Posts Tagged ‘Viktor Frankl’

What’s right with “everything happens for a reason”?

October 28, 2015

This blog post, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” is making the social media rounds this week. The blogger, Tim Lawrence, is only the latest to attack the oft-repeated aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” Like a good politician, I’ve been both against it and for it—not the expression itself (which, like all platitudes, should be used sparingly if ever) but the meaning underneath it. Do you remember when I attacked Laura Story’s song “Blessings” before deciding, a year later, that it was profoundly good?

Isn’t that funny? What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Regardless, with proper qualification, I now endorse the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” I believe it’s an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty, it accords perfectly well with the witness of scripture, and, personally, I find it immensely comforting, as I’ve blogged and preached several times before (including here). For my fellow Christians, I always recommend three books on the topic: C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Timothy Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

If you want to know why I changed my mind on the subject, start with those three books. They blew me away. They exposed how shallow my thinking on the subject of suffering and God’s providence and sovereignty had been.

Would they make any sense to someone who isn’t already a Christian? I don’t know. (Frankl was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His is a “secular,” non-sectarian book, but, in my opinion, it’s premised upon a God who must be there to give meaning to our suffering.)

With that in mind, I don’t know if Lawrence is a Christian, or even a religious person. He uses the language of blessing, as you see below, which is religious language. I read in his bio that he suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His blog aims to encourage people who are experiencing pain and suffering.

He writes:

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

His own loss, he says, has not in and of itself made him a better person.

That seems right, as far as it goes: No loss, no suffering, no pain, in and of themselves, can make us better people. As Frankl observed from his experience in the death camps, the suffering that his fellow inmates endured often did destroy their souls. But—and here’s the key point—he didn’t believe that even the most intense amount of suffering necessarily would. As he writes:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[1]

Lawrence, by contrast, is unwilling to put the responsibility of that decision on the person who is suffering. Ever. He’s indignant at the suggestion:

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

While I sympathize, one consequence of Lawrence’s thinking is that the suffering person can only ever be a victim, or, as Frankl puts it, a “plaything of circumstance.” Does Lawrence want that to be the case?

I don’t. Although I recognize that wanting something to be otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Still, if Lawrence is right, let’s concede that much of what the Bible tells us about suffering is also nonsense. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph’s profound words to his brothers after their reunion in Genesis 50: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Or Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: This thorn, whatever it is, is both a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” Paul and a gift that “was given” by God (notice the divine passive) to keep Paul from “becoming conceited.”

In both Joseph’s and Paul’s cases, therefore, we see God transforming a genuinely evil event or circumstance into something good for them and for the world.

Does God work like this all the time? Is their experience universal?

I think so, at least for us Christians. I’m thinking of the apostle James’s words about the trials we endure, in James 1:2-4, and how they are for our good: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…” Or Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Even Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “give thanks in all circumstances” only makes sense if God is working providentially through everything. It’s also worth noting that when Paul wrote his “epistle of joy” to the Philippians, telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice,” he was enduring a brutal imprisonment that he wasn’t sure he would even survive.

My point is, while it’s true that pain and suffering in and of themselves can’t make us better people or the world a better place, the good news is that we don’t experience anything in the world in and of itself! There’s no corner of the universe untouched by God’s grace. There’s no place in this world where the Holy Spirit isn’t actively at work. There’s no evil more powerful than God’s redemptive love.

If God can take the greatest evil imaginable—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable, can he or will he not do the same with lesser evils in our own lives?

Lawrence replaces one aphorism (“Everything happens for a reason”) with another: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

That’s true, although we can trust the Lord that whatever we’re “carrying,” we’re carrying because God wants us to, that it’s good for us, and that we’ll receive the grace we need to do so.

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?

July 9, 2015

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.

A word about tragedies (part 2)

May 7, 2015

Blogger Ryan Dueck offered a thoughtful reply to my previous post. Among other things, he said the following:

I realize full well the force of your argument with respect to intervention, providence, answered prayer, etc. I’ve wrestled with these questions for years. For my part, I’ve simply come to the point where I am unwilling to sacrifice my conception of God’s goodness for my conception of God’s power and/or knowledge with respect to sovereignty…

Re: falling victim to the “sum of suffering” argument… No, I don’t think so. I feel exactly the same about one instance of suffering as I do about massive large-scale suffering. A five-year-old girl being sexually assaulted evokes the same response in me as an earthquake in Nepal. And this is where I think the “God has a reason for your suffering” falls short, whether we want to claim that suffering is God’s tool to punish rebellion or forge character or whatever. At least on some kind of one-size-fits-all level. Could you or I honestly tell a little girl that God has some pedagogical purpose for allowing her to be raped? And even if, inexplicably, we could say such a thing, the question of whether or not we should seems laughably absurd.

