The Mystery of Suffering: People of faith have long pondered how a loving God can permit suffering. Great thinkers throughout history have explored this mystery and defended the goodness of God. (Religion).
Confronted with the apparent paradox of human suffering under a benign God, some take refuge in skepticism or in mindless pleasure-seeking. Others construct sophisticated rationales that look sturdy enough from a cozy armchair but crumble under the onslaught of bitter experience. Still others blithely ascribe suffering to divine punishment meted out to the wicked. With regards to this last view, Jesus of Nazareth discussed with his disciples several contemporary tragedies:
There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilneans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus, answering, said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay. But, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay. But, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
The Master's answer suggests that the specifics in such cases are best left to God, and reassures us that injustices and suffering are not necessarily divine punishment for wrongdoing. Theologians are left to grapple with the timeless dilemmas of the theodicy, that is, proof of God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.
The problem of pain is only a paradox for those religious traditions that associate the divine with moral perfection. Not all religions make this association. Wrote C.S. Lewis:
The Numinous [i.e., supernatural] is not the same as the morally good, and a man overwhelmed with awe is likely, if left to himself, to think the numinous object "beyond good and evil."... The moral experience and the numinous experience are so far from being the same that they may exist for quite long periods without establishing a mutual contact. In many forms of Paganism the worship of the gods and the ethical discussions of the philosophers have very little to do with each other. The [next] stage in religious development arises when men identify them -- when the Numinous Power of which they feel awe is made the guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation.... [This] is not in the least obvious. The actual behaviour of that universe which the Numinous haunts bears no resemblance to the behaviour which morality demands of us. The one seems wasteful, ruthless, and unjust; the other enjoins upon us the opposite qualities.... It is not unnatural that many sections of the human race refused [ to make this jump]; non-moral religion, and non-religious morality, existed and still exist.
Both to the Hindu -- whose deities are mere repositories of supernatural power to be appeased and propitiated -- and to the Buddhist -- whose philosophy-religion does not posit a Supreme Being as such and takes human suffering as a given, arising from desires that must be extinguished -- pain is not a paradox but the product of fate or divine caprice.
Origins of Suffering
Human suffering arises from two distinct, divinely ordained conditions: the operation of consistent natural laws and human free agency. The first of these, the laws of nature, are morally neutral; the knife used by a criminal does not lose its sharpness the instant its blade is used to assault a victim. Nor does gravity loosen its grip to ensure a falling airplane a soft landing. And, as Jesus of Nazareth pointed out, it rains on the just and on the unjust. Because of this, the world is a hostile and unforgiving environment for God's children. A careless diet, reckless driving, playing with fire, or the incautious handling of firearms -- all of these are impartially harsh teachers of both the wilfully careless and the understandably innocent. And even the most prudent cannot defend against the ravages of epidemics, earthquakes, and other aptly-termed "acts of God."
Yet the laws of nature, by their very impartiality, create what C.S. Lewis termed a "neutral field" for us to exercise our free will. Such a field, to allow us to interact, must have a fixed nature independent of any of our individual wills, since any field that changed according to the personal whim of one individual would completely rule out communication or interaction with any other. As Lewis pointed out.
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of ... abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.... That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of the Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore, stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.
But it is not so much the fact that we get injured, sicken, and die that are of such concern. We are instead appalled at the magnitude of suffering that our mortal bodies, with their astonishingly intricate nervous systems, are able to inflict upon us. Is the unendurable torment of third-degree burns or disease really necessary? Could the laws of nature not operate just as surely and impartially on bodies deadened to their effects?
Bestselling author Philip Yancey, who has studied both the physiological and theological ramifications of pain, has pointed out that pain is an essential body mechanism that protects us from damaging ourselves, in the process blessing us with a range of capabilities that we take for granted. Yancey visited with Dr. Paul Brand, whose work with victims of leprosy revealed a startling and counterintuitive insight: The horrific effects of this awful disease, still experienced by millions worldwide, especially in poorer countries, are mostly brought about by progressive insensitivity to pain. Because the disease destroys its victims' natural ability to react to pain -- their bodies' warning signal that serious damage is being done -- leprosy patients abuse their bodies unawares, leading to infection and the deterioration of limbs and extremities. Feet impervious to the normal aches and pains of overuse succumb to infection and wear away. Hands placed too near heat suffer progressive tissue damage. Eyes, because o cular nerves no longer signal discomfort, lose the blinking reflex to clear away impurities and go blind.
