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Suffering---Why Me?

The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Where is God when It Hurts?” published in 1977.

 

Suffering involves two main issues:

       (1) cause—--Why am I suffering? Who did it?—and

       (2) response.

        By instinct, most of us want to figure out the cause of our pain before we decide how to respond. But God does not allow Job that option. He deflects attention from the issue of cause to the issue of Job’s response. (101)

 

The Cause (79-81)

     The Bible may seem to give mixed signals on the question of cause. But its most exhaustive treatment of the topic of suffering has an unmistakable message. It appears in the book of Job, smack in the middle of the Old Testament.

One of the oldest stories in the Bible, Job nevertheless reads like the most modern, for it faces head-on the problem of pain that so bedevils our century. In recent times, such authors as Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, and Muriel Spark have all tried their hands at retelling the story of Job.

Job, the most upright, spiritual man of his day, loves God with all his heart. Indeed, God handpicks him to demonstrate to Satan how faithful some humans can be. If anyone does not deserve suffering for his actions, it is Job.

But what happens? Incredibly, a series of wretched calamities descend upon Job, any one of which would suffice to crush most people. Raiders, fire, bandits, and a great wind ravage his ranch and destroy all his possessions. Of Job’s large family only his wife survives, and she is scant comfort. Then, in a second phase of trials, Job breaks out in ulcerous boils.

Thus in a matter of hours all the terrors of hell are poured out on poor Job, utterly reversing his fortune and his health. He scratches his sores and moans. The pain he can somehow put up with. What bothers him more is the sense of betrayal. Until now he has always believed in a loving, fair God. But the facts simply don’t add up. He asks anguished questions, the same questions asked by nearly everyone in great pain. Why me? What did l do wrong? What is God trying to tell me?

In that setting, Job and his friends discuss the mystery of suffering. The friends, devout and reverent men, fill the air with erudition. Boiled down, their arguments are virtually identical. Job, God is trying to tell you something. No one suffers without cause. Common sense and all reason tell us that a just God will treat people fairly. Those who obey and remain faithful, he rewards. Those who sin, he punishes. Therefore, confess your sin, and God will relieve your misery.

Job’s wife suggests one more alternative: Curse God and die. Job, however, can’t accept that choice either. Although what has happened to him does not correspond to justice, he simply can’t bring himself to deny God. Where is the answer for Job? In desperation, he even toys with the notion of God as a Sadist who “mocks the despair of the innocent” (9:23).

In the face of his friends’ verbal assaults Job wavers, contradicts himself, and sometimes even agrees with them. But as he reflects on life, he also recognizes other signs of unfairness. Thieves grow fat and prosper, while some holy men live in poverty and pain. Evidently, evil and good are not always punished and rewarded in this life.

Job’s own uncontrolled outbursts contrast with the calm reason of his friends. But as he mulls over his particular case, he concludes they are wrong. Against all evidence, he holds on to two seemingly contradictory beliefs: he, Job, does not deserve his tragedy, but still God deserves his loyalty. Job holds firm in the face of such jabs as “Are you more righteous than God?”

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book is that the arguments of Job’s friends sound suspiciously like those offered by Christians today. One must search hard for a defense of suffering, in this book or any other, that does not appear somewhere in their speeches. And yet, in a wonderful ironic twist at the end of the book, God dismisses all their high-sounding theories with a scowl. “I am angry with you and your two friends,” God said to one, “because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).

Thus even in the Old Testament, where suffering is so frequently identified with God’s punishment, Job’s example shines brightly. The book of Job should nail a coffin lid over the idea that every time we suffer it’s because God is punishing us or trying to tell us something. Although the Bible supports the general principle that “a man reaps what he sows” even in this life (see Psalms 1:3; 37:25), the book of Job proves that other people have no right to apply that general principle to a particular person. Nobody deserved suffering less than Job, and yet few have suffered more.

 

A Perfectly Fair World (81-84)

On the surface, the book of Job centers around the problem of suffering, the same problem I have been discussing in this book. Underneath, a different issue is at stake: the doctrine of human freedom. Job had to endure undeserved suffering in order to demonstrate that God is ultimately interested in freely given love.

It is a hard truth, one at which great minds have stumbled. C. G. Jung, for example, went to strange lengths to account for God’s behavior in the book of Job. He taught that God decided on the Incarnation and Jesus’ death as a guilt response to the way he had treated Job. God entered the world in Jesus so that he could grow in moral consciousness.

