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Suffering and the Will of God...
Chagall - White Crucifixion

Theology of Suffering

Considering the groan of creation...

by John J. Parsons

Preface: The following may be a bit "deep" if you have never studied the philosophy of religion, but I hope it may still be helpful as you consider some of the ways people try to explain why God allows suffering in this world...  Please skip it if it doesn't help you.  Shalom.

HOW WE ANSWER THE QUESTION OF WHY WE SUFFER depends on how we interpret its meaning and its potential purpose in our lives. Does God orchestrate suffering for our ultimate good, as part of his plan for our lives, or does God respond to our suffering and seek to heal us from its influence? In other words, should we accept suffering as "inside" God's master plan for our lives, or somehow "outside" of that plan?

Such a question is surely not academic, since genuine suffering threatens our basic need to understand what is happening to us (and why), and therefore our heart cries out for a reason for our loss and pain.  Indeed seemingly pointless suffering can lead to bitterness, chronic depression, the loss of faith, and even suicide, so it is vital to attempt to understand its function in our lives and to find hope in our struggles. After all, without some reason for suffering, some "why" that we can use to navigate and interpret our struggle, we may begin to feel victimized, prisoners of an absurd and pain-riddled world...

Most people of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures infer that there is a divine purpose for everything (i.e., the "principle of sufficient reason") which is grounded and determined in God's sovereign will. God is the Supreme Power who orchestrates history and its redemption according to a divine plan. The Lamb was slain from the "foundation of the world." The Lord is Ribbono Shel Olam, the "Master of the Universe," who directs all things after the counsel of his own will and in accordance with his sovereign good pleasure (see Isa. 40:13; Eph. 1:3-12; Rom. 8:28). This understanding implies that suffering is "inside" God's plan, not something "outside" of it, since by allowing suffering God in effect decrees its occurrence. Whatever touches our lives is bound up in God's overarching plan for creation, and since God is perfectly good, we can trust his plan for us, even if we suffer in this life (Jer. 29:11).

This exegetical approach to the question of why we suffer flows from various Biblical premises that God our Creator is infinite in power, wisdom, and love. Surely God can do anything he desires, and whatever He chooses is the best, which implies that this is the "best of all possible worlds," and - mystically accepted -- that everything is perfect -- even if we cannot fathom the deep purposes behind God's decrees (Isa. 55:8-9). Nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37); God never makes mistakes; God is not unaware, asleep, or unable to intervene in our lives. Indeed, God's power sustains the world at every moment, from the realm of the subatomic to the realm of cosmic (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:16-17). And since God is supremely loving, compassionate, and perfectly good, we can trust his plan and feel secure that "all is well, and all manner of thing shall be well," even when we are in darkness (Isa. 50:10).

Perhaps the biggest objection to this optimistic view has to do with what appears to be "gratuitous" evil, such as senseless murders, "horrendous" evils such as wars of aggression and genocide, and "natural" evils such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and so on. It is difficult to fit such tragedies into a "perfect world scenario," and human outrage instinctively seeks for an alternative explanation. For instance, wouldn't the universe be better -- all other things being equal -- if just one child was not murdered rather than murdered? In other words, to successfully object to the idea that this is "the best of all possible worlds," we need to find only one logically possible counterexample which in turn would cast doubt upon the meaning of the original premises.... Put another way, are we prepared to say that it is necessary for God's perfect plan that every actual evil occurs, or can we say that it is at least possible that a world without one of these evils would be better than a world with it?

A different approach to the problem of why we suffer begins by rejecting the idea that suffering is "inside" God's plan, but instead should be regarded as "outside," as an alien force resulting from disobedience to God's moral will. Suffering is not an essential part of God's plan, but a derived part, a corollary to disobedience. Indeed, God's ultimate plan is to remove our suffering by means of our free response to his healing love. God "restricts" himself (tzimtzum) or "empties" himself (κενόω) to allow creatures some measure of real choice.  Sin is the abuse of freedom for which God cannot be held responsible, and therefore suffering arises as a consequence for turning away from the reality of God's good will.