To which I responded with the following:

I sensed that you had wrestled with these questions. I appreciate that. One thing I’m arguing is that the difference between God’s “causing” (as in a highly Calvinist, deterministic way) and God’s “permitting” (as most of the rest of us believers affirm) isn’t as great as we may want it to be. To say, “God permits or allows,” doesn’t let God “off the hook,” if you will.

In other words, unless or until he articulates his conception of providence and sovereignty, I believe his conception of God’s goodness remains at risk. The only “out”—to which “process theologians” resort—is to say that God doesn’t have the power or knowledge to do much about suffering, evil, or death. But obviously this can’t be a Christian viewpoint.

What kind of God would allow, under any circumstances, a child to be raped? Well… a God who knows, perhaps, that the consequences of intervening to prevent that evil would be worse. Right? Only an infinite God can know these consequences. We can’t. We’re not surprised by our epistemic limitations. So we trust God, who doesn’t share our limitations.

Regarding the child rapist, I don’t know what else we can do except to affirm three things simultaneously: (1) The rapist’s action is evil and will be judged and punished by a God who has justifiable anger toward sin. (2) Nevertheless, in the interest of God’s good purposes for our world—among which is a desire for maximal human freedom (which is a great, if terrifying gift)—God has decided to allow this evil to take place. And (3) God will be working to redeem this evil, if not fully in this present world, then in the word to come.

I agree with Hart that bad stuff doesn’t happen because God needs it to happen to accomplish his purposes. (In his book, Hart talks about this at length.) But it’s not a question of God’s “needing” it to happen. A more helpful way to look at it is that bad stuff happens for any number of reasons: we live in a fallen, sin-filled world; our actions have consequences. The question is, What’s God going to do about it now? How’s God going to use it? And this is where a healthy understanding of God’s providence and sovereignty comes in.

As an Arminian, I find it helpful to think in terms of God’s “antecedent” and God’s “consequent” will. In a world in which humanity (and angels) hadn’t fallen into sin, then by all means, suffering and death would have no place, and they would be against God’s will. But given that we live in this world, here’s what God wants; here’s what God will do; here’s how God will use suffering and death. If God can transform the worst evil—the death of his Son—into the greatest good, then it’s not hard to imagine that God can make the same transformation with “lesser” evil. I believe he does so all the time.

How does Hart or Micheli imagine that God is off the hook by saying it’s all meaningless? Although, as I say, Hart contradicts himself. It doesn’t matter whether suffering and death have meaning, per se. Maybe they don’t. But if, as even Hart allows, God can redeem it, then we’re back to meaning and purpose.

Whether suffering actually produces “good effects” for the people suffering depends, in large part, on that person’s response. Suffering can and will destroy a person’s soul sometimes, as we all know. I take it that this is in part what James is getting at in chapter 1 of his letter. Will this suffering prove to be a helpful test or a temptation to sin? It depends. But I think we can affirm Jesus’ promise to Paul, who knew a thing or two about suffering: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

For a fascinating, deeply moving, and fairly “secular” account of this point, read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who stood on the highest moral high ground imaginable—besides Jesus himself—says that every instance of suffering offers us a choice: will this suffering crush our souls or enable us to grow spiritually. In many cases, he conceded that suffering crushed his fellow inmates, but he didn’t believe that it needed to. It’s a choice.

After one particularly difficult episode in the death camp, his fellow prisoners were committing suicide in large numbers. He said that he gathered his colleagues and gave them a speech (I’m paraphrasing), “You want to kill yourself because you don’t expect anything more out of life. But life still expects something from you! Even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

We’re Christians! How much more true is that for us? God expects something from us! As Frankl quotes Dostoyevsky: “My greatest fear isn’t suffering—only that I wouldn’t be worthy of my suffering.”

I don’t deny that we “pick our spots,” pastorally, when we communicate words about God’s sovereignty or providential care, but it isn’t the case that we never say anything or, in my opinion, resort only to saying, as so many of our fellow mainline Protestants do, “It’s a mystery.” Well, it may be a mystery to us in our finiteness, but it isn’t to God. And it’s perfectly okay to affirm some things about suffering, preferably before we’re in the midst of it.

