Still more reflections are developing in my mind since having posted, What is lacking.
One of my favorite movies of all times is Shadowlands, a film about C.S Lewis who, not so coincidentally, is also one of my favorite authors.
Among the most memorable scenes for me is one early in the movie when Lewis, a prominent university don, delivers an erudite lecture on Christianity and suffering. The presentation is confidently and competently given and its message is well-received by the large audience.
Later in the film, Lewis is portrayed experiencing both the greatest joy and the worst agony of his personal life. Despite being a lifelong bachelor, he unexpectedly falls deeply in love while in his mid-fifties. His struggle with the premature death of his wife is chronicled in the book, A Grief Observed.
He had spoken so competently about suffering. It was, of course, an entirely different thing to live through it.
Undoubtedly I am drawn to this movie and this scene because I see myself in it (minus the competence and late-life love affair).
The topic of suffering has had a conspicuous presence in my own writing for many years now. Entering the suffering of others has been at the heart of my life’s vocation and so I grapple with it, struggling to make sense of it in the context of the loving God to Whom I have given my life.
Yet my memory of this film prompts me to greater humility, recognizing that words are easy. Theologizing and philosophizing about other people’s misery is a far cry from drowning in it oneself.
The issue I now confront hardly originates with me. But can anyone answer the question:
Is it worth it?
Allow me to explain what I mean.
In my last few posts, I have strung together several concepts:
- God created us for love.
- love requires a voluntary choice and cannot be compelled.
- God created us with a free will so that we would be able to choose love.
- having a truly free will requires knowledge of evil as well as good.
- the choice of evil (departure from the Way of Love) leads to suffering.
Let us take a moment (but only a moment) to consider the suffering in the world.
In less than a month, there have been two major hurricanes that have caused extensive damage and devastation for millions of people in the western hemisphere. Mexico had a massive earthquake devastating millions more.
During this same time period, hundreds have been killed and millions more have been displaced by massive floods and landslides in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.
So far this month, there have been 94 terrorist acts around the world.
Of course, I haven’t touched upon all of the regions of the world where refugees are fleeing violence, starvation, etc.
And then there is all of the private suffering that occurs in every nation on earth. Or perhaps I should say in every life on earth.
I must stop here. If I try to cover every part of the world or start going back in time, neither you nor I will be able to bear it. I’ve probably already pushed too far.
We all know there is tremendous human suffering in the world – and there has been throughout recorded history. We do not need more reminders.
Did God make a mistake in creating us?
I do not deny that God’s love, is far greater than anything I can imagine.
But can it possibly be worth all of this suffering?
It is quite possible, of course, that the links I have drawn between the freedom to love and suffering are incorrect. Perhaps it is all unrelated.
But somehow we are repeatedly drawn to the question of why God allows such horrors to occur. If not my explanation, choose another:
- God is not truly omnipotent. He cannot stop all of the suffering.
- God is not truly good. He doesn’t care about the suffering.
- There is no God.
These are some of the other explanations floating around out there – I’m almost afraid to write them here for fear that one more person will adopt the heresies they entail.
I’m sticking to the understanding I have been given, thank you.
Yet, even within my admittedly inadequate understanding of suffering, there remains the question of whether love could possibly justify so much suffering.
Why did God do it? Why did God design creatures capable of love and therefore capable of such incredible suffering?
Oh my. I’ve painted myself into a corner again, haven’t I?
Why do I keep posing questions that I cannot possibly answer?
(I had to stop and pray for a moment to ask God to help me.)
It just occurred to me that perhaps I do this out of love, as strange of an explanation as that may seem.
If I thought I were the only one who struggled with questions like this, certainly it would be wise for me to keep them to myself. Why disturb other people’s peace of mind unnecessarily?
Of course I know that I am not the only one. Books have been written on the topic. Across centuries and cultures.
I was in mid-adolescence when questions of this nature began to erupt in my mind.
Back then, it was about meaning.
Why? Why is there life? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist?
Back then, I felt very alone. As far as I could tell, other kids weren’t thinking these kinds of thoughts.
