Monday, June 21, 2010

Suffering: Is there a deeper truth?

Everyone suffers. We all experience pain, physical, mental, or emotional, in lesser or greater degrees. Most believers look for, and usually find, some redeeming personal benefits in suffering experiences. For on a personal level, suffering, that unwelcome tutor, perfects and refines faith and character. Romans 5 and James 1 teach this idea; Peter in his first epistle seems to be almost stuck on the theme. He must have had impetus to think long and hard about the sufferings Christians endure.

However, my thoughts about suffering go more to the abstract. Suffering can perfect our souls, that is clear. But both Peter and Paul speak of suffering accomplishing something beyond personal refinement. There is something "out there" that is directly effected by our suffering. And there are direct eternal consequences both personal and cosmic which cannot simply be understood as a silver lining on the cloud.

Nor does our acknowledgment of personal benefit from suffering address the philosophical and ontological questions about pain, evil, and suffering. Why is there so much suffering? The suffering that we humans have experienced in our relatively short history, horrifying as it is, even monstrous, is but a tiny fraction of the massive quantity of animal suffering which has accrued over our evolutionary past. When Tennyson speaks of nature, "red in tooth and claw", the context is his own effort to make sense of an untimely death, of his own personal loss and suffering, but even his very deep sorrow is but a whisper against the deafening roar of pain and (seemingly) senseless torment in the ages-long story of life. Such considerations shook his faith to the core. Most believers I know never go there. Sadly. Because when we fear to ask the questions, we'll never see the answers even when we stumble over them.

I am convinced that we can find, just below the surface of the scriptures, a rich lattice of understandings about suffering. There remain some unanswered questions, to be sure. Scripture does not speak to our curiosity. But there is, I think, enough information to suggest that suffering, perhaps all suffering, is profoundly meaningful, imbued with dignity and ultimate purpose. I do not believe that any suffering is senseless, unaccounted for, or lost in the economies of the cosmos, or in its ages-long clash of good pitted against evil. Exactly how suffering shapes this cosmic battle, or why suffering plays such a central role in it, I cannot say. But that it does so is a salient concept in both testaments of the Bible.

The Jewish people, from O.T. times right up to the present, have viewed themselves as the "suffering servant" of God. They exhibit a faith that no suffering is in vain; that their national history, marked by injustice and suffering, serves some divine purpose. They may not understand how, but it is enough for them to view their collective pain as service to Jahweh. Christians have failed, I believe, to carry this idea forward; and that to our great loss. Perhaps this is due to the Christian notion that Jesus paid the final debt in full, that he suffered and died to save us from suffering and death. But this is the case neither in N.T. teaching nor in our experience. The drumbeat of human suffering is unabated, even in the lives of the faith-filled followers of Jesus. And the N.T. is replete with warnings that this will be the case. Paul goes so far as to say that we, in our sufferings, complete something that was unfinished in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

Clearly, the sufferings of Jesus were efficacious toward some cosmic goal, some large-scale overriding purpose of God. The gospel writers paint the death of Jesus as a (literally!) earth shaking event. Some of the powers of the enemy were perhaps permanently depleted that day. The evil one was, in a symbolic way at least, utterly defeated in the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus. But Paul makes it clear: even the sufferings of Jesus did not finish the work. Thus are we offered the exceeding high calling of "sharing in his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10). And thus Peter instructs us to get ready, to arm ourselves with the "mind to suffer" (1 Peter 4:1) and to rejoice when we "participate" in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13).

Paul and Peter both link suffering to future glory. In fact, they use language that suggests some fixed ratio in which future glory is directly proportional to suffering. I have heard preachers who merely understand this as a kind of compensatory reward, glory being handed out as a sort of heavenly "atta-boy". But Paul paints a far different picture. In 2 Corinthians 4, he describes the processes whereby sufferings work in us toward eternal purposes. Sufferings, he declares in verse 17, actually achieve glory for us, fit us for glory, ramp up our capacity for glory. Glory is not some commodity that God divvies up amongst his followers. Glory is organically linked to our sufferings. And this gives me pause to ask why that might be? Is it merely an arbitrary principle, some divine edict, written into the constitution of the cosmos by the creator at the Big Bang? Or do sufferings link to future glory in some requisite way, driven by some hidden, intrinsic reality? I believe it is so.