The appeal of this view is that it seems to make sense of the common "language of imperative" found in the Scriptures. Over and over we are commanded to love God, to love others as ourselves, to pursue justice, to walk in mercy, to do righteousness, and so on. We have a duty to serve God and follow the truth. "Ought implies can," and therefore the commands of Scripture imply that it is our responsibility to choose what is right and good, and to refrain from doing what is wrong and evil. In other words, it is up to us to turn to God and walk in his ways, and it's our failure to yield our will to God's direction (Torah) that leads to delusional thinking, and finally to suffering, pain, and death itself...

The "free will defense" (of God's goodness despite the presence of evil) as it's sometimes called, is not without complications, however. For instance, if we say that God cannot cause free moral agents to do what is right, and therefore that he must create them with the capability to choose evil, then this implies that God created the possibility for evil, and that when this possibility is considered in relation to God's foreknowledge, this further implies that God created moral agents knowing they would choose evil over good. However, if suffering is not "inside" God's plan, it is hard to understand why God wouldn't have created truly free moral agents who always choose the good in the first place. Certainly that is not a logical impossibility. Indeed, as Augustine said regarding the question of obedience and freedom, at first Adam and Eve were "able to sin" (posse peccare); but after they disobeyed God, they were infected with spiritual death and rendered "unable not to sin" (non posse non peccare). After regeneration through Yeshua, the soul is "able not to sin" (posse non peccare), though in heaven, finally, the soul will be "unable to sin" (non posse peccare), that is, free from the the possibility and presence of sin.

Let me explain this a bit futher. According to Augustine, when God created man, he was in a state of "innocence" wherein he was entirely free to choose either to sin or not.  After Adam sinned, however, death entered into the human race and the state of soul of all the descendants of Adam and Eve thereby became "unregenerated" (i.e., spiritually dead). Man's ability to choose was vitiated and he became enslaved to self-interest, driven by fear, and engulfed in spiritual darkness. His state of being as a "natural man" precluded him from apprehending the truth and living according to its light.  After spiritual rebirth and "regeneration," however, the soul is "made alive" (ζωοποιεω) by the Holy Spirit and made free from the "law of sin and death," i.e., the power of sin. This does not mean, however, that the regenerated soul is able to attain a state of moral perfection and entirely cease from sinning, since the process of sanctification involves apprehending the soul's new identity through the ongoing practice of faith. Finally, the state of soul in olam haba -- the world to come -- is one wherein the soul is "glorified" and accorded the power both not to sin and the everlasting grace to be unable to sin against God. This is the heavenly state - the Holy Mountain - where the very presence of sin will forever be eradicated. If God will orchestrate such and end, why could he not have done so from the beginning?

A troubling implication of the classical "free will" defense, however, is that the possibility for doing evil seems necessary to be a free moral agent, which seems to suggest that evil is eternal... Like the (dubious) logic that claims we cannot know light apart from darkness, love apart from hate, and peace apart from strife, etc., so we will need these contradistinctions forever. But it seems contrary to the promise of Scripture that God will wipe every every tear from our eyes in the world to come, yet the language of pain will be known as well...

עַד־אָנָה יְהוָה תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח
עַד־אָנָה תַּסְתִּיר אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּיָ

ad  a·nah  Adonai  tish·ka·chei·ni  ne·tzach?
ad  a·nah  tas·tir  et-pa·ney·kha  mi·me·ni?

"How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1)

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The "free will defense of God" is popular because it permits us to feel outrage over suffering and evil without blaming God.  Suffering is not something God intended for us (it is "outside" his plan), and therefore we must fight against it. Nevertheless we can make a distinction between evil and suffering, and though we agree that God does not will us evil, he may indeed will that we suffer, if that suffering "upbuilds the soul" or transforms our character to reveal the truth of Christ. The Chasidic School has said, "Man descends in order to ascend," meaning that the battle with yetzer hara (the "lower nature") is meant to strengthen us and develop qualities that we could otherwise not know. The Chassidic masters must have read Kierkegaard, who called suffering the process of being "educated for eternity." This world of shadows and decay is not our true home, and suffering is God's way of calling us away from the allure of its illusions. We only become a person, a self, in relationship with eternity, and suffering turns the soul's gaze away from the fleeting to the truth that unifies and heals us. As C.S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Marcel Proust once said, "To wisdom and goodness we make only promises; pain we obey," which I interpret to mean that suffering can teach us and help us develop into mature people. God "purges" the vine branches; he cuts back and reshapes our growth and direction (John 15:1-8). Our suffering builds endurance and strength, and unites us deeply with God's heart, with the goal of being glorified with Yeshua (Rom. 8:17). Suffering teaches us empathy, compassion, and humility, and God comforts us in our afflictions so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have been given by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