Sermon 10-12-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9b: Elijah”

October 22, 2014

superhero graphic

In today’s scripture, a drought has caused widespread famine. A widow is worried about having enough food to feed herself and her young son. In spite of this, the prophet Elijah asks her to feed him first—and then feed herself and her boy. This was a major test of faith. The question she must have asked herself was: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?” This sermon explores some ways in which that same question is relevant for us today. This is the second of two sermons on this text.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the early 2000s, when I was working as an engineer, I traveled frequently. And once I was slated to go to Toronto, Canada, where I was going to be working at a Coca-Cola plant. It just so happened that there was an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus in Toronto called SARS. Remember SARS? And on the news, they showed people walking around the streets of Toronto wearing surgical masks out of fear that they, too, would catch SARS. And I was worried, too, frankly. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto and catch SARS while I was there. But I was also way too vain to go to Toronto and walk around wearing a surgical mask like the people I saw on TV. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to go to Canada and get this deadly disease. Oh well…

As it turns out, the trip to Canada got canceled anyway. So I didn’t end up getting SARS.

But I’m reminded of that same kind of fear when I follow the news today. Because now, once again, we face a new public health crisis—a deadly new contagious disease that some of us are worried about: Ebola.

In fact, I sense that we’re living in a new season of fear… And our fear is way out of proportion to the actual threat. When it comes to Ebola, for example, from what I’ve read, it is very difficult to contract the disease. An Ebola sufferer doesn’t become really contagious with the disease until they’re really, really sick. So of course doctors and nurses have to take great precautions when treating someone with Ebola, but it’s unlikely that Ebola could be spread on a subway car… or out in public.

And we’re afraid And if we’re not afraid of Ebola, there are plenty of other things to worry about: like the renewed fear of Islamic terrorism. So we’re trying to contain the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And there’s even fear that the Secret Service can’t protect the President and the first family—there have been break-ins at the White House!


In today’s scripture, the people of Israel were afraid. It hadn’t rained in over a year with no end in sight. As God had communicated through the prophet Elijah, God was withholding the rain from Israel and the surrounding nations as punishment for God’s people turning away from him and worshiping Baal instead. Baal was considered the god of rain. Baal supposedly controlled the weather. So our God, the one true God, wanted to prove to his people that he was actually in control. So God keeps Elijah alive by sending him out of Israel, about 90 miles north to a city called Zarephath, in Sidon. God tells Elijah that there’s a widow there who will feed him. We talked about how Elijah answered that call to go there in last week’s sermon. This week, I want look at the widow herself. Read the rest of this entry »

Following up on yesterday’s sermon

October 13, 2014
Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she'll end her life on November 1.

Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she’ll end her life on November 1.

In yesterday’s sermon, I connected perhaps the two biggest news items last week—Ebola and Brittany Maynard—with the scripture on which I was preaching, Elijah and the widow from Zarephath from 1 Kings 17:8-24.

The sermon was well received. One parishioner said she was surprised to hear a Methodist pastor speak with clarity and conviction on a hot-button subject like physician-assisted suicide, or so-called “death with dignity.” Is she saying that we namby-pamby Methodist preachers wouldn’t risk offending anyone? Perish the thought! Regardless, for whatever reason, Maynard’s story struck a chord with me. I blogged about it last week, and while I borrowed words from that blog post, I expanded on them, in part to address some thoughtful criticism of that post.

One commenter on my blog wondered whether I failed to express sufficient compassion for Maynard’s plight as someone dying of brain cancer. She was probably right. As I tried to make clear in yesterday’s sermon, however, my criticism of her decision and the cause that she’s advocating in no way detracts from my compassion.

In yesterday’s scripture, Elijah asks the widow to deny her maternal instinct to keep her young son alive and her human instinct to keep herself alive by using her last handful of four and oil to feed Elijah first. I asked, “Isn’t it hard to trust in the Lord like that? My faith has never been so badly tested… yet.”

Speaking of which, it is with great sympathy that I read last week—along with many of you—the story of a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard, who is dying of a brain cancer in Portland, Oregon. She announced publicly through CNN that with the help of a doctor, she will end her life on November 1st. She says she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, without going through painful cancer treatments, without lingering for weeks or months in hospice, without putting her husband, and family, and friends through the heartache of watching her die. And she’s advocating for the cause of physician-assisted suicide.

