Often, when someone asks a question relating to the mystery of suffering, we want to immediately fast forward and skip to the response of the person being questioned. However, this urge is misplaced. In philosophy, theology and science, often the most important things are questions as all inquiry starts with questions. For example, in science we may ask if a certain hypothesis is true, in philosophy we may ask if a theory of perception is true and in theology we may ask if a certain interpretation of a Scriptural passage is accurate. Without these original questions, these three fields and many others would not even exist in the first place and they would certainly not be around today. The great scientist Albert Einstein explained brilliantly why questions are highly important in the two quotations below:
(1) ‘It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer’
(2) ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes’
Socrates, the greatest philosopher of all, also explained this well in the following quotation:
‘Understanding a question is half an answer’
It was Socrates relentless and restless method of questioning everything, presuming nothing, taking nothing for granting and leaving no stone unturned which got him so far in developing philosophy.
Often it is also important to assess the motives, intentions and aims behind the questioner’s asking the question. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus often shows this in his responses to some of the Pharisees’ questions. When they ask him questions for the deliberate purpose of tripping Him up and of catching up out to undermine his teachings, he fires their questions straight back at them or answers their question by asking another of His own. However, when a question is asked out of a genuine, authentic, devout heart and intention – a thirst to know and understand the God we believe in more, the question is taken more seriously.
The questions we ask when we are deep in the midst of suffering are these: ‘Why am I experiencing this suffering?’, ‘Why is this suffering happening to me?’, and most frequently, ‘Why is God allowing this suffering to happen to me?’ It is firstly worth remembering that, when we scratch deep beneath the surface, this “Why me?” question actually seems self-centred and arrogant in its presumptions as it implies you’re better and less fallen, broken and imperfect than everyone else and that it would almost be O.K. for it to happen to someone else, but just not you yourself. It suggests that others are beneath you and so almost deserve to suffer or at least deserve to suffer less than others. As Frankl put it,
‘[N]o human suffering can be compared to anyone else’s because it is part of the nature of suffering that it is the suffering of a particular person, that it is his or her own suffering – that its ‘magnitude’ is dependent solely on the sufferer, that is, on the person; a person’s solitary suffering is just as unique and individual as is every person. Therefore, it would be pointless to speak of differences in the magnitude of suffering; but a difference that truly matters is that between meaningful and meaningless suffering’
(Dr Viktor Frankl, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything)
It is instead, therefore, much better to try and contextualise and accurately situate the question as the general one of why does God allow suffering in general?
Now it seems to me that all these questions are thoroughly steeped, mired, undergirded, upheld, immersed and rooted in Christian language, culture and belief. As Hart states,
‘For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture […] For, if we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. […] The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God—and moral disappointments—have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith’
(David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?)
When we ask, “Why suffering?”, the clear, obvious initial premise and presumption is that there is indeed (at least ultimately) a reason or rationale behind it. Otherwise, why would we even think of asking the question in the first place? In that case, we would know full well that asking why would be a completely pointless and futile waste of time and breath. This urge for a response and for meaning stems from our instinctive and inherent sense that it currently seems unjust but that there must be future, ultimately just to rectify and correct this. This, I believe, stems from the moral (and just) law within, placed within us by God. As Stanley Hauerwas astutely put it,
‘When Christianity is assumed to be an “answer” that makes the world intelligible [within this temporal, Earthly life], it reflects an accommodated church committed to assuring that the way things are is the way things have to be’
As Revd Anthony Smith and Denys Turner have both pointed out, sin (the most common cause of suffering, especially human suffering) does not make and has never made sense. It is a negative privation, perversion, and a corrupting, corrosive lack of goodness. What goes through the minds of evil doers and sinners (including ourselves) will always baffle us and be ultimately mysterious to us? It should therefore come as no great shock to us that the painful suffering that results from human sin is also accordingly nonsensical, baffling and bizarre.
