Saturday, June 28, 2014

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

Chapter One: The Cultures of Suffering

On page 13, Timothy Keller states, “Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity.”

Western society seeks to avoid pain at all costs.  As medical patients, we have more comfort and are far less equipped to handle suffering and more traumatized by it.  Why?  Other cultures have provided answers to the purpose of life and suffering can be an important means of achieving such purpose.  But in Western secular culture, the purpose of life is the freedom to pursue the life that leads to the most happiness.  In this context, suffering can have no meaningful purpose except to completely interrupt happiness.  Therefore suffering should be avoided at all costs or minimized as much as possible.  The secular view does not have any resources to deal with pain and suffering.

The table below is an outline of how several worldviews understand the cause of suffering, how one should respond to suffering and the ultimate resolution for suffering.

Wrongdoing.  Failure to live rightly.  Everything must be paid for.
Do good
Eternal bliss
Unfulfilled desires from the illusion that we are individual selves.
Extinguish desire by detaching from transitory, material things and persons
Pagan cultures of northern Europe, Islam
High view of fate and destiny.  Life set by stars, supernatural forces, gods, or will of Allah.
Endurance.  Stand your ground honorably.  Surrender to God’s mysterious will.
Glory and honor
Ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, Marxist theories
Cosmic conflict.  Battleground between forces of darkness and light.
Purified faithfulness
The triumph of the light
Better society

The non-secular approaches share several similarities:
1. Suffering is not a surprise but it is a necessary part of human existence.
2. Suffering helps one move toward the purpose of life.
3. The key to rising and achieving in suffering is something one takes responsibility to do.

These other cultures see the world consisting of both matter and spirit.  In the west, the naturalistic view sees only material forces devoid of anything that could be considered purpose.  Richard Dawkins in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life states, “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 that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, ne evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”  We struggle against suffering because we will not accept that it never has any purpose.  “[It] is hard for us to resist the ‘Why’ question…It is an almost universal delusion…” and “For Nature, heartless, witless Nature, will neither care nor know.  DNA neither knows nor cares.  DNA just is.  And we dance to its music.”  Suffering does not mean anything at all.

But without meaning, we die.  So Dawkins says, “The truly adult view…is that our life is as meaningful, as full and wonderful as we choose to make it.”  So whatever gives our life purpose would have to be some kind of material good which includes comfort, safety, and pleasure.  But suffering either destroys or seriously jeopardizes any such conditions.  It is because the meaning of life is the pursuit of pleasure and personal freedom in the secular west that suffering is so traumatic for us.

In the other world views, life’s meaning cannot be achieved in spite of suffering, but through it.  Suffering can actually accelerate the journey to your desired destination.  In the secular view, suffering can only interrupt your journey.  It cannot take you home.  It can only keep you from the things you want most.  Suffering always wins.  Suffering is of no possible “use.”  It must be avoided at all costs, and if unavoidable, managed and minimized as much as possible.

For other cultures, the responsibility belongs to the sufferers.  They needed to learn patience, wisdom, and faithfulness.  In the secular culture, suffering is not an opportunity or test – and certainly not a punishment.  Sufferers are victims of impersonal forces and must go to experts - whether medical, psychological, social or civil - whose job is the alleviation of the suffering by removing as many stressors as possible.  Through various scientific techniques, emphasizing the emotional pain and discontent, the experts attempt to lessen the pain, but do not address the life story.  There are two ways the experts do this:

1. Manage or lessen the pain.  Using the vocabulary of business, psychology, and medicine enables you to manage, reduce, and cope with stress, strain, or trauma by avoiding negative thoughts, buffering yourself with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships and focusing on controlling your responses.

2. Look for the cause of the pain and eliminate it.  Suffering has a material cause and can be “fixed”.

C.S. Lewis stated, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.  For…[modernity] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique…”

For westerners there is no internal adjustment, learning or growth required.  Moral responsibility is virtually never assigned and to even hint at it is to commit the heresy of “blaming the victim.”  It’s all up to us, we’re alone here.

The following table shows the contrast of the Christian response to suffering compared to those of several other worldviews.

The Christian Contrast
“Pay for it”
Suffering is unfair.  It is often unjust and disproportionate.  Life is simply not fair.  Christianity is centered on the paragon of the innocent man who freely receives suffering for others’ debts.  In light of the cross, suffering becomes purification, not punishment.
“Accept it”
Suffering is real, not illusion.  Pain is pain, it is misery; pleasure is pleasure, positive bliss, not mere ‘tranquility’.
“Heroically endure it”
Suffering is not overwhelming.  There is no self-praise of the sufferer.  The degree of suffering is not measured against his own power to which others bear witness.  Christians are permitted, even encouraged, to express grief with cries and questions.
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  The idea that suffering brings one nearer to God is more Greek and Neoplatonic than Christian.
“Avoid it or fix it”
Suffering is meaningful.  There is a purpose to it and if faced rightly can drive us deeper into the love of God and more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.

Grace.  Max Scheler states, “It is not the glowing prospect of a happy afterlife, but the experienced happiness of being in a state of grace of God…”  “The Christian doctrine of suffering asks for more than a patient tolerance of suffering…The pain and suffering of life fix our spiritual vision on the central, spiritual goods of…the redemption of Christ.”

All other approaches are too simple and reductionist.  They are half-truths.  The example and work of Jesus Christ incorporates all these into a coherent whole and yet transcends them.  Other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.

Next week Chapter Two: The Victory of Christianity.

Until then, have a little hope on me,


To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.

Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9

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