While I hid my anguish, I didn’t keep the questions to myself, even then. In one of my high school religion classes, the topic I chose for my presentation to my peers was “Christian existentialism”. Hmm…
In any event, from the earliest times I can remember, I wasn’t willing to use religion to hide from the real, raw questions of life. If I was going to have faith, it had to be real faith, tested in the furnace of unknowing.
Perhaps my act of love now is simply to let you know that, if you wonder about these things too, you are not alone. I’m here with you.
Perhaps God can make use of me to ease even a little of the suffering imposed by these questions.
Yes, these questions can be a true affliction for many of us as we try to follow Christ in our broken world.
A few reflections surface as I ponder these questions before the Lord…
First, in my attempts to understand suffering in the manner that I do, I am not suggesting the explanation as a justification for suffering.
It is not as though I think God designed this system with suffering as part of the plan (e.g. “When these creatures of mine disobey Me, I’m gonna make ’em pay!!!”).
Did He know that our suffering was going to occur? Certainly yes, if He is God.
But this doesn’t mean that He “wanted” it to happen – only that He accepted it as an inevitable part of the process.
Now it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that something is “inevitable” as far as God is concerned. How is He omnipotent if He is constrained by some law of inevitability?
God’s omnipotence is not diminished by twists of human logic. My contention is simply that God cannot make us both “free” and “not free” at the same time (at least in the sense we are discussing here).
Neither can He make evil not be evil, thereby preventing it from being the opposite of good.
While I offer only educated conjecture, God alone understands how all things work together.
A second consideration essential to this discussion is that, from our current vantage point, we will never be able to judge whether it is truly “worth it”.
There are several reasons I am quite certain this is true.
For one, we are naturally much more attuned to suffering because we see or experience it right now. It demands our attention, both personally and globally.
Love does not do this – and we will not experience its fullness until an unknown point in the future.
The animal part of us favors what is immediate and what is negative because this information is most crucial to our survival.
It is possible, though difficult, for our spiritual nature to transcend this biological hard-wiring.
Furthermore, at present, we cannot see the “big picture” of what events of our lives mean for ourselves or others – or where they will lead us.
I have recognized some significant suffering of my own as very much worthwhile – when I later saw what had grown out of it. But I never would have anticipated this while I was in the suffering.
Finally, we have no ability to imagine the fullness of complete, perfect and unending love. Our human experiences of love clearly don’t approach this. The glimpses God gives us of His love are but glimpses at best – for our view is clouded.
In other words, we cannot really comprehend what love is in its fullness. Hence, we cannot possibly make judgments of its relative worth.
A final consideration is that we can allow our judgment to be distorted if we try to ponder all of the suffering going on in the world.
While not minimizing its scope or seriousness, we must remember that each instance involves individual souls traveling on personal paths to God.
In other words, each of us only experiences his/her own suffering, not all that we learn of through the media.
To make this clearer, let us suppose that I am involved in a tragic accident tomorrow. I am driving the Interstate 480 bridge and a defect in the bridge causes it to collapse. (I am using this example for all of the local phobics who fear this lengthy and highly trafficked bridge that carries us over a valley.)
Cars, including mine, fly off the bridge and all of them, along with an immense amount of rubble, fall on the homes and businesses in the valley below. People coming off the bridge as well as those underneath it are injured, trapped, even dying. And I am one of them.
It is likely that an event such as this would make national, perhaps even international news.
And undoubtedly, some people learning of this tragedy would be thinking: “How can a good God allow such a horrible thing to happen? Think of all of the suffering people!”
However, if we were to locate my one little body amidst the rubble, I would still just be me, one soul encountering another life event on my path to God.
It might be my final life event. Or it might be the occasion for a “miracle” in which I emerge unscathed. Or it might be the beginning of a new path, involving recovery from injury and trauma.
Whichever of these variations occurred would constitute the next phase of my journey. The fact that so many other people simultaneously experienced similar unanticipated changes in their life journeys is not greatly important to our understanding.
Every person on and under the bridge is going to suffer in this life and each one is going to eventually die. Whether we experience it as a group or as individuals, this reality does not change.
The world, however, which measures by numbers, would consider the loss of 200 people in the accident a tragedy that God should have prevented. If I alone died (and the others went on to die individually of other causes and at other times), the world would hardly notice.