When they try to derive their case for the non-existence of God, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and others try to construct this rather bizarre cocktail of negative, hypothetical anti-theology. They say, if God exists (which they don’t believe), then why would He allow suffering? However, the entire initial premise at the very start here is one which the questioner does not even believe in. He/she asks a question to which he has already ruled there must necessarily be no answer. Why must there be no answer? Because, if there were an answer, their theology would be undermined and discredited. They immediately move on after asking this question, before the believer even has a chance to respond. Why? Because they very much do not want an answer as an answer or response would destroy their case. As David Bentley Hart states, ‘There is no argument here to refute‘. Effectively, they are demanding an answer to what they already see, right from the start, as a rhetorical question. They do not want there to be meaning in, during, through or even after suffering which seems to be self-defeating, discouraging and demoralising, even for them. As Frankl put,
‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete’
To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering’
‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’
‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for’
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
‘Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do’
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment)
‘I think everyone must love life more than anything else in the world.’
‘Love life more than the meaning of it?’
‘Yes, certainly. Love it regardless of logic, as you say. Yes, most certainly regardless of logic, for only then will I grasp its meaning. That’s what I’ve been vaguely aware of for a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan: you love life. Now you must try to do the second half and you are saved’
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
Their task disingenuous and self-defeating as they bizarrely do not want an answer now or ever. They want to fail and set out for the expressed purpose of failing. Their failure standard is to succeed and their success standard is to fail! It is all upside-down and back-to-front. They are conducting their curious brand of fatalistic, negative, hypothetical anti-theology is a self-absorbed, narrow echo chamber of militant anti-theists where the answer is entirely determined by what the questioner already knows. No other outside influence can ever come into play.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, writes in his excellent book Writing in the Dust, sometimes we as believers must just leave that “why?” question to hang in the air for some time. Why? To give us time to gather our thoughts and out of respect for the sheer enormity of the question. For those of us who have long been believers, sometimes this question can almost be akin to a sort of short-term, emotional, knee-jerk response to our present trials and sufferings. Sometimes we do ask questions out of frustration and angst. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact we must remember that Jesus says “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” in a similar fashion. Additionally, the Books of Job, Lamentations and the Psalms are all full of cries of frustration, complaint and annoyance at God and calls for explanation, rationalisation and justification. This doesn’t mean they aren’t valid questions, that they don’t have a rational basis or even that we shouldn’t search for answers. We know that God hasn’t actually abandoned us in reality because of His unending support throughout our lives but, in that moment, in the raw depth and midst of suffering, that does seem to feel like the way it is. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the “Footprints in the Sand” poem here:
and the below song:
It just needs to be born in mind. We also need to pause in order to have time to think through a coherent response. With huge questions such as “Why suffering?”, comes immense difficulty to respond, never mind “answer”. In a sense, it would be odd if this were not the case as otherwise why would we be asking it in the first case, and not just asking it but asking it repeatedly again and again right throughout our lives? Such challenging questions are a great challenge to respond to too!
Our wailing for justice during and in the midst of the depths of suffering is a cry to God, asking for more of Him and His presence and power, not a wail away from Him, requesting His absence. Why wail at all if you don’t believe in Him who hears? I shall leave the following excellent quotations to hang in the air with you:
‘[W]ithout the God of the Bible we can’t actually ask why. Think about the alternatives to Christianity. You’ve got Karma and you’ve got chaos. Karma says the universe dishes out perfect justice therefore there is no such thing as unjust suffering. You cannot ask why but if you come across to the chaos point of view that’s atheism, there’s no rhyme nor reason to anything, it’s all random but if everything is random, nothing is wrong not really. So with Karma and chaos, you cannot even ask the why question but we’re always asking why just read in the Bible: Job or the Psalms and then when the Son of God comes in the flesh he stood at the grave sites crying, getting angry at death and on the cross, He suffered supremely taking up our why question before God, praying “My God, my God, why?” God does not away from the why question, he embraces it, speaks it and takes it through the valley of the shadow of death and out into the resurrection joy. Jesus doesn’t so much answer our specific why questions but uniquely he allows you to ask them. He joins you in the suffering and uniquely he gives you a future beyond Karma, beyond chaos’
(Glen Scrivener speaking on “Premier on Demand”)
‘There is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism—abstracted from any living system of belief—that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it’
‘I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do‘
(Pages 13 and 92 of The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley-Hart)
Bentley-Hart rightly points out here that the atheist who argues against God’s existence in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is exploiting, using and preying upon the suffering of the innocent.
By Ben Somervell