summary reads "bestselling author...chronicles Christianity's faith-shattering failure to account for suffering."

In all fairness, I cannot critique the book because I have not read it. Nor would I lightly enter into a debate with someone as highly credentialed and educated as Ehrman. So please understand this is not an overt criticism of the book or the man since I am unqualified to offer either.

However, the idea intrigues me. (And please, forgive me--I am "thinking out loud"). Is suffering God's problem? And is Christianity required to account for suffering? Is Buddhism, Hinduism,  Islam or Atheism required to account for the existence of suffering? Do these worldviews offer a better explanation than Christianity or Judaism?

When I finally obtain a copy of the book, I will be interested in whether Dr. Ehrman addresses Eastern European, Indian, Asian, or African Christian approaches to suffering or if he merely deals with American Evangelical Christianity's attempt to explain suffering. To be honest, our grasp of suffering seems a bit sheltered: perhaps American Christianity does not have the most mature perspective on the topic. If his critique is centered on American Christianity then he may have a good argument. Of course, if that is his approach then it wouldn't be quite fair to label this as "Christianity's failure"--the brush would be too broad.

I think the problem we face is this idea that somehow we are obligated to explain suffering. Perhaps this is part of our Greco-Roman-Western-Modern mindset that seems to demand we wrap everything up in a neat package that can be categorized and explained. Suffering will not allow such attempts.

The writer of Job presents us with a cosmic bet between the satan and God. But Job is never given an explanation: only questions from God. (Questions, I might add, that subtly hint at God's love for all of his creation). Qoholet the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that life from our perspective under the sun is quite meaningless. Time is monotonous ("a time for this, a time for that, a time for this, a time for that..."), injustice occurs, we get old and die, we are forgotten, and even our heirs will sometimes waste what we've spent a life time to build. Rather than explain it all he simply says: visit the house of death often, work hard, enjoy life, trust God.

One thing we do know from the biblical text is that suffering rarely has to do with whether one is pleasing to God or not. In fact, the text clearly tells us even God suffers and is grieved. We see this ultimately played out in the suffering of the Messiah. 

God suffers. We suffer.

Is it fair? No. Not in every case (although we all know of individuals who suffer from their own foolish choices--so, yes, in some cases suffering is fair).

Do the unjust seem to win?


Do those who refuse to trust in God, who cheat and steal, who unjustly oppress others enjoy wealth, health, and prosperity?


How can you explain it?

I can't. But neither can other world religions or world views--at least not with any satisfaction.

Some world views suggest there is no such thing as suffering. All is illusory.

Right. (So how does an experience that is apparently universal and common equate to something illusory? The fact we experience, discuss, and struggle with something we label as suffering indicates its existence.)

Others suggest evil and good are merely two sides of the same coin. So, in fact, there is no such of a thing as good or evil. So, again, suffering is somewhat illusory.

That really helps.

Some religions suggest God judges evil and those who sin with suffering and rewards the righteous with health, wealth, and prosperity.

That fits with reality, doesn't it?

Atheism says we're all just animals anyway. Suffering just is, there is nothing you can do about it. The best you can do is just try to enjoy life as long as you can before you can't anymore. There is no justice, no injustice, no good, no evil because there is no ultimate source for determining good and evil (except for the biggest baddest man who is running things at the time).*

I feel better already.

But then the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures comes in the middle of suffering--he does point to the existence of evil as central to the problem of suffering, but not in a simplistic way.  Ultimately he enters into suffering in the person of Jesus and says: "Trust me. I will walk you through this. I have experienced what you experience. I know what pain is. I also know what it means to trust in the middle of pain. There is a new day coming. All wrongs will be righted, creation healed, and the world set to rights."

Perhaps that isn't very satisfactory for some. But honestly, I can't think of any worldview that offers a better approach.

*I find it fascinating that while Atheism cannot point to objective good and evil (if there is no ultimate standard, how can there be objective good or evil?) and yet some atheists are quick to point to suffering and the existence of evil as "proof" that there is no God. They judge some things as evil and as atrocities and unjust, but to label things thus require an ultimate, objective standard.

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