Until finally united with God, my individual life, like all human lives, can always be expected to involve a multitude of unpredictable twists and turns that involve the potential for suffering – as well as the possibility of joy.
Now it may sound like I am minimizing human suffering when I refer to it as “unpredictable twists and turns”.
This is certainly not my intention. However, I am being drawn toward a new perspective – and am taking you along for the ride.
I just mentioned “the possibility of joy”. In the midst of suffering?
I am currently reading a most extraordinary book: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-authored by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams.
Two great spiritual leaders come together for a week to discuss and share joy, with a writer/author asking questions on behalf of the world and weaving the responses into a wisdom story readily accessible to all.
Of particular significance is the fact that both of these leaders have themselves witnessed and undergone great personal suffering. It is not an abstraction about which they speak.
It is something they are living.
In addition to speaking of the nature of joy and its obstacles, they specifically address learning to be joyful in the midst of suffering.
And they identify 8 pillars (each a chapter in the book): perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.
There are so many wonderful passages in the book that I am tempted to quote them all. But, in actuality, I find that I cannot quote any of them.
The wisdom shared in the book is more than words. Joy bubbles forth from their interactions with each other, from their stories of forgiveness and gratitude, compassion and generosity.
Recognizing that we are all interconnected enables us to turn from focus on ourselves to attend to the other.
And when this happens, we are no longer held hostage by the suffering that is created by our own minds – the greatest suffering of them all.
Let us return for a moment to that definition of sorts by which I described the suffering born of sin: “an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death”.
Spending a moment with this notion, we observe the centrality of the highlighted word “awareness”.
Not only does this distinguish us from the lower animals but it also helps us to understand the variations we experience in our own personal suffering.
As noted elsewhere, much of my life is spent walking with others as they struggle with their suffering. Since none of us like suffering, our instinct is to find ways to escape the awareness of realities we do not know how to change.
And we humans have found a multitude of ways to do this, some relatively healthy, many of them not.
In our culture, we can observe that people drink to excess, do drugs, spend hours watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet or playing video games. Some people take refuge in comfort food, others in excessive sleep.
We can also pour ourselves into work – or working out, sports, music, art, gardening and many, many other distractions.
All to avoid being aware.
Sometimes this can be adaptive. For example, if I experience chronic pain, I will not suffer from it as much if my attention is caught up in a healthy pursuit.
Other times, this flight from awareness can be immensely destructive and lead to more suffering for ourselves and others.
But to find joy…
Though it is instinctive to attend to my discomforts, I will not find joy by clinging to an awareness of my pain and hardship. No matter how severe my pain, no matter how justified my anger, no matter how profound my sorrow.
But if, rather than burying myself in distractions, I cultivate gratitude, I begin to suffer less.
I recognize that I am no different from others and that we all long for the same things.
I learn to forgive.
I turn to another who, like me, suffers – and build a bridge of compassion.
In my gratitude, I share what I have in acts of generosity.
I smile. I may even laugh.
In time, joy is born – not only in me but in the other as well.
This joy is not merely a passing “happy” sensation because something pleasant has happened. It is who I am, regardless of what has happened or will happen.
Rather than bury that awareness which is born of sin, I turn my awareness to love and my suffering is transformed.
For it is love that has been lost in sin. And when we return to love, we are freed from our deepest suffering and discover before us the path to joy.
Is it worth it? Did God make a mistake in creating us to be free?
As much as anyone else, I can be blinded by my pains and sorrows, absorbed in self-focus, so much so that I feel I have no choice but to suffer.
Lost in my suffering, I struggle to experience gratitude. I am not inclined to turn to another in love and compassion. What I want becomes my focus, not what I can share with another.
I discover that I am weak and sinful.
My old friend humility greets me once again, leading me back to Christ our Savior.
And He teaches me and trains me, over and over, to walk the Way of Love.
He teaches me by His compassion, His forgiveness, His generosity to me in my unworthiness.
He shows me the Way to Love by loving me.
This is a profound mystery I cannot fully grasp. But surely there is no mistake.
I was made free to love and so I choose love – to follow Him who is my heart’s desire.
+All praise and glory to Him.