God graciously "delivers our soul from death, our eyes from tears, and our feet from stumbling" (Psalm 116:8) so that we are enabled to express his compassionate love to others in our lives... "For as we share abundantly in Messiah's sufferings, so we share abundantly in consolation (παράκλησις) of the Messiah, too" (1 Cor. 1:5). Therefore we can say, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (אלהֵי כָּל־נֶחָמָה), who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Note that Paul links our present suffering (πάθος, pathos) with a divinely imparted comfort (παράκλησις, "paraklesis"), which he regards as a state of blessedness. God Himself "calls us to His side" (from παρά + καλέω) in the midst of our afflictions and pain.... The Greek text reads, ὁ παρακαλῶν ἡμᾶς ἐπὶ πάσῃ τῇ θλίψει ἡμῶν, and might be better rendered as, "The one calling to us [to His side] in all our tribulations" (2 Cor. 1:4). God invites us to come to His side for comfort so that we might offer his comfort to a lost and pain-riddled world.

In this view, suffering is "inside" God's plan as a means of ultimately healing us. Indeed, far from being a sign of God's abandonment, suffering is transformed to be a means of God's care for us. We are disciplined by God to bear a greater good (Heb. 12:7-11); we learn to endure trials for the sake of knowing and sharing the miracle of God's comforting love.

There are some other attempts to put suffering "outside" of God's plan that might be mentioned here. Some people regard life in this world as a cosmic battlefield and blame the devil for all the suffering and evil we experience. The proper response is not to blame God but rather to join Him in the battle of the ages against evil.

The traditional "problem of evil" may be stated that the three sentences: 1) God is all good; 2) God is all powerful; and 3) evil exists, are incompatible, if not logically, then at least existentially. The empirical philosopher David Hume succinctly put the problem this way: "Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). In other words, if God is all good he would want to eliminate evil, and if God is all powerful he is able to eliminate evil, and yet evil exists, so we are left with the choice of accepting any two of these statements at the expense of the third. For example, someone could affirm that God is all good and evil exists, but God is unable to overpower evil; or someone could say that God is both all good and all powerful, and therefore (ultimately speaking) evil does not exist, and so on. Some people attempt to make suffering "outside" of God's will by denying his omnipotence -- by claiming that God literally cannot overcome evil because he has given moral agents their own sovereign will to choose...  God can't remove evil the way he can't make a square circle or cause 2+2 to equal 5.  Others say that God does not know the future because reality is a process, and not a set of facts, and God simply leaves room for personal choices that are not predetermined to occur.

It should be clear that these other approaches are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, since God is the God of Truth (אֵל אֱמֶת) who indeed knows the beginning from the end, and indeed God's understanding and power are infinite (Psalm 147:5; Isa. 40:28; Psalm 145:3; Rom. 11:33). God is perfect in all his ways (Deut. 32:4). The Judge of the earth shall always do what is right (Gen. 18:25). Moreover God is utterly holy, absolute in moral perfections, and his will is beyond reproach. Additionally, Yeshua knew the truth value of "counterfactual conditionals" (Matt. 11:21-23), so it is simply incorrect to suppose that God cannot foresee future possibilities as well as actualities. God knows the truth conditions of all possible worlds, just as God knows the outcome of all actualized possibilities in the actual world.

Among those of us who trust God and the words of our Lord Yeshua the Savior, however, we are faced with paradox, with mystery, and therefore we must learn to accept that we "see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). On the one hand we unreservedly believe that God is the sole Authority of reality, the Master of the universe who decrees and ordains all things perfectly. God knows the number of the hairs on our head; he knows our thoughts before we think them and our words before we utter them (Psalm 139); he knows the bloom of every hidden wildflower and when the sparrow falls (Matt. 10:29). Surely He is our Good Shepherd who leads us through the world and orders all things to work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). His promises are secure because God is in control, and God's Name YHVH (יהוה) means that he is the Faithful One who reigns over all states of being and time, in every realm of existence. God is Eternal and therefore he is the Possessor of Eternal Life, Truth, Being, and so on. YHVH is Lord of lords and King of kings whose word can never fail (Deut. 10:17; Dan. 2:47). Ein od milvado (אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּו): "there is no power apart from Him" (Deut. 4:35,9). Because our great God is in control of our lives and future, he must ordain suffering for us with only benevolent and healing intent.