Jung may be underestimating the premium God places on freely given love. The trials of Job stemmed from a debate in heaven over the question, “Are human beings truly free?” In the first two chapters of Job, Satan reveals himself as the first great behaviorist. He claimed that faith is merely a product of environment and circumstances. Job was conditioned to love God. Take away the positive rewards, Satan challenged, and watch Job’s faith crumble. Poor Job, oblivious, was selected for the cosmic contest to determine this crucial matter of human freedom.

The contest posed between Satan and God was no trivial exercise. Satan’s accusation that Job loved God only because “you have put a hedge around him,” stands as an attack on God’s character. It implies that God is not worthy of love in himself; faithful people like Job follow him only because they are “bribed” to do so. Job’s response when all the props of faith were removed would prove or disprove Satan’s challenge.

To understand this issue of human freedom, it helps me to imagine a world in which everyone truly does get what he or she deserves. What would a world of perfect fairness look like?

In a perfectly fair world, morality would operate according to fixed laws, just like the laws of nature. Punishment for wrongdoing would work like physical pain. If you touch a flame, you are “punished” instantly with a pain warning; a fair world would punish sin just that swiftly and surely. Extend your hand to shoplift, and you’d get an electrical shock. Likewise, a fair world would reward good behavior: Fill out an IRS form honestly, and you’d earn a pleasure sensation, like a trained seal given a fish.

That imaginary world has a certain appeal. It would be just and consistent, and everyone would clearly know what God expected. Fairness would reign. There is, however, one huge problem with such a tidy world: it’s not at all what God wants to accomplish on earth. He wants from us love, freely given love, and we dare not underestimate the premium God places on that love. Freely given love is so important to God that he allows our planet to be a cancer of evil in his universe—--for a time.

If this world ran according to fixed, perfectly fair rules, there would be no true freedom. We would act rightly because of our own immediate gain, and selfish motives would taint every act of goodness. We would love God because of a programmed, inborn hunger, not because of a deliberate choice in the face of attractive alternatives. It would be a B. F. Skinner, automaton world of action/response, action/response. In contrast, the Christian virtues described in the Bible develop when we choose God and his ways in spite of temptation or impulses to do otherwise.

Throughout the Bible, an analogy that illustrates the relationship between God and his people keeps surfacing. God, the husband, is pictured as wooing the bride to himself. He wants her love. If the world were constructed so that every sin earned a punishment and every good deed a reward, the parallel would not hold. The closest analogue to that relationship would be a kept woman, who is pampered and bribed and locked away in a room so that the lover can be sure of her faithfulness. God does not “keep” his people. He loves us, gives himself to us, and eagerly awaits our free response.

God wants us to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we are committed to him, not to our own good feelings and rewards. He wants us to cleave to him, as Job did, even when we have every reason to deny him hotly. That, I believe, is the central message of Job. Satan had taunted God with the accusation that humans are not truly free. Was Job being faithful simply because God had allowed him a prosperous life? Job’s fiery trials proved the answer beyond doubt. Job clung to God’s justice when he was the best example in history of God’s apparent injustice. He did not seek the Giver because of his gifts; when all gifts were removed he still sought the Giver.

 

Vale of Soul-Making (84-87)

If a world of perfect fairness would not produce what God wants from us, our freely given love, neither would it produce what God wants for us. In the first few chapters I used the example of leprosy to demonstrate that pain is valuable, even essential, for life on this planet. In a related way, suffering can become a valuable instrument in accomplishing God’s goals for human beings.

I have said that the megaphone of pain makes it difficult to accept that we have been placed on this “groaning” planet to pursue hedonistic pleasure. But if our happiness is not God’s goal, what, then, does God intend for this world? Why bother with us at all?

To help understand, think of an illustration from a human family. A father determined to exclude all pain from his beloved daughter’s life would never allow her to take a step. She might fall down! Instead, he picks her up and carries her wherever she goes or pushes her in a carriage. Over time such a pampered child will become an invalid, unable to take a step, totally dependent on her father.

Such a father, no matter how loving, would end up failing in his most important task: to nurture an independent person into adulthood. It would be far better for the daughter herself if her father stands back and lets her walk, even if it means allowing her to stumble. Apply the analogy directly to Job who, by standing on his own in the midst of suffering, without the benefit of soothing answers, gained powerful new strength. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.”

C. S. Lewis expands on this idea in The Problem of Pain, where he says in part:

We want not so much a father in heaven as a grand father in heaven—--whose plan for the universe was such that it might be said at the end of each day, “A good time was had by all.”

I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines, but since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe nevertheless that God is love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.

Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—--the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—--he will take endless trouble—--and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.