Because of such limitations, leprosy patients found their freedom to act gradually curtailed by the disease. Yancey met a leprosy patient in Louisiana, for example, who was losing his musical talent. Already blind and crippled, his last remaining diversion was destroying his fingers because he was unable to discern how much wear and tear his hands could take during practice sessions.
Still more unfortunate are people born with a rare disorder, so-called "congenital indifference to pain," who never experience pain at all. Children with this condition typically cannot be disciplined, and sometimes learn to use their affliction as leverage over their parents; one child bit off her own fingers to shock her mother.
Life without pain, in other words, far from a desirable condition, is a hellish prison from which those who endure it would gladly be released.
Nature of Evil
More vexing than the problem of pain per se is the existence of evil. Why would a benevolent God tolerate evil at all? And can God be said to have created evil?
Drawing on an idea credited to the Neo-platonist thinker Plotinus, theologians like Augustine and Aquinas saw evil not as an independent, self-existent entity or idea, but as a privation. According to this view, evil exists only as the privative absence or deprivation of good, and cannot itself accomplish anything except by virtue of some good to which it is attached. Thus a man deprived of moral good may commit acts of evil by virtue of intact physical prowess (a good as such) or by virtue of the laws of nature that allow the operation of a jet plane or an explosive substance (also goods in and of themselves).
The notion of evil as a privation of good has several important consequences. First, it asserts a relationship between good and evil -- that the latter is utterly dependent upon the former. Second, it negates the heresy of dualism, where good and evil are held to be separate, coeval, equivalent warring entities. To accept the dualist claim is to acknowledge that a thing or being may be inherently evil; whereas schoolmen like Aquinas argued that evil was essentially a corruption of preexistent good. Third, since evil is not an independent entity, it cannot be said to have been created by God, since only things existing independently can be created.
Evil, therefore, can only be comprehended as the privative opposite of good. Said Aquinas, "One opposite is known through the other, as darkness is known through light. Hence also what evil is must be known from the notion of good." In other words, many things can only be fully understood in relation to their opposites.
Augustine saw opposition as an essential element of created beauty:
[T]hese oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things. This is quite plainly stated in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, in this way: "Good is set against evil, and life against death: so is the sinner against the godly. So look upon all the works of the Most High, and these are two and two, one against another."
Can we imagine a world without opposition? Who could fully appreciate the sweet without also experiencing the bitter? And how, in the final analysis, can we comprehend good without experiencing its opposite? Opposition allows choice, and without choice, humans could not act for themselves.
Evil originates as a consequence of bad choices -- or the misuse of our God-given free agency. This agency is not absolute, for we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions, and the operation of natural laws, including pain, limits and directs our choices. But within the boundaries of natural law, we are at liberty to choose good or evil. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis implied, free agency is the natural consequence of natural laws and elements that neither accommodate our personal whims nor restrain our misdemeanors. Because of our free will, we are not marionettes manipulated by a divine puppetmaster, but independent beings free to love -- or reject -- Almighty God.
We are still left with the knottiest problem of all: why should God permit any of these things to be, if He is good and truly loves us? If free will, in conjunction with the laws of nature, is responsible for the suffering of His creatures, why does He allow this state of affairs to persist? The fact that He does permit such things to exist, while loving us His children, suggests not a deficiency in God's love, but that our own concept of love and goodness might be inadequate. As C.S. Lewis memorably observed:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness -- the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in Heaven -- a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves," and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all."
Lewis has a trenchant point. Does not parental love imply correction, discipline, and the teaching of self-restraint? We insist that our children not be spoiled, that they learn both from instruction and from sometimes harsh experience how to impose limits on their appetites. Why should God, in His paternal regard and love for us, be any different?