I promise I feel great compassion for her. I watched my own father take his last breaths in hospice care many years ago. And in my job as pastor I’ve seen people of all ages succumb to cancer and other terrible diseases, and I’ve ministered to them and their loved ones with a heavy heart and sometimes with tears. In spite of that, I’m deeply troubled by her decision to end her life like this—and since she’s made it a public issue in order to convince us to change our minds and change our laws regarding suicide, I don’t mind sharing with you why I think she’s wrong.

After sharing the insights from my blog post, including the words of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, I returned to a recurring theme in recent sermons:

You know, I’ve preached a lot recently about all these contemporary Christian martyrs who are suffering and even dying for their faith all around the world. And I speak of them with a sense of wonder and amazement at how courageous they are—that they can stare death in the face and simply accept it, as a consequence of their faith in Christ. And I speak of them as if their example and courage and witness are something unusual and exotic—something to which most of us would have a hard time relating. But that can’t be right. Because I’ve been privileged enough to be at the bedside of dozens of Christians who’ve faced their own death not with fear, but with this same kind faithfulness, and courage, and equanimity, and hope. They teach me—they teach us—how to die as a Christian.

I pray that Brittany will find this same courage, this same peace, this same hope, which comes from our Lord Jesus, before she makes this irreversible decision to end her life.

In the sermon, I also dealt with the implicit question that the widow must have asked herself: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will there be enough left over for me?” Another way of asking: If I surrender my life to Jesus and seek to be faithful to him, will my own needs be met?

I can’t tell you how this last question resonates with me. Because I’m constantly frustrated that some of my “needs” (if you want to call them that) continue to be unmet by Jesus: my need for recognition, for instance—for awards, for praise, for the kind of objective “success” that other people would recognize and appreciate. After all, if I can’t be “successful” as a pastor (by which, let’s face it, I really mean more successful than my clergy colleagues) what good am I?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous that some part of me keeps craving these things! Perhaps by withholding them from me, the Lord is starving the sinful impulse entirely. I hope so, because even if I got what I think I needed, it would never be enough. My ego’s appetite is without limit.

Just in the past several days, a clergy colleague posted on Facebook (on two different occasions, I’m sorry to have noticed) that he’s recently baptized dozens and received many more into membership in his church. I read these words and can’t be happy for him—not really. Because I feel judged by him and his success. I wonder, “What am I doing wrong? After all, despite my best efforts, I haven’t baptized dozens.”

It makes me depressed.

When I feel this way, I find that prayer helps. I sense that Jesus is telling me, “Just be faithful to me, and you’ll be O.K. I’ll take care of you. I’ll give you what you really need. I promise.”

The recent atheist meme about the ex-pastor

August 13, 2014

An atheist meme going around social media includes a picture of a pensive looking older man, ostensibly a former pastor, saying the following:

I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.

I planned on ignoring this meme, wondering why it took a Christian pastor (assuming he’s a real person) 58 years to realize that this world for which God takes complete responsibility is also a place in which not only evil and suffering occur, but they also do so in ways that seem absurdly unfair and indiscriminate.

I changed my mind about responding, however, after a clergy friend linked to the meme on Facebook, with the words, “Amen!” attached to it.

What exactly was my colleague affirming? In the comments section of her post, she said that she doesn’t believe that God would permit one child to die of an illness while saving another.

Really? What’s the alternative? Either God permits evil or he doesn’t. If he permits it, that means he has the power to stop it but chooses not to. If he doesn’t permit it, that means that while God may hate evil, he’s powerless to stop it. The latter option absolves God of responsibility for evil at an unacceptably high price for us Christians: God is impotent in the face of evil, and the Bible isn’t telling us the truth about him.

There are several other problems with the ex-pastor’s words.

The first relates to gratitude. If we can’t thank God for being the sole survivor of a plane crash (to use the ex-pastor’s example), we can’t thank God for anything at all.

Here’s why: Whereas we’re extremely unlikely to be involved in a plane crash, most of us, at least in the first-world, eat three square meals each day (or have the opportunity to). How can we be grateful to our Father for giving us this day our daily bread when so many people in the world are starving? How is that not also, in the words of the ex-pastor, “just cruel”?

By this same logic, we should disregard Jesus’ and the Bible’s many words about the importance of petitionary prayer. After all, by this ex-pastor’s logic, it wouldn’t be fair for God to give me what ask for when he fails to give someone else what they ask for.

But suppose we still believe in petitionary prayer. Suppose God chooses not to give us what we ask for in prayer: Do we assume that God is capricious—and whether or not God answers prayer is a crap-shoot—or do we assume God has good reasons for not giving us what we ask for? All of us Christians would agree that God has good reasons.