 

Once again, these issues trace back to the most basic questions of human existence. Why are we here? The presence of suffering puzzles or even enrages those people who assume that human beings are fully formed creatures who need a suitable home. In the Christian view, though, as Professor John Hick has summarized it in the book Philosophy of Religion, God is dealing with incomplete creatures. The environment of earth should therefore primarily nurture the process of “soul-making.”

We have already seen some advantages of a world of fixed laws and human freedom, even though humans can abuse the freedom and harm one another. John Hick explores another alternative, envisioning a Utopian world designed to protect us from all pain and evil, and concludes that a world free of mistakes would actually abort God’s purpose for us.

Suppose, contrary to fact, that this world were a paradise from which all possibility of pain and suffering were excluded. The consequences would be very far-reaching. For example, no one could ever injure any one else: the murderer’s knife would turn to paper or his bullets to thin air; the bank safe, robbed of a million dollars, would miraculously become filled with another million dollars (without this device, on however large a scale, proving inflationary); fraud, deceit, conspiracy, and treason would somehow always leave the fabric of society undamaged. Again, no one would ever be injured by accident: the mountain-climber, steeple-jack, or playing child falling from a height would float unharmed to the ground; the reckless driver would never meet with disaster. There would be no need to work; there would be no call to be concerned for others in time of need or danger, for in such a world there could be no real needs or dangers.

To make possible this continual series of individual adjustments, nature would have to work “special providences” instead of running according to general laws which men must learn to respect on penalty of pain and death. The laws of nature would have to be extremely flexible: sometimes an object would be hard and solid, sometimes soft.

One can at least begin to imagine such a world. It is evident that our present ethical concepts would have no meaning in it. If, for example, the notion of harming someone is an essential element in the concept of wrong action, in our hedonistic paradise there could be no wrong actions—--nor any right actions in distinction from wrong. Courage and fortitude would have no point in an environment in which there is, by definition, no danger or difficulty. Generosity, kindness, the agape aspect of love, prudence, unselfishness, and all other ethical notions which presuppose life in a stable environment, could not even be formed. Consequently, such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill adapted for the development of the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose it would be the worst of all possible worlds.

It would seem, then, that an environment intended to make possible the growth in free beings of the finest characteristics of personal life, must have a good deal in common with our present world. It must operate according to general and dependable laws; and it must involve real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, and possibilities of pain, failure, sorrow, frustration, and defeat. If it did not contain the particular trials and perils which—--subtracting man’s own very considerable contribution—--our world contains it would have to contain others instead.

To realize this is . . . to understand that this world, with all its “heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” an environment so manifestly not designed for the maximization of human pleasure and the minimization of human pain, may be rather well adapted to the quite different purpose of “soul-making.

 

In some ways it would be easier for God to step in, to have faith for us, to help us in extraordinary ways. But he has instead chosen to stand before us, arms extended, while he asks us to walk, to participate in our own soul-making. That process always involves struggle, and often involves suffering.

 

To What End? (87-89)

The notion of earth as a “vale of soul-making” (the poet John Keats’s phrase) sheds light on some of the most difficult passages in the Bible. Although the Bible remains vague on the cause of specific sufferings, it does give many examples, as in this verse from Amos, of God using pain for a purpose: “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6). On almost every page the Hebrew prophets warned Israelites that they would face calamity if they continued to flout God’s laws.

Most of us operate on a different scale of values than God. We would rank life as the greatest value (and thus murder as the greatest crime). “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is how the founding fathers of the United States defined the highest values a government should strive to protect. But clearly God operates from a different perspective. He indeed values human life, so much so that he declared it “sacred,” meaning he alone, and no human being, has the right to take life. But in Noah’s day, for example, God did not hesitate to exercise that right; numerous times in the Old Testament he took human life in order to halt the spread of evil.

Similarly, many Bible passages show that some things are more awful to God than the pain of his children. Consider the sufferings of Job, or Jeremiah, or Hosea. God did not even exempt himself from suffering: consider the awesome pain involved in himself becoming a man and dying on a cross. Do these show God’s lack of compassion? Or do they, rather, demonstrate that some things are more important to God than a suffering-free life for even his most loyal followers?

As I have said, the Bible consistently changes the questions we bring to the problem of pain. It rarely, or ambiguously, answers the backward-looking question “Why?” Instead, it raises the very different, forward-looking question, “To what end?” We are not put on earth merely to satisfy our desires, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We are here to be changed, to be made more like God in order to prepare us for a lifetime with him. And that process may be served by the mysterious pattern of all creation: pleasure sometimes emerges against a background of pain, evil may be transformed into good, and suffering may produce something of value.