Adversity, as we all know, tempers and tries the soul. As theologian Thomas Kempis observed, "It is good to us that we have some times grievances and contrarieties: for ofttimes they call a man into himself that he may know himself to be in an exile and that he may put not his trust in any earthly thing.... When a man well disposed is troubled, tempted or vexed with evil thoughts then he understandeth God to be more necessary unto him without whom he perceiveth that he may do no good thing."
Still, the doubt lingers: Doesn't God want us to be happy? And if he does, why does He permit us to suffer so? In response, Yancey has pointed out that happiness and pain are not necessarily in contradiction:
We modems, in our comfort-controlled environments, have a tendency to blame our unhappiness on pain, which we identify as the great enemy. If we could somehow excise pain from life, ah, then we would be happy. But ... life does not yield to such easy partitioning. Pain is part of the seamless fabric of sensations, and often a necessary prelude to pleasure and fulfillment.
But to those of us not actually in the throes of suffering, statements of this sort might seem like glib dismissals. How can anyone who has never endured profound suffering speak with any authority on the subject?
Consolation to the Sufferer
Fortunately for us, we have the eloquent testimony of Boethius, a sixth-century scholar who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy -- a work dealing largely with the purpose of pain and suffering -- while in prison awaiting a traitor's execution on dubious charges. Happiness, Boethius concluded, resides only in doing good, because happiness is the highest good. By contrast, wickedness makes the wicked miserable, and the so-called "power" of doing evil is "no power at all. For all these reasons the power of good men and the weakness of evil men is apparent.... [Evildoers] do what they like so long as they think that they will gain through their pleasures the good which they desire; but they do not gain it, since nothing evil ever reaches happiness." Therefore, Boethius asserted, the power which evil men appear to exercise is an illusion, and the damage they appear to do is insignificant compared to the rewards of righteous conduct:
Kings you may see sitting aloft upon their thrones, gleaming with purple, hedged about with grim guarding weapons, threatening with fierce glances, and their hearts heaving with passion. If any man take from these proud ones their outward covering of empty honour, he will see within, will see that these great ones bear secret chains. For the heart of one is thus filled by lust with the poisons of greed ... or gloomy grief holds them weary captives, or by slippery hopes they are tortured. So when you see one head thus laboring beneath so many tyrants, you know he cannot do as he would, for by hard task-masters is the master himself oppressed.... It is plain from this that reward is never lacking to good deeds, nor punishment to crime.
Boethius, though enduring the pains of a man unjustly condemned, took solace in a happiness that transcended the torments of his immediate circumstances. His courage and timeless wisdom testify that the human spirit is capable of rising above, and even benefitting from, any suffering inflicted by capricious nature or the contrivances of evil men.
Our perspective of the world is colored, to a degree, by the distortions of sensationalism. Tragedy titillates, and so our news and our histories are tilted towards conflict, despotism, and natural disaster. The 20th century which we have so recently left has been labeled the bloodiest in history, and so it was. But for vast numbers of us, the 20th century was first and foremost an era of progress and growth. Though millions died in wars and gulags, countless millions more were spared death from childbirth, disease, and poverty by scientific progress and the labors of the compassionate. The century produced the likes of Hitler and Stalin, but also Mother Teresa and Jonas Salk, among many others, whose contributions to alleviating human misery cannot be fully appreciated since we cannot know how much worse the world would have been without them.
The problem of pain, therefore, can easily be turned on its head: Given our fallible natures, why would a just God pamper and bless us so much? Why would He, against all expectation, help us to better our condition and to insulate ourselves from the forces of nature with such astonishing success? And why, despite the efforts of would-be despots, does He continue to allow us to live in freedom, under an inspired system of government designed to minimize the depredations of evil men in seats of power?
We cannot fully answer the questions posed by human suffering. No one can say why it should be of such a magnitude -- why, for example, the terminally-ill body should continue to transmit pain signals when they no longer serve any discernible purpose. We don't know why some evildoers pay for their misdeeds, while others, including political leaders guilty of enormous crimes against humanity, continue to cheat justice, by all appearances. At a certain point, we are forced to admit our ignorance, and repose our faith in the infinite justice -- and mercy -- of God. Of this we may be certain, however: From the divine perspective, the pain and suffering we are required to endure in this life fulfill higher, eternal purposes.
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|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Dec 31, 2001|
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