Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Nature of Suffering and Grief; Does God Even Care?

My great grandma (my dad's grandma) died on Sunday. She was 105, and while that was a long and full life, she did suffer quite a bit before she died, having trouble breathing and wasting away to what looked like a skeleton with skin. My mom's dad has Alzheimer's disease, and while he struggled with it at first, he has now been reduced to little more than an infant in his mid 80's, and now my mom languishes over why this happened to her father. Her mother has dementia, and loses more and more of her mind everyday. I do not consider any of these people to be bad people. As a matter of fact, they are some of the best people I have ever known.

I have often heard it asked (and occasionally wondered myself) "If there is a benevolent God behind creation, why is there so much pain and suffering?" "If God is all powerful, and he wants good things for us, then why do bad things happen to good people?" Let me preface my examination of these subjects with a disclaimer: I do not know of an answer to these questions that will satisfy anyone and everyone. I also do not believe that this is the sort of problem to which you can simply be told the answer. Like most of life's important questions, I think you have to find the answer for yourself.

As I am a devout theist of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, I am committed to the following three axioms: (1) There is a God. (2) This God is Maximally Powerful (by which I mean that all things which are logically possible and consistent with God's character, God can do), and (3) This God is benevolent. Were I to negotiate any one of these principles, the answer would be simple. Without principle 1, principles 2 & 3 no longer apply, and we are left to our own devices in a cold and indifferent universe. Without principle 2, we have a God who is benevolent and wishes to help, but simply lacks the power to do so. And, without principle 3, we have a God who is entirely capable of helping, but lacks the compassion to desire to do so.

So, how do I reconcile a God who has the power to stop suffering, desire an end to suffering, yet still refuses to bring this end about? Well, there is first a question to be dealt with, and that is to what extent God desires the independence of human beings. And, since God is a God who deals almost exclusively in secret, desiring faith without physical evidence, it would seem that God does not want us to simply have all of our problems solved for us, so, God chooses not to act when God could.

At this point, one might object that even if God doesn't act all of the time, there are times when God should. This leads to a philosophical conundrum known as the Problem of the Pile. I drop a grain of sand on the table. This is not a pile. I repeat with two grains, three grains, four grains, etc., and there is no magical number at which it ceases to be individual grains of sand and becomes a pile. The analogy here is that there is no magically quantity at which the interaction of God becomes too little or too much. Perhaps God chooses simply to err on the side of caution.

Another possible explanation for the seeming inactivity of God is that God is acting, all the time, yet God acts in such minute and imperceptible ways upon the infintecimally complex calculus of existence, that we are simply ignorant of God's constant intervention.

However, of all the ways in which it is possible to interpret suffering, there are some which I deem to be vastly inappropriate, as they are directly inconsistent with the nature and character of God. God does not kill people because he needs more angels in heaven. Nor does God rain down punishment upon the wicked, hoping that they will confess of some secret sin. If anything, our suffering causes God just as much pain as it causes us. I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite books on suffering, Lament For a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

"God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said that perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor."

P.S. shameless plug: If you have yet to do so, check out my other blog, Rules to Live Your Life By, and my newest blog, Syllabic Restraints.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. It gives me peace.