Is God speaking to us through our sufferings? It is dangerous and perhaps even unscriptural to torture ourselves by looking for his message in a specific throb of pain, a specific instance of suffering. The message may simply be that we live in a world with fixed laws, like everyone else. But from the larger view, from the view of all history, yes, God speaks to us through suffering—--or perhaps in spite of suffering. The symphony he is composing includes minor chords, dissonance, and tiresome fugal passages. But those of us who follow his conducting through early movements will, with renewed strength, someday burst into song.

 

Two Great Errors (89-92)

 Discussions about the problem of pain tend to drift toward the abstract and philosophical. Phrases like “the best of all possible worlds,” “the advantages of human freedom,” and “vale of soul-making” creep in, and these can deflect attention away from the actual problems of people in pain. Yet I have felt it necessary to explore some of these issues because I believe they have a direct and practical effect on our response to suffering.

In fact, I believe Christians walk a mental tightrope and are in constant danger of falling in one of two directions. On this subject, errors in thinking can have tragic results.

The first error comes when we attribute all suffering to God, seeing it as his punishment for human mistakes; the second error does just the opposite, assuming that life with God will never include suffering.

I have already mentioned one unfortunate consequence of the first error. I have interviewed many Christians with life-threatening illnesses, and every one without exception has told me how damaging it can be to have a visitor plant the thought, “You must have done something to deserve this punishment.” At the very moment when they most need hope and strength to battle the illness, they get instead a frosty dose of guilt and self-doubt. I’m glad the author of Job took such care to record the rambling conversations of Job’s friends: that book serves as a permanent reminder to me that I have no right to stand beside a suffering person and pronounce, “This is the will of God,” no matter how I cloak that sentiment in pious phrases.

The error of attributing all suffering to God’s punishment has far-reaching consequences, as the history of the church has grievously shown. During the late Middle Ages, women were burned at the stake for the heretical act of taking pain-relieving medicines for childbirth. “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,” priests admonished as they condemned the women to death. And after Edward Jenner had perfected the smallpox vaccine he faced his strongest opposition from clergy, who opposed any interference with the will of God. Even today some religious sects reject modem medical treatment.

Secular writers have seized on this weakness. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus portrays a Catholic priest, Father Paneloux, torn by a dilemma. Should he devote his energy to fighting the plague or to teaching his parishioners to accept it as from God? He grapples with this issue in a sermon: “Paneloux assured those present that it was not easy to say what he was about to say—--since it was God’s will, we, too, should will it. Thus and thus only the Christian could face the problem squarely. . . . The sufferings of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.” Father Paneloux preaches this, but cannot quite believe it: later in the novel he abandons his faith after watching a small child die horribly of the plague.

If the Bible were not so pronounced in denying that all suffering results from specific sins, if it did not paint Job’s predicament in such sweeping terms, if it did not show the Son of God spending his days on earth healing diseases and not inflicting them, then the dilemma that Camus posed would be unresolvable. For, if we accept that suffering comes from God as a lesson to us (as, for example Islam does), the next logical step would be a resigned fatalism. Polio, AIDS, malaria, bubonic plague, cancer, yellow fever—--why should a person fight any of these if they are God’s agents sent to teach us a lesson?

When the Black Death hit England in the seventeenth century, some street prophets delighted in pronouncing the plague a judgment from God. But other believers, among them doctors and clergy, chose to stay in London to fight the disease. One sacrificial rector gathered the 350 villagers of Eyam around him and got them to agree to a self-imposed quarantine as a health measure to keep the plague among them from spreading to surrounding villages. In all, 259 villagers died, but in the process they ministered to each other in their illness and prevented further contamination.

In his Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe contrasted the Christians’ response with the Mohammedans’. When plague struck the Middle East, the religious fatalists there did not alter their behavior in the least, but continued going out in public at will. A much higher percentage among them died than among the Londoners who took precautions.

In modern times, some Christians still lean dangerously toward a fatalism that more befits Islam or Hinduism than Christianity. Several years ago researchers studied why Southerners in the U.S. tended to suffer a higher frequency of tornado-related deaths than Midwesterners. After taking into account such factors as differences in building materials, the researchers concluded that some Southerners, being more religious, had developed a fatalistic attitude toward disaster: “If it hits, it hits, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.” In contrast, Midwesterners were more likely to listen to weather reports, secure loose equipment, and take shelter.

If the researchers’ conclusions are accurate, I take that trend as a dangerous perversion of Christian dogma. Southerners should listen to the weather service and take precautions. Father Paneloux should have been on the front lines, arms linked with doctors, battling the plague. Jesus himself spent his life on earth fighting disease and despair. Not once did he hint at fatalism or a resigned acceptance of suffering.

