I led discussion for the Burn this past Sunday morning and brought up the difficult question of suffering. I was hoping for a Theodicean discussion in some form, but sometimes the kids don't have anything to say for one reason or another. I don't blame them. Suffering is a tough thing to respond to, and the question of God being good in the face of all the suffering in the world is an even more difficult question that gives some expert scholars pause. In any case, I wasn't expecting perfection, just some thoughts/questions. I did my best to make the questions as friendly to highschoolers as possible. I don't really expect them to be as brilliant as me, after all.
I'm working on a blog post on Job at the moment, but It's a little more research intensive than my normal blog posts, so I thought I would discuss some similar ideas for now. I also thought I would blog my notes because I thought they were blog worthy.
I started out by posing the question: "What is Suffering?"
I was hoping for students to describe and define suffering. At least question whether or not there are different forms of suffering. I myself thought a discussion regarding whether or not there is a difference between suffering and punishment would be very good. It's something I've thought of myself. I tend to believe there is a difference. (I'll get to that later.)
I also asked "What causes suffering?" I was hoping for some good questions and answers. All I got were blank stares. In addition to the rest of the questions, I thought this one was particularly important to consider. Is God the cause of our suffering? Does he visit hardship upon us, or does it just happen naturally as a result of life. Does suffering happen because the world is imperfect, or is it a natural part of the world, totally inseparable from it. Is all suffering a result of evil? Does suffering happen because of our sin? All good questions to consider.
I tend to believe suffering happens. Sometimes it's just a result of the way the world works. Sometimes earthquakes happen. Sometimes natural disasters happen. It sucks, but it happens. I don't think it means that some people or country deserved the wrath of God that was visited upon them. I also believe that sometimes suffering is a result of evil. By the evil of actions of an individual or a group of people. Evil does cause suffering. I think that point is rather undeniable. I have a problem believing God causes suffering though. (I'll get to that in a minute too.)
This brings me to the Theodicean discussion. "If God is good, why does suffering happen?" furthermore: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's an awful difficult question to ask. There are usually two feel-good Christian answers that one is bound to encounter when asking the question. The first being "God's in control." The second is different by stating "God allows us to suffer so that we can learn." Now I believe they are both theologically sound, I just think they ought to be unpacked instead of taken at face value.
With the first answer, I can think of a few few verses that can attest to this right off the bat. My favorite to use would have to be Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, which states: "Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future." I love this passage as much as I love Ecclesiastes. Both are responding to this question of suffering in the world. People tend to use this first answer as well as this passage to say that "we can't possibly comprehend what God has in store for us, so let's leave it at that and not pursue the question any further. Just know that God is in control" I disagree. I like the answer, but I don't think that's how it's supposed to be used. I believe the author is commenting on the difficulty inherent in the question. The Author is not suggesting we disregard the question, they are merely suggesting we not allow suffering to bog us down and restrain us from living life to the full. At least that is where the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be going. (As I interpret it.) To say we shouldn't bother to ask why suffering happens because we couldn't possibly comprehend the reason, seems ridiculous to me. Even if it were true (which it probably is) that we as humans couldn't possibly understand why suffering happens, I think it's still very important for us to ask the question. I think we can learn from just asking that question. (I want to elaborate in my blog post on Job, so I'm being quite brief.)
This second answer is obviously attractive, so you are bound to hear it a lot. "Suffering happens so we can learn" or "God allows us to suffer to enrich our lives." At this point, I would like to make the distinction between suffering and punishment. I believe they are totally different things. I'm going to straight out say that I have a problem believing God makes me or anyone else suffer just so I can learn. I think that's bull. I don't think God kills people or hurts people to cause other people to learn or enrich other people's lives. I believe that the second answer is more of a brilliant "cop-out" than the first answer. It gives no consideration to the Just and Good character of God. How just is it for our creator to eliminate his creation for the betterment of the rest of his creation. It sure does wrap the whole problem up neatly though. I don't have a problem believing we can learn and better ourselves from our suffering. I think we all can learn from suffering. It can provide us with valuable insight and life lessons sometimes. I just don't think God causes us to suffer for that very reason. I think by using this answer, we are confusing suffering for punishment.
Punishment gets a bad rep. That's probably because as children we despised it. We didn't want it. We still don't. I do believe God punishes us, just as our parents punished us (or should have) when we were younger. It's not because they hated us. It's actually quite the opposite. Our parents and God are concerned for our well being. They want us to develop and live good/righteous lives. They punish us in order to teach us how to do just that. God punishes us in order to lead us to a life worth living. He, like our parents, knows how we should live. I suppose Punishment can then be a form of suffering, although more personal in nature. Our punishment has nothing to do with other people. It's our business. We bring it upon ourselves. I'm not saying punishment is any easier to deal with though. I just think there's a difference between punishment and suffering.
This brings me to another point I made: "Why do we suffer?" Is our suffering a result of our sins? Do bad things then happen to everyone as a result of the wrong they do? I believe suffering does happen sometimes as a result of our sins. In this sense, by doing evil, we can cause suffering. Hitler caused suffering due to his hatred towards the Jews, among other people. Suffering can definitely come about as a result of our actions. Sometimes we are punished as a result of our actions though. This is for our betterment, and would be a result of God trying to steer us clear. This doesn't mean that suffering always happens as a result of our actions or the actions of another person. Consider John 9:1-7: "As he went along, he (Jesus) saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man;s eyes. "Go," he told him, "was in the Pool of Siloam." So the man went and washed, and came home seeing." I like to think Jesus is saying this guy just happened to be born blind. Christ used his blindness though. This brings me to my next point.
I think Christ is showing us that as Christians, it is our duty to respond to the suffering in the world. I believe our response is more important than any answer. More importantly, I believe God responds to suffering through our response to suffering. We are called to do his work. It's important to understand that we aren't alone in the world. There are other people going through the exact same thing. We are in it together, I guess. Jesus tells his disciples that they will continue to suffer even after he dies. John 16:33 says, "I have told you these things , so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." In the end, it's important to remember that Christ is bigger than this world and all the suffering that happens. Christ suffered for us so that we would have relief for our suffering. It's nice to know that we aren't alone in our suffering. That Christ suffers with us. Perhaps Christ's sacrifice and suffering also illustrates that we are supposed to be with those who suffer so that they, like us, don't have to be alone in their suffering.
It's late, and I pretty sure I missed a ton of stuff, but I plan on addressing a lot in blog post on Job so I'll call this one done. In any case, I like to think about this stuff. I think we all ought to give it some thought too.