To say that, however, implies purpose.

So, getting back to the plane crash, we would be theologically justified in saying that God has a purpose in enabling one person to survive even if all the other people die—many of whom were undoubtedly also praying for their personal safety.

The ex-pastor is wrong to say that if God enables one person to survive he therefore kills everyone else on board. No—the laws of physics, or poor judgment, or mechanical error, or some combination thereof, are likely what “killed” everyone else on board.

Nevertheless, since God has the power to prevent the plane from crashing and people from dying, God is still responsible. Let’s be tough-minded enough to say so. As the Psalms make clear, God can handle our anger, hurt, and disappointment.

lewis_bookNone of these words may be pastorally helpful in the midst of someone’s grief or suffering—which is why it helps to think things through before tragedy strikes.

To help us do that, I heartily recommend the following three books:

C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain,

Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Spufford falters on the “problem of pain”

July 7, 2014

spuffordThere’s much to like about atheist-turned-believer Francis Spufford’s apologetic for Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He’s a funny, winsome writer and sharp thinker.

In the chapter called “Big Daddy,” he offers an unconventional but compelling defense of God’s existence based on the way that we human beings so often experience God. By the end of the chapter, however, he raises the logical problem of believing in a God-of-everything, as we Christians believe, versus believing in many gods or no God at all. Believing in a God-of-everything means believing that God is ultimately responsible for evil and suffering. Without flinching, he states the problem as well as any hardened skeptic:

But one point at which you can know you’ve started to believe is the point at which the tentative houseroom or headroom you’re giving to the God of everything starts to have emotional consequences of its own. Problematic consequences; uncomfortable consequences; unpleasant consequences. Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can’t escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There He must be, benignly silent, as a migrant worker is raped at a truck stop. There He must be, shining contentedly away, in the overrun emergency room where the children from a crushed school bus are dying.

And when you’ve noticed that you’re ready for the next act in the emotional drama of belief we’re following here. Which is, of course, horrified disgust.[1]

What follows in the next chapter is his response to the “problem of pain.” I like this:

Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently, that this ought not to be a problem for believers, because—curl of lip—we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of—preen—the brave unbeliever. But I don’t know many actual Christians (as opposed to the conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy) who feel this way, or anything like it.[2]

That’s exactly right. Even as a pastor, no Christian doctrine seems less believable to me, in the face of senseless, tragic death, than the doctrine of heaven. It feels like pie-in-the-sky, like escapism. Don’t get me wrong: I come back around to believing in it eventually, but only through intellectual effort. In the face of death, I find comfort instead in the fact that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, even though he knew that he would bring him back to life.

No: death is hard on everyone—on Jesus, on ordinary believers like me, and on atheists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Beyond these words, Spufford concedes way too much ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers. He sets up many of the traditional defenses of God’s goodness (in spite of the bad stuff in the world) and knocks them down far too glibly. Take this, for instance:

I’ve seen a church newsletter in which the Almighty is thanked for fixing the minister’s car, via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage. But it only takes a little of the cold wind of adversity to blow this stuff away—and only a little thought. For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s spark plugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture that draw? What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness.[3]

Not so fast, Mr. Spufford. First, reality is far more prodigal with its “niceness” than you let on here. As N.T. Wright once said, the problem of good ought to be a far bigger problem for unbelievers than the problem of evil is for believers. Why? Because there’s just so much goodness to go around!

When I was in Kenya last year teaching theology and doctrine to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors, some of my fellow “short-term missionaries” visited a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Nakuru. They went to provide food, clothing, and medicine to families who were squatting there. This wasn’t, as my missionary friend Bill told us, Western-style garbage. No bourgeois “freegan” would be found there rummaging for day-old bread. Yet here were families attempting to sustain themselves in this place that was very nearly hell on earth. (The Bible’s word for hell is gehenna, literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) It was horrifying, my friends reported. It drove them to tears.

But here’s what they also reported: young children in the midst of this garbage laughing, singing, and playing—experiencing joy. It doesn’t seem right, does it—in this place so far removed from any “gated community of niceness.” But there you are. Life is like that. Even at its worst, there’s still so much good. Why?

In his paragraph above, Spufford says that since God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to help this minister get his car repaired? Well, there it is: reductio ad Hitlerum. Is there anything we can say in the face of the Holocaust’s enormity?

