I hate to let good writing go to waste…
A colleague preached a sermon on suffering last Sunday. (Read it and see what you think.) While I could take issue with many of his points, I made the following comment on Facebook. It summarizes many things I’ve discussed on this blog. Is my response adequate? Would you add or correct anything? Am I missing something?
You write: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”
I understand the impulse behind saying this, because God is not the author of evil. But I disagree for two reasons. First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.
But I’m sure you’re not convinced, so consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?
There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:
1) God heard our request but doesn’t have the power grant our petition.
2) God heard our request and has the power, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons that may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.
Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense.
And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening that we can’t foresee.
I would also challenge you to consider the difference between God’s “allowing” something to happen and God’s “causing” something to happen. We often draw a sharp distinction between the two—perhaps in an effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!
Or what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
Besides, in your own experience, isn’t suffering often good for you? In my experience it certainly is! This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s soul, but not always. And he argues that it never needs to—for anyone.
In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.
Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when he tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.
So I’d recommend your reading Frankl’s book. But also Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
All that to say, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?” In fact, far from the ivory tower of mainline Protestant seminary, most people I know do as well.