One way that I think of this is in respect to the price that Jesus paid with his blood (his suffering). He bought, or more correctly we might say, he made a downpayment upon the Kingdom through his sufferings (Acts 20:28, Revelation 5:9). When we are then given opportunity to suffer with him (Romans 8:17, Philippians 3:10, 1 Peter 4:13), this is but another way of saying that we are given the opportunity to purchase stock, to invest in the Kingdom by paying part of its price. If this be so, then there will be eternal stake-holders in God's Kingdom enterprise, stake-holders of varying degrees.

I sometimes let my imagination run into the deep future, where I envision encountering a soul who bears unspeakable glory; a being of immense light, a person with a staggering capacity for brilliance and beauty! I will immediately observe that this being, this person, is one of those major stake-holders in God's kingdom, that his personal investment must have been exceedingly costly, but the dividends which have accrued to him more than outweigh the price he was once asked to pay long ago. As we visit, I learn that this magnificent person was a 2 year-old Jewish boy from Austria, in the middle of the 20th Century, now a distant memory. He and his family were, for a short time, interned in a cruel Nazi concentration camp. After his parents and siblings were disposed of and this little boy's life served no useful function for his captors, he was loaded one night into the bed of dump truck along with a score or so other children of varying ages. the truck was dispatched to a nearby field where some half-drunken partying Nazi soldiers had readied a huge bonfire. The truck backed to the edge of the inferno, and the dump-box was raised, depositing the frightened children into their fiery grave. This brilliant being now standing before me might describe how desperately he tried to escape, screaming in abject terror, only to be corralled and tossed back into the flames by the waiting pitchforks of the laughing soldiers. Mercifully, his flaming death came in but a few short minutes. He will then ask me about the days of my early life, and I will offer him a brief summary of my 70 or 80 years of work and play, vacations, overseas trips, the joys of marriage and fatherhood, years of teaching and leading, finding some fulfillment in operating a business, etc. And he will say that it all sounds nice -- but that, thank you very much, he would never dream of trading his 2 short years for my 80.

It is in this light that I believe all suffering is elevated and dignified. But why should suffering play so central a role? Why is suffering the means by which we buy into the enterprise of God?

Jesus teaches us, in the Sermon on the Mount, the keys to unseating evil from its place of power. Evil is not undone, Jesus tells us, buy retributive justice. Evil is not overcome by the exertion of greater strength. In fact, evil cannot be defeated by resistance at all. Evil is slowly, steadily, and irrevocably overcome by steps, sometimes small steps, often what appear to be futile steps of nonresistance. "Overcome evil with good" Paul says, echoing the wisdom of the Old Testament. This method the Bible gives us for defeating evil necessarily involves suffering. The greatest human beings have noted this principle and proved its power. Men like Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., who assured his white adversaries, "We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer." If indeed, suffering nonresistance is the way to defeat evil in our lives, on the plane of earthly human existence, why do we suppose that the cosmic battle would be waged any differently? The traditional Christian concept of Jesus riding up powerfully on a white horse, or God coming in fiery anger consuming his enemies with his outpoured wrath, the picture of God triumphant over his foes because, after all, he always was more powerful! -- these images stand in stark contrast to the very tactics Jesus offers us for overcoming evil. They are based, I'll acknowledge, upon Scriptural imagery: but I suggest a second look at those images. For me, they are all but metaphors. They speak of the ways of God as powerful, and triumphant, yes! But perhaps they conceal the underlying story. For God was never more powerful than when he hung upon a cross, silent before his executioners.

These insights may provide but meager comfort for believers who suffer, and who long for but fail to experience God’s affirmation and reassurance. In those times when we experience a vast distance between our pains and our Father’s comforts, we need only consider Jesus upon that cross; how he was utterly forsaken and turned aside. The Father is not hard of heart. He is no cool spectator, merely watching "from a distance." On the other hand, I assume some greater value is to be gained through the process of suffering when it takes its course without his intervening hand, without even his comfort and reassurance. I do not understand that fully. We do not like it. I choose to believe it is with some difficulty that God restrains his hand, and withholds his compassionate comfort. In those moments, it may help us to reflect upon his own Son who received no more or less from the Father in his hour of deepest suffering.

