Suffering: Problem or Mystery?

I have studied what is most commonly known and referred to as “The Problem of Evil” for the last six years in a row and have often written on the subject (please see The Presumption behind the Question which the Mystery of Suffering poses and Self-Love AND Self-Denial?: Christianity and Mental Health) and spoken in and listened to many debates on it. The most important lesson I have learnt throughout all of this has actually been one relating to linguistics, terminology and what some may, in some ways reasonably, call semantics. I learnt this lesson from Dr Medi-Ann Volpe-Ayres and Ross Jesmont. To refer to this issue as “The Problem of Evil” is profoundly misleading, inaccurate and disingenuous. This is because the issue does not just involve man-made, intentional and purposeful suffering caused by evil hearts and intentions (which is what is implied by the term “evil”). No, it also includes suffering caused accidentally or unintentionally by humans and natural suffering (e.g. natural disasters). So should we therefore refer to it as “The Problem of Suffering”? No, we shouldn’t as it is not a simplistic, flat, narrow, anthropocentric, formulaic question which demands a one-dimensional, binary reply or yes/no answer, and nor is it a mathematical equation which requires a numerical answer. As Douglas Adams insinuated in his bestseller “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, even if such immense questions as “What is the Meaning of Life?” did miraculously and somehow have simple, quick answers (such as the number “42”), such answers would not actually, in any way, feel or seem acceptable, explanatory, meaningful, worthwhile, pithy, consequential or adequate. How could such a huge, deep, probing question possibly have such a simple, straightforward, numerical answer or quick fix? How could we ever hope to have all of that endless searching, internal, introspective probing and seeking be finally ended once and for all with such an “answer”? It would be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. You just can’t do it. The two don’t cohere or fit and are not compatible or complementary. On Earth and in this temporal life, there is admittedly no response or reply to the question which the “mystery of suffering” poses which would precisely and wholly fit into the specific outline and template of the question, as a key might fit into a glove or a hand into a rightly-sized glove.

It is also worth remembering that while the act of uncovering divine, God-given meaning in, during and through suffering by and for ourselves can help us to endure and persevere trials, it does not eradicate, alleviate or lessen any suffering we may be experiencing, as Karl Barth has observed. Even if we were to somehow suddenly discover exactly why we all suffer and why we all suffer the degree to which we suffer, and the meaning behind all suffering we experience, this would still not eradicate, alleviate or lessen any suffering. It would not act as a cure or antidote to suffering. As Salman Rushdie once put it, ‘What cannot be cured must be endured’. Converting to Christianity also does not eradicate or alleviate suffering for the believer, as Kierkegaard astutely points out:

‘[I]t is not true that the Christian is exempted from human sufferings as we know them in the world; no, but the person who bears the suffering in such a way that he believes the yoke is beneficial to him is carrying Christ’s yoke. No new suffering, humanly speaking, has been added, but neither has any old suffering been removed. To that extent everything is unchanged, and yet it has now been given, this great thought, and yet the place has been found outside the world: faith […] ‘It certainly was not Christ’s intention to lead people out of the world into regions of paradise where there is no need or wretchedness at all or by magic to make mortal life into worldly delight and joy. This would be only a misunderstanding, a sensate, frivolous misunderstanding. No, he wanted to teach what he demonstrated by his example, that the burden is light even if the suffering is heavy. Thus in a certain sense the burden remains the same, since the burden is the suffering, the heavy suffering, and yet the burden becomes light. A person’s lot here on earth has not become different from before because Christianity entered into the world. A Christian can come to suffer exactly the same as was suffered before – yet the heavy burden becomes light for a Christian’

(Søren Kierkegaard, “The Gospel of Sufferings” in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits)

Suffering really is a deep mystery as Augustine acknowledged when he stated that, as it was a parasitic, corrosive lack and privation of goodness, trying to get a handle on it was lack trying to ‘see darkness’ or ‘hear silence’. Evil’s very existence, being and occurrence seems to be paradoxical and mysterious at best, but oxymoronic and self-contradictory at worst. It just doesn’t seem to compute but, then again, sin itself which most frequently causes suffering is itself deeply incoherent, baffling, disturbing, puzzling and perverted. Why do we so often desire forbidden things which we ultimately now will cause damage to ourselves and others? Why do we hurt others? Why do we lust after things which are not of or after our created nature in the image of the perfect God who designed us all? As Revd Anthony Smith wisely explains:

‘[I]f having free will means that sin is inevitable, then why hasn’t God fallen into sin? Does God not have free will?

