The dimension in which human suffering finds an answer

May 16, 2013

Years ago a Christian friend told me he didn’t need heaven to bring meaning to his life or to redeem his suffering. He wasn’t against it, mind you, and if he found himself there one day, then that’s all well and good. But he was concerned about heaven as a reward for good behavior: to want or expect some kind of repayment for doing the right thing, in his view, contradicted the law of Christ-like love. Besides, for himself, life in this world was good enough. Surely he would only be ungrateful to expect or ask for more.

C.S. Lewis deals with this objection to heaven nicely in his chapter on the subject in The Problem of Pain, including this:

Again, we are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.[1]

I hadn’t read The Problem of Pain when my friend said this, although I got him to agree with me that the scales of justice can’t be balanced apart from eternity. Among many other things, heaven means that justice will be done. Maybe he doesn’t need justice, but would he deny it to others? Not everyone lives such a comfortable middle-class, suburban existence, after all.

Still, for a moment, he made me feel ashamed: I happen to be a comfortable middle-class, suburban Christian who does want and hope for heaven for any number of reasons. I worried for a moment that something was wrong with me.

Suffice it to say, I don’t worry about that anymore.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl describes a group therapy session in which he helps a patient make sense of her suffering. I love his analogy:

After a while I proceeded to another question, this time addressing myself to the whole group. The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: “And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”[2]

Christianity obviously makes sense of this dimension in which human suffering will an answer.

Let me include one more excerpt from the Frankl book. I can’t promise that this passage doesn’t appeal to me because I’m 43 and have (already, God forgive me!) known the pointlessness of “waxing nostalgic over lost youth.” In part, this blog is my “jotting down a few diary notes” as I remove another leaf on the calendar.

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and filed it neatly and carefully with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are event he things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”[3]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 149.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 118.

3. Ibid., 121-2.

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