Christians should have a far different response to suffering than atheists:
Can one accept the reality of God and of suffering, and not have a fundamental contradiction? For thousands of years philosophers and theologians have argued that we can indeed believe in a good and loving God while also affirming the reality of evil. The two do not cancel each other out. I have written often on these matters, eg.: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/04/20/worldviews-and-the-problem-of-evil/
Here I want to revisit the discussion, but narrow things down a bit. The Judeo-Christian worldview says that sorrows and sufferings can be used by God for good – they can be redeemed. They need not be wasted. Scripture speaks to this, as do countless believers over the centuries who have seen God transform their lives, even in the midst of the darkest of times.
Church history is full of such examples. So many have gone through the deepest valleys and suffered terribly, but they can still testify to a good and faithful God, and how their trials and tribulations actually brought them closer to God and to others.
I recently wrote a piece on the famous Christian author Elisabeth Elliot who lost her own husband on the mission field. The article mentioned how she has inspired millions of people worldwide, and helped so many to deal with pain, loss and suffering: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/06/30/elizabeth-elliot-on-suffering/
Writing about such champions of the faith usually encourages others, as evidenced by the comments that come in. But not everyone will give the thumbs up. There are always angry atheists and vexatious trolls who get upset and want to come and pick a fight.
One such person for example felt the need to send in a critical comment. In a rather cold and embittered fashion (as we might expect from misotheists) this person said: “This is so silly. There is nothing good about suffering. Life is what it is, but do not celebrate suffering.”
But that comment is silly – and sad – for so many reasons. Of course neither I nor Elliot are claiming that we should ‘celebrate’ suffering per se. The things that we suffer and grieve about are NOT good in themselves, nor are they worth celebrating. Death, rape, suicide, job losses, cancer, and so on are all not good things.
But the issue is this: How do we respond to such things? Simply put, suffering can make us bitter or make us better. The question is, how will we react as we suffer? Will we allow suffering to produce positive outcomes in our lives – even to serve redemptive purposes? Or will we just become angry, bitter and resentful?
Christians have a completely different perspective on pain, suffering and loss than the atheist does. ‘Life is simply what it is’ as my critic put it. One of the leading prophets of atheism, Richard Dawkins said much the same:
Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature, Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Or, if you prefer, another Oxford atheist, Peter Atkins, wrote this in 1984: “We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”
This is all the atheists can offer us: life has no meaning, crap happens; get used to it. Talk about a dark, bleak, despairing, and utterly dead-end view of things. ‘That’s just the way it is folks – tough luck.’ We are all alone in a meaningless, purposeless and pointless universe with no hope of a future and no real explanation of our past.
The Christian view of suffering – like its view of everything – is so much richer, fuller and more vibrant than the nihilistic reductionism of atheism. I could draw upon hundreds of philosophers and theologians here on this. But let me simply offer some quotes from one book.
It has actually been around for a while, but I only just got it and read it. I refer to Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Zondervan, 1995, 2004). It is a book about catastrophic loss. He had been driving with his mother, his wife, and four young children, when a drunk driver smashed head-on into their van.
In a moment his whole world was turned upside down: he lost his mother, wife, and a daughter. Yet as his book makes clear, as horrible as all this was, God was able to use it. For example, his capacity to love God and love others was greatly expanded.
He echoes the truths of the Judeo-Christian worldview that love and suffering are intimately connected. Those who want to never suffer are advised to never love. Love is always risky. God certainly knows that, since he created us to have a love relationship with him, but we have all spurned that love and turned our back on our Creator. But a loveless world is worse than a world with love and the risk of suffering that goes along with it.
And he challenges the comment I mentioned above: Suffering – and what brings about suffering – in itself is not something we celebrate, but it is the possible benefits of suffering that we can acknowledge and affirm. He says this at the outset of his book:
It is not, therefore, the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives, for that is as inevitable as death, which is the last loss awaiting us all. It is how we respond to loss that matters. That response will largely determine the quality, the direction, and the impact of our lives. . . . Response involves the choices we make, the grace we receive, and ultimately the transformation we experience in the loss.