No, I don’t think we can explain the fall so easily. But is that a problem? Should we expect to be able to explain sin easily? I don’t think so. In fact, perhaps the reason it isn’t easy to make sense of sin is that sin quite simply doesn’t make sense! Can we look at sin in our own lives and say, “Yup, it makes perfect sense why I did that, I have free will, so I was bound sooner or later to turn and spit in the face of the One who has shown me nothing but kindness and mercy all my days”? What nonsense’

(Revd Anthony Smith in his blog post entitled, “Does Free Will explain the Fall?”)

Fyodor Dostoevsky said that he “occupied” himself with the mystery of “man” and the meaning of life, and was happy to do precisely because it was unsolvable in this life and so overpowering and intrinsic to and intrenched within our lives. It was something he constantly and continually chewed over, tasting and digesting differing textures, flavours and parts of the food. He pondered these things in his mind and mulled them over, accepting that it was a mystery to be marvelled at, rather than mourned. We should not flee or hide from mystery but should instead run towards it, embracing it. We ought to cling onto the mystery, immersing ourselves in it, marvelling at and standing in awe before it. Locate the mystery, ponder it, chew it over, savour it, taste its different flavours and textures, but never seek to escape from it. As Leo Tolstoy put it,

‘The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations’

(A.N. Wilson, “Tolstoy”)

Jordan Peterson, the Buddha and Dostoevsky have all suggested that life does not just contain suffering, but that it is itself suffering. Jacobus Johannes Leeuw wrote in his masterpiece The Conquest of Illusion that, ‘The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved; it is a reality to be experienced’. In like manner, we need to occupy ourselves with and constantly ponder on and chew over the mystery of suffering, knowing that none of us will have an ultimate, complete rational answer to it in this life as in this life, as it is not a problem to be solved. We, as Christians, are not the only ones who, in this Earthly life, cannot receive an ultimate answer here. To try to find a complete, whole, full and sufficient answer to the mystery of suffering in this life is a little like looking at the horizon and trying to run as far as you can, seeking to find the edge or end of the Earth. The closer we seem to be getting to the edge/end (from our imperfect, finite and limited perspective), the further away it appears. This is because the underlying presumption here, namely that the Earth is flat, is false. Similarly, suffering is not a rational question to be answered or a mathematical, formulaic equation to be solved. No, it is a mystery which is not fully comprehensible or accessible to finite human reason or logic. The closer you seem to be getting to a resolution, the more it actually evades, escapes, puzzles, bewilders and mystifies you. It is a paradox, a mystery, and an apparent antinomy.

Reason only gets us so far, faith and reason are still ultimately best portrayed in a Venn diagram of two overlapping concentric circles. Reason is one eye of the pair of binoculars and faith is the other, they are mutually inclusive, peacefully coexisting and complementing each other. As Bernanos wrote,

‘A single word could have saved us, but love follows roads unknown to reason; or rather, it joins up with reason at a place well beyond our understanding. Love needed only to give a word; but he gave his Life’

(Georges Bernanos)

Or, as Kafka put it,

‘Logic may indeed be unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who is determined to live’

(Chapter 10 of “The Trial” (1920) by Franz Kafka)

These questions are explored very well by Leo Tolstoy in his excellent book My Confession.

The same is true for all non-Christians. It remains a constant mystery for the atheist and agnostic too. They also ask themselves “Why am I suffering?”, “Why me?”, and “How could someone possibly do X or Y to me?”

Christians must face, live with and hold together in tension many other things such as the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Atheists also have to face mysteries such as the definition of energy itself, the mystery of human consciousness, why and how there is something rather than nothing, what caused the Big Bang, how light can simultaneously be both a wave and a particle, the mystery of human romantic love, the puzzle of the meaning of life, etc…

The mystery of suffering clearly, then, is no silver bullet or smoking gun for the atheist. Nor is it a unique get-out-of-jail-free card or a pivotal “gotcha!” moment. When it is used in this way by antitheists and militant protest atheists, it preys on, exploits and victimises the innocent religious victims of suffering and uses them as a philosophical football to be kicked around. It is a cheap, point-scoring pot shot, which fails to get under the skin of Christianity and lacks understanding of what makes Christians live and how they uncover God-given meaning in their lives. The key to living, surviving and thriving is to find and uncover meaning behind, through and within the mystery of suffering. As Dibelius once said,

‘God does not lead His children around hardship, but leads them straight through hardship … And amidst the hardship, He is nearer to them than ever before’

(Otto Dibelius)

As Fr George Calciu wrote,

‘Christ did not come into the world to eliminate suffering, Christ has not even come into the world to explain it. Rather, He came to fill human suffering with His presence’

(Fr. George Calciu)

By Ben Somervell

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