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 which relates 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 a profoundly misleading, inaccurate and disingenuous error. 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, formulaic question which demands a one-dimensional, binary reply or yes/no answer, and nor is it a formulaic 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, adequate or sufficient. How could such a huge, deep, probing question possibly have such a simple, quick, straightforward, numerical answer? 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 three metre-cubed’s worth of wood into a one metre-cubed box. You just can’t do it. The two don’t cohere or fit and are not compatible or complementary. There is admittedly no response or reply to the question which the “mystery of suffering” poses which would fit precisely wholly into the precise outline and template of the question, as a key might fit into a glove or a hand into a rightly-sized glove.

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. A mystery to be marvelled, rather than mourned.

Jordan Peterson, the Buddha and Dostoevsky have all suggested that life does not just include or contain suffering, but that it is itself suffering. Kierkegaard once said that “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced”. In like manner, we need to and ought to occupy ourselves 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, 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 and undergirding premise and presumption here, namely that the Earth is flat, is false. In like manner, 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. Closer you seem to be getting to a resolution, the more it actually evades, escapes, puzzles, bewilders and mystifies you. Paradox, mystery, apparent antinomy.

Only reason so much and so far, only gets you up to a certain point still concentric circles. Overlap not overlay exact outlineThese 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, 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. The key to living, surviving and thriving is to find meaning behind, through and within the mystery.

By Ben Somervell

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