I hope so—because by the standard of the Holocaust, nearly everything that happens in the world is trivial. Certainly, nothing in my little life rates God’s care or attention! Spufford complains about spark plugs, but please… he’s stacking the deck. “If God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to save the life of a child afflicted with leukemia?” “If God didn’t intervene to save the lives of six million people, why would God intervene to save 300,000 people from the Indian Ocean tsunami?” And forget about 3,000 in the Twin Towers on 9/11!

By this logic, if God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, God doesn’t intervene to do anything. Ever. At this point, the New Atheist are nodding approvingly: “That’s what we’ve been saying for years!”

All that to say, I hope we have some response to Spufford’s logic. Because if Spufford is right, the idea that God answers prayer is a joke—despite what our Lord teaches us repeatedly about the subject. In the face of senseless tragedy in his day, Jesus said seemingly harsh things like, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Needless to say, Jesus had a far more robust understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence—and, to say the least, he knew more about these matters than Spufford or I.

So, perhaps the second thing I need to say in response to Spufford is, let’s be humble about what we think we know about suffering and death. This is an important theme of Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book on the subject, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, which came out last year.

Third, we need to remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis points out, that the scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[4]

Lewis isn’t minimizing suffering and evil; he’s merely pointing out that if you’re going to become indignant about six million dying in Hitler’s death camps, you have no less reason to become indignant about six people in a trailer park getting flattened by a tornado.

Also, before we become indignant on other people’s behalf, let’s ask ourselves about believers in God who actually suffered in the Holocaust. Read, for instance, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for MeaningDid these believers experience God as not “getting out of bed” to help them? Of course some did, I’m sure. But many didn’t. Why? What sustained them?

For that matter, what does it mean that the most comfortable suburban Christians (or ex-Christians) become the most indignant about the suffering of others? My pastor friends in Kenya see far more suffering and death there than most of us do here, yet they’re, in general, far more faithful. In fact, in my experience as a pastor, the most advanced believers get the least worked up about their own suffering, often perceiving God’s hand at work in their lives, answering their prayers, and blessing others through them. Would Spufford tell them they’re wrong to feel this way?

Besides, who says God didn’t “get out of bed” to stop the Holocaust? He did stop it, through men like Dwight Eisenhower and the fighting forces of the United States, among many others. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Amen! This hymn writer rightly understands how God works in history. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.

Finally, in my own experience, here’s what I know for sure: most of the suffering that I suffer I bring on myself. It’s not caused so much by external events as my response to those events. As a friend of mine reminded me earlier this year, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” In my own experience, I can’t argue with that. Can Spufford?

Maybe he’ll answer that question before the end of the book. I’m not encouraged so far.

1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 84-5.

2. Ibid., 92.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

God’s “causal relationship” to suffering

October 31, 2013

keller_bookMy reading, my thinking, and not to mention my experience of life over the past few years has led me to an inescapable conclusion: God has, as Tim Keller refers to in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, a “causal relationship” to suffering.

This is not to say, simply, that God causes all suffering: it’s another way of saying that God’s sovereignty implies that God uses all suffering for his good purposes. Therefore, it is perfectly O.K. for us to ask God a question that I used to resist asking: Why is this happening to me? Or Why is this happening now? God always has a good answer to this question, whether we figure out what it is or not. And given that God is God and we’re not, we shouldn’t be surprised when we can’t figure it out.

I was more or less saying the same thing last month on this blog, and in a recent sermon, but I’ll say it again:

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

Yes, he is. Always. I can’t tell you how comforting my friend’s words were to me. God is in complete control of whatever good or bad thing is happening to me. I can say this as a Wesleyan-Arminian, believing both that God doesn’t cause evil and that we human beings have free will. But by all means, God uses evil and suffering to direct history, including our lives within it, according to his purposes.

Therefore, if some good thing happens, God has a reason for it; if some evil thing happens, God has a reason for permitting it. That may sound obvious to most of you, but here’s the sharp edge we have to live with if we believe in God’s sovereignty: If God wants to prevent a particular evil thing from happening, he will do so. Why he does or doesn’t in a particular instance—which is really another way of asking why he does or doesn’t give us what we pray for—only God knows sometimes, but we should trust that God knows best.

After all, young children often perceive that their parents make decisions that are unfair and they ask why they’ve made those decisions. Parents may rightly refuse to answer this question because the child isn’t mature enough to understand. Parents need their children to trust that they know best. To say the least, if this is true in the relationship between parents and children, who relate as “like kind to like kind,” how much more will it be true of our heavenly Father’s relationship to us, infinite to finite.