On the other hand, the imperative language of Scripture implies that we have a real duty and responsibility to do truth, to love others, to receive the light, to trust in God, and so on. Like the rich man who asked Yeshua how to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22), God does not force us to follow him or to accept his love, though there are real consequences for those who willingly choose to disregard moral and spiritual reality. Nevertheless, and this is the problem given in the Book of Job, it is very often the righteous that suffer, while the wicked prosper, and it this breakdown of the principle of "karma" that is most problematic...

In the end the question of why creatures suffer may be an unanswerable question, at least at the present time, because we are not omniscient and cannot ascertain the deepest reaches of God's redemptive purposes. Nevertheless we presently groan and seek for answers, because suffering is a ubiquitous part of our experience (צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִּים), and it threatens our sense of God's care for our lives... The academic question of how to reconcile faith in God with the prevalence of suffering is very different than the life of faith itself, where we trust God's heart, even if we cannot understand why things happen the way they do. Like a small child, we take hold of our heavenly Father's hand, not knowing why he is leading us the way we are going, but trusting in his care every step of the way.

Necessarily every human being is a theologian of sorts, since thinking about what is ultimately real is inescapable, especially when we are confronted with questions regarding life and death.... The issue often isn't whether a person will believe in God, but rather how he or she will approach the question of God's Presence in light of suffering. Part of the difference between a "theology of rebellion" and a "theology of hope" is that rebellion is a mode of the intellectual (i.e., a deification of logic, a demand for temporal and this-worldly justice, and so on), whereas hope is a mode of personal trust (i.e., a "letting go" of the demand for answers in order to surrender to love).  When you encounter God as the lover of your soul, you begin to apprehend the truth that "love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13:4-6). Being in a genuine love-relationship with God gives you the courage to face the ambiguity of a world filled with suffering with hope and compassion.

    "If the world exists not chiefly that we may love God but that God may love us, yet that very fact, on a deeper level, is so for our sakes. If He who in Himself can lack nothing chooses to need us, it is because we need to be needed. Before and behind all the relations of God to man, as we now learn them from Christianity, yawns the abyss of a Divine act of pure giving—the election of man, from nonentity, to be the beloved of God, and therefore (in some sense) the needed and desired of God, who but for that act needs and desires nothing, since He eternally has, and is, all goodness. And that act is for our sakes. It is good for us to know love; and best for us to know the love of the best object, God. But to know it as a love in which we were primarily the wooers and God the wooed, in which we sought and He was found, in which His conformity to our needs, not ours to His, came first, would be to know it in a form false to the very nature of things. For we are only creatures: our role must always be that of patient to agent, female to male, mirror to light, echo to voice. Our highest activity must be response, not initiative. To experience the love of God in a true, and not an illusory form, is therefore to experience it as our surrender to His demand, our conformity to His desire: to experience it in the opposite way is, as it were, a solecism against the grammar of being." - The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis

Note:  Of course this brief discussion merely scratches the surface of the meaning of suffering for those who believe in God. There are a large number of books that address the problem of suffering in better detail, and I would recommend Richard Rice's book "Suffering and the Search for Meaning" as a good place to start exploring some of the basic issues. Some other books include: "Wandering in Darkness" by Eleaonore Stump; "Suffering and the Courage of God" by Robert Morris; "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis; "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering," by Timothy Keller; "God, Freedom, and Evil" by Alvin Plantiga; "Pathways in Theodicy: An Introduction to the Problem of Evil" by Mark Scott; "The Many Faces of Evil" by John Feinberg; and "Philosophy of Religion" by C.S. Evans and R. Zachary Manis.  Also see "Musings about Suffering," "Paradox and Presence," "The Devil's Logic," "A Dangerous Schooling," and "The Power of Hope," on the Hebrew for Christians web site.

Addendum:  Please note I am not pretending to have "the answer" as to why we suffer presented here, but I simply wanted to provoke us to think a bit more about this vital subject. Like all my other writing, this too is "work in progress," friends.... Shalom.

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