We the inhabitants of this “groaning” planet have the right, even the obligation, to fight against human suffering. Anyone who thinks otherwise should reread the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, and the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

 

Health and Wealth Theology (92-95)

In recent times, some parts of the church have tilted in a very different direction, toward the second great error. They teach that life with God will never include suffering. Such a “health and wealth theology” could only spring up in times of affluence, in a society well-stocked with pain-relieving aids.

Christians in Iran, say, or Cambodia could hardly come up with such a smiley-face theology. As one East European Christian observed, “You Western Christians often seem to consider material prosperity to be the only sign of God’s blessing. On the other hand, you often seem to perceive poverty, discomfort, and suffering as signs of God’s disfavor. In some ways we in the East understand suffering from the opposite perspective. We believe that suffering may be a sign of God’s favor and trust in the Christians to whom the trial is permitted to come.”

Nowadays we reserve our shiniest merit badges for those who have been miraculously healed, featuring them in magazine articles and television specials, holding out the unreserved promise that healing is available to everyone if only they would claim it.

In no way do I mean to discount the wonderfulness of physical healing. But obviously miracles do not offer a permanent solution for the problem of suffering because the eventual mortality rate is exactly the same for Christians and non-Christians alike—l00 percent. We all have eyes subject to the need for corrective lenses, bones subject to breaking, and soft tissue subject to destruction from auto accidents and terrorist bombs. Christians get cancer too; they fully share the sorrow of this world.

The modem emphasis on miraculous healing has the frequent side effect of causing unhealed ones to feel as though God has passed them by. Recently I watched a televised call-in healing program. The biggest applause came when a caller reported his leg had been healed just one week before he was scheduled for amputation. The audience yelled, and the emcee burbled, “This is the best miracle we’ve had tonight!” I couldn’t help wondering how many amputees were watching, forlornly wondering where their faith had failed.

Unlike many television evangelists, the apostle Paul seemed to expect from the Christian life not health and wealth, but a measure of suffering. He told Timothy, “in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). A sick person is not unspiritual. And Christian faith does not magically equip us with a germ-free, hermetically sealed space suit to protect against the dangers of earth. That would insulate us from complete identification with the world—--a luxury God did not allow his own Son.

To hold out the inducement that becoming a Christian will guarantee you health and prosperity—--why, that is the very argument advanced by Satan in the book of Job, and decisively refuted.

To restore balance to this issue, we would do well to relearn the lessons about faith taught in the Bible’s greatest chapter on the subject, Hebrews 11. The author compiles a list of faithful persons through the centuries. Most of the saints listed in the first part of the chapter received miraculous deliverance: Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David. But the latter part of the chapter mentions others who were tortured and chained, stoned, and sawed in two.

Hebrews 11 gives vivid details about the second group: they went about in sheepskins and goatskins, were destitute, wandered in deserts and mountains, and lived in holes in the ground. The chapter offers the blunt assessment, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” It adds, though, God’s own appraisal of these sojourners on earth who placed their hopes in a better, heavenly country: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

I thought about this list of “God’s favorites” recently as I read through Fear No Evil, the last book written by David Watson, a well-known English preacher and writer. Struck down with colon cancer at the height of his career, Watson rallied his Christian friends around him and began a desperate journey of faith. He had gained prominence in the charismatic movement, and Watson and most of his friends were convinced that God would solve the cancer through a miraculous healing.

Over time, as Watson grew sicker and weaker, he had to reach for another kind of faith, the kind cultivated by the saints mentioned in the latter part of Hebrews 11. He needed the faith that sustained Job, barely, in his darkest days, and his book tells how he attained that faith.

David Watson wrote the last words of his book in January, and died in February. Many people received his book with a touch of disappointment; they had hoped rather for an account of supernatural healing. But J. I. Packer, who wrote the foreword after Watson’s death, saw it as recovering an ancient tradition of Christian books on the “art of dying.” Until recently, a good death was seen as a godly man’s crowning achievement, the climax of his good life.

Packer gives this assessment:

The fact that David, right to his last page, hopes for supernatural healing that never comes is not important. In the providence of God, who does not always show his servants the true point of the books he stirs them to write, the theme of Fear No Evil is the conquest of death—--not by looking away from it, nor by being shielded from it, but by facing it squarely and going down into it knowing that for a believer it is the vestibule of glory.

David’s theology led him to believe, right to the end, that God wanted to heal his body. Mine leads me rather to say that God evidently wanted David home, and healed his whole person by taking him to glory in the way that he will one day heal us all. Health and life, I would say, in the full and final sense of those words, are not what we die out of, but what we die into.

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