One thing’s for sure: a God who himself suffers—as we Christians believe God has and does—has paid for the privilege of our trusting him.

Tim Keller says that we must hold these two truths—that God is sovereign and God suffers—in tension with one another. I know, and he knows, that we Christians tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other. In mainline Protestant thought, we err on the side of suffering and minimize sovereignty. (It’s not even close.)

[T]here are an increasing number of theologians who are so glad to emphasize the suffering of God that they lose the idea of divine sovereignty, depicting God as one who is not all-powerful and not able to stop suffering in the world. Ronald Rittgers writes: “The idea that God has a causal relationship to adversity and misfortune is rejected by many contemporary theologians. The notion of God as co-sufferer is welcomed, but the idea of God as agent of suffering is shunned.

But Rittgers adds, “the God who has no causal relationship to suffering is no God at all, certainly not the God of the Bible… who is both suffering and sovereign. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning.” That is absolutely right. If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless… On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?[1]

I now see how inadequate David Bentley Hart’s treatment of suffering and evil is in The Doors of the Sea. From his perspective, God is completely off the hook for evil and suffering, which is nice, but he gets really fuzzy about God’s sovereignty. In my view, God can and does enfold evil and suffering in his plans for the world.

This is not to say that God causes evil. Rather, evil happens (for any number of reasons, natural and, in the case of the demonic, supernatural), but look what God does with it. God always has the power to prevent it, and one day God will completely vanquish it forever. In the meantime, however, God chooses to do something constructive with it.

Dr. Hart, of course, has perfectly well-thought-out theological reasons for saying that evil is privation—the absence of good—and God therefore makes no positive use of it, but his reasons don’t accord with the overall thrust of scripture. And if I were arguing with him (which I would never want to do), I would be reduced to saying, “Yes, but what about this passage?… What about that passage?” And he would probably attack my doctrine of scripture as Western and Reformed and whatever. At some point, however, we need to put more faith in the Bible than theology.

By all means, let’s be very humble about attempting to answer why bad things happen; let’s not rush to the microphone after every hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or mass murder and say, “Here’s why God permitted this…” (John Piper and Pat Robertson, I’m looking at you.) But let’s not be stuck with a God who couldn’t have prevented this bad thing from happening in the first place!

The fact that God didn’t prevent it means something. We don’t have to know what it means, but be sure that it does mean something.

I said earlier that if we believe in God’s sovereignty we have to live with some sharp edges. We have to test this belief against the worst cases of evil and suffering. At the risk of being accused of “reductio ad Hitlerum,” I refer to what I’ve written on this blog about how Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it to the test: he said in Man’s Search for Meaning that everyone, in the midst of the worst kinds of suffering, always faces a choice: we always get to decide whether this experience of suffering will be harmful or helpful to us; will crush our spirits or enable spiritual growth. He counseled potential suicides in the concentration camps: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Reductio ad Hitlerum or not, we can all agree, I hope, that no one stood on higher moral high ground in saying that than he.

At the risk of tears, let me have Frankl share what he learned:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[2]

Thank God there is always meaning in suffering. If God weren’t sovereign, there wouldn’t be. We would only ever be victims, with a God who stands by powerless—sorrowful and suffering to be sure, but also powerless to do anything.

I simply don’t believe that anymore.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 152-3.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Being grateful for suffering

October 10, 2013

keller_bookI was reading a fellow United Methodist pastor’s blog recently. This pastor (whom I haven’t met and isn’t in my annual conference) is currently preaching a sermon series on “reasons for doubt,” or something like that. He’s very clever, and I’m sure he’s going to close the loop and explain all the good reasons for actually having Christian faith. His blog posts in anticipation of his sermons, however, left the loop open, if you know what I mean.

One blog post presented what he thought was the best reason for not believing: human suffering. To illustrate, he quoted one of his blog readers who told him about her sister’s severely retarded adult child who can’t care for herself and requires the round-the-clock assistance of “underpaid, overworked” caregivers.

Why does God allow that kind of suffering? she asked.

I’m tempted to ask about whose suffering—the mentally handicapped child’s or the people who are made uncomfortable by this child’s disability?

Regardless, my fellow pastor agreed that that his reader asked an excellent question. He went on to say that the only thing that’s ever called for in the face of such suffering is silence.