Your comments are welcome!


Mike said...

Cliff, in your encounter with the being with the immense light and beauty, would he not trade his 2 years for your 80 years because of his current state (the brilliance, beauty, bearing of unspeakable glory) or would it be because somehow his 2 year “suffering “ experience on the earth was better than your 80 years, or would it be that he got to go to heaven without having to live a long “earthly” life, or would it be something else? Just trying to get your exact meaning there. I like the idea that he was “rewarded” (or whatever the word is in this situation) for the atrocities placed upon him. But also is your life somehow “lesser” than his because you didn’t go through that kind of thing?

Cliff Martin said...

Great questions, Mike. Let me try to elaborate. My assumption is that the tortured little boy now recognizes how his suffering played into the larger purposes of God, and that the immense suffering and (albiet involuntary) sacrifice of long life became a major contribution to the defeat of evil, and the establishing of the new heavens and earth, the new order.

When I think of the theodicy problem (the problem of evil), my mind typically goes to those infants and very young children who were burned alive in the Nazi bonfires. I can think of no greater injustice in the human experience. This really did happen, and it happened on God's watch. In order to make sense of such horrific evils, I have surmised a sort of rebound effect, where the greater the injustice absorbed, the greater the impact upon the ultimate turning of the tables, the judgement of and annihilation of evil. And though Scriptures do not explicitly teach this, I see enough evidence in various Biblical principles to make it quite plausible, if not likely.

I don't suppose that someone who lives out a long life of relative peace and ease would necessarily regret not having suffered more. But if such a person avoided suffering through, say, dishonesty or undue self-preservation and comfort seeking, I can imagine that he might experience regret. Thus, Peter encourages us to "arm ourselves with a mind (or perhaps a willingness) to suffer."

Mike said...

Cliff, the “rebound effect” as you describe it would be a great answer to the theodicy problem! Perhaps you are on to something. I’ll think about this some more.

Mike said...

Cliff, how would other bad things fit into this? Such as disease or terrible accidents that cause great suffering. For instance, on a news snippet this morning there was the story of a woman holding her 6 month old. They were at the zoo getting photographed by her husband. A huge limb broke off a tree and killed the 6 month old and put the woman in the hospital. I’m not sure how she’s doing right now. But anyway, you know what I mean here. Are these things (disease and terrible accidents for example) a part of the theodicy problem? Or is that a different subject altogether?

Cliff Martin said...


Of course, all of this is speculative, so it may be pointless to attempt greater specificity. But when I think about life, suffering, evil, death and entropy, I suppose that they are all intertwined. I continue to explore the relationship between evil and entropy. Entropy is the ultimate cause of all natural suffering and all death (but of course, is also the energy system that drives all of life). So I would answer your question that, yes, all suffering is at least a candidate for inclusion in the process of undoing evil.

Entropy is the slow death of the cosmos, and the cause of all death. Scripture tells us that the Enemy of God holds the power of death. So, in some sense, every pain suffered is the work of evil.

Mike said...

On 20/20 last night there was the true story of Katie Piper, a model who had acid thrown in her face. Needless to say, that evil act ended her modeling career. As one consequence of this, Piper started the Katie Piper Foundation that helps victims of burns and other disfigurements. Somebody mentioned that she now has a career that will be longer than any she would have as a model. There are many examples of these kinds of things of course, but I just happened to see that on TV last night. This may be part of the “process of undoing evil.” Food for thought.

Cliff Martin said...


This story is certainly an example of redemption at work. Evil is so often a springboard for righteousness, goodness, etc. History is full of examples! But perhaps this principle is nowhere more powerful than in the righteousness that springs forth from the blood of martyrs. When evil encounters faith-filled acts of non-resistence, and when evil apparently wins the day, it is more often merely sowing the seeds of its own undoing. That is the genius of redemption!