And again: “My suffering is as puzzling and horrible to me now as it was the day it happened. The good that may come of the loss does not erase its badness or excuse the wrong done. Nothing can do that.” All of us suffer in different ways, and it does no good to quantify loss. But we can ask: “What meaning can be gained from suffering, and how can we grow through suffering?”
As he says towards the end of the book, much good has come from the accident,
but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good. It remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. A million people could be helped as a result of the tragedy, but that would not be enough to explain and justify it. The badness of the event and the goodness of the results are related, to be sure, but they are not the same. The latter is a consequence of the former, but the latter does not make the former legitimate or right or good.
We must make a place in our lives for suffering and sorrow. “The depth of sorrow,” he says,
is the sign of a healthy soul, not a sick soul. It does not have to be morbid or fatalistic. it is not something to escape but something to embrace. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Sorrow indicates that people who have suffered are living authentically in a world of misery… Sorrow is noble and gracious. It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time.
And he speaks to the matter of worldviews as he questioned whether his belief in God was warranted:
I discovered that sorrow itself needs the existence of God to validate it as a healthy and legitimate emotion. If there is no God, human emotion collapses into a terrible relativism, and it makes no difference how we respond to loss. It becomes entirely subjective. . . . If there were no God, there appears to be no ultimate reason why we should feel one way or the other, since emotions like grief or happiness have no grounding in a greater, objective reality outside the self. In an atheistic worldview, it becomes all but impossible to establish the absoluteness of truth and falsehood, or good and evil, or right and wrong. Hence, there seems to be no objective reason why we should view catastrophic loss as bad and why we should feel bad about it. Emotion, like human experience in general, seems relative. Not that atheists feel less bad about suffering than religious people do. Suffering hurts, no matter what the worldview of the people who experience it. It is the fact that we identify something as bad that makes me want to ask, “Where did we get the idea of good or bad in the first place?”
The implications of atheism are therefore intolerable to me. However difficult belief in God can sometimes be, belief in atheism is more difficult still. It deprives us of the objective view of reality we need to validate our feelings about the losses we suffer. Sorrow, anger, and depression—these are genuine expressions of a soul that has a valid reason to convulse. The soul suffers because bad has appeared to triumph over good. It is the existence of God that provides categories by which we make moral judgments and respond with appropriate emotions. We have good reason, then, to mourn our losses. Tears at a funeral, hospital, divorce court, or therapist’s office manifest sadness in the face of legitimate loss. What we lost was good; what we lost rightfully makes us feel bad. The system of meaning that makes us feel bad about the loss—and gives us the right to feel bad—reflects a universe that has God at the center of it.
God makes all the difference. And Jesus Christ is the human face of God. Our Lord is known as the “suffering servant”. Sittser writes: “The sovereign God came in Jesus Christ to suffer with us and to suffer for us. He descended deeper into the pit than we will ever know. His sovereignty did not protect him from loss. If anything, it led him to suffer loss for our sake. God is therefore not simply some distant being who controls the world by a mysterious power. God came all the way to us and lived among us.”
The God I know has experienced pain and therefore understands my pain. In Jesus I have felt God’s tears, trembled before his death on the cross, and witnessed the redemptive power of his suffering. The Incarnation means that God cares so much that he chose to become human and suffer loss, though he never had to. I have grieved long and hard and intensely. But I have found comfort knowing that the sovereign God, who is in control of everything, is the same God who has experienced the pain I live with every day. No matter how deep the pit into which I descend, I keep finding God there. He is not aloof from my suffering but draws near to me when I suffer. He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears, and acquainted with grief. God is a suffering Sovereign who feels the sorrow of the world.
Let me close with his final words: “The accident remains now, as it always has been, a horrible experience that did great damage to us and to so many others. It was and will remain a very bad chapter. But the whole of my life is becoming what appears to be a very good book.”