Really? Only silence? Ever? Granted, we Christians can easily end up saying dumb things in the face of suffering, but I asked him in the comments section of the blog post if he thought there was ever a time and place to offer a Christian response to human suffering. If we can’t say anything to make sense of it then let’s just throw out the entire field of Christian apologetics, because I agree with him that suffering is the best reason not to believe in God.

Anyway, we went back and forth about it, and I regretted commenting in the first place. No one has ever suggested before that I’m glib about suffering or evil. I’m hardly one of those “everything happens for a reason”-kinds of people, as anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows.

This blogger justified his position by quoting David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea a lot, which I’ve also read. While I know it’s cool to be Eastern Orthodox these days—and I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with David Hart—I much prefer C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain. Although Lewis’s profoundly good book has been criticized for this reason, Lewis says what needs to be said: Suffering isn’t always bad. In fact, it has the potential to be very good for us. And God is happy to use it for our good.

(To Hart’s point in Doors of the Sea, this doesn’t mean that God needs evil and suffering to accomplish God’s purposes in this world; merely that he uses it for our good.)

Because God’s providential hand is always in our suffering, whether God causes it or not (and, biblically speaking, who can say God never causes it?), I’m reluctant to feel indignant about it on someone else’s behalf. Indignation is the prerogative of the sufferer (there are plenty of Psalms about this). Sometimes indignation on behalf of sufferers might be inappropriate—even in the case of the severely retarded child that the blogger discussed.

Does this child not also have the image of God within her? Is her life, even in its current condition, not sacred and imbued with with meaning, purpose, and dignity?

If she were capable of answering for herself (assuming she isn’t), would she not agree that her life is good in spite of her suffering?

My point is, I disagree that suffering is some kind of trump card against which faith and reason have no say.

I just started reading Timothy Keller’s new book about suffering, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. So far in the early chapters, he gives voice to some of my concerns about my fellow pastor’s blog post.

He says that in our secular age we human beings tend to believe that freedom and personal happiness give life its meaning. Since there’s nothing beyond this life, according to this worldview, suffering can only be seen as an unwelcome disruption. It can’t be a part of what gives life its meaning.

He contrasts this with traditional or pre-modern cultures, in which the meaning of life is achieved “not only in spite of suffering but through it. If patiently, wisely, and heroically faced, suffering can actually accelerate the journey to our desired destination.”[1] In these cultures, the responsibility for suffering resides mainly with the sufferer: it’s up to the sufferer to make something out of it; to learn from it; to grow from it.

This isn’t unlike what psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl argues in my second-favorite book on suffering, Man’s Search for Meaning. In Frankl’s experience, when faced with suffering, human beings always have a choice: they can choose whether the experience will provide an opportunity for spiritual growth or not. Frankl would frequently counsel with fellow inmates at Auschwitz and Dachau who felt hopeless enough to consider suicide (which was rampant in the camps): “You want to kill yourself because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something out of you“—even if, he adds, it’s only to face the gas chamber with courage.

Frankl wasn’t speaking as a Christian, although he would likely agree with me that when he writes that life expects something of us in our suffering, he also means that God expects something of us.

You may disagree with Frankl, but you have to admit that, as someone who witnessed and suffered some of the worst evil in human history, he arrives at his convictions while standing on the highest moral high ground possible.

Regardless, if we simply live according to our modern worldview, these words about suffering surely sound like nonsense. As Keller writes, if the “meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then suffering is of no possible ‘use.’ In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it at all costs, or, if it is unavoidable, manage and minimize the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible.”[2]

Keller describes a book by Andrew Solomon called Far from the Tree, about parents coping with a child born to them who isn’t like them—”but instead is deaf, a dwarf, has Down’s syndrome, is autistic, or is chronically ill or disabled in some way.

Solomon presents a series of well-written and sympathetic case studies of families who have faced each of these conditions and more. These children always represent a crisis to the family into which they come, and yet Solomon’s bottom-line finding was: “This book’s conundrum is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” This, of course, fits far better with the ancient cultures’ understanding of “the sweet uses of adversity,” of suffering as not the interruption of a life story but as a crucial part of a good life. One of the most interesting things to a reader is to see how often religion slips into so many of the descriptions of how families came to terms with their children. This is true despite the fact that Solomon himself is not religious and has no such agenda.[3]

So perhaps suffering is only a good argument against God for those on the outside looking in? For many people in the midst of it, God proves himself to be a “very present help in trouble.”

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 22.

2. Ibid., 23.

3. Ibid., 71-2.

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.