Finding God in Suffering
After listening to Dr. Peter Kreeft’s lecture on Suffering I decided to write my own blog on the issue of suffering having had this on my mind for a while as well as having been inspired from his brilliant lecture. So let us begin.
Throughout the ages humanity has perpetually known a state of suffering that leaves the constant question “Why?” and “Where is God?” To find the answer to “Where is God in suffering?” first we must ask the questions: “What is suffering?” and “Why do we suffer?” before we can answer the question “Where is God?” So let’s use logic and start off with the first question.
What is suffering? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines suffering as: The state where one must endure death, pain, or distress. It is the state in which one must sustain loss or damage or be subject to disability or handicap.
Aristotle wrote that “we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause.” He went on to establish what is known as the “Four Causes” which are four possible answers to the question “Why?” something happens. These four causes are: Formal, Material, Efficient and Final.
- Formal: What is it? Define it. What’s its form, nature species?
- Material: What is it made of? What is the content?
- Efficient: Where did it come from? Who made it?
- Final: What is it for? What is its purpose?
With the issue of suffering thanks to Merriam-Webster we have already given a broad definition to the form of suffering, but for the sake of an example we will use the suffering of physical abuse. The first two questions are easy to answer. What is the Formal Cause of our chosen suffering? It is physical abuse. What is the Material Cause? It is a father beating is son. What is the Efficient Cause? This could be from drinking/drugs, depression, mental illness, anger or any other place of brokenness that can be found in the father that would cause him to lash out. Last but not least the hardest question: What is the Final Cause to the suffering of physical abuse? This last one is the hardest.
In our search for understanding we will look at some Philosophers who sought to make sense to suffering. The first is Buddha who once said “To live is to suffer” in which Nietzsche added “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” Yet it was Viktor E. Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” Frankl adds on to Buddha and Nietzsche “If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes.” So with that in mind, what is the meaning to life? Jesus laid this out for us in the Gospels when asked what the greatest commandment is. It is Love. It is to be loved by God, to love Him in return and consequently love yourself and then others. So if there is meaning to life (i.e. Love) what is the meaning of a child’s suffering physical abuse from his father? For if life has meaning then suffering must logically have some meaning or purpose to it.
Was there even a meaning for Jesus in what He suffered? Yes! A constant theme in the Psalms and the Proverbs is that God exalts the lowly and in Philippians 2 Paul states that in Christ’s lowliness displayed in His incarnation, suffering and death He was exalted. The in Revelation 5 we see glimpse of what He gets in His exaltation. So in that there was some meaning to Christ’s life on the earth it was simply a reward. In Isaiah 53 it states that there will be a reward to be given to the “Suffering Servant” which that being in part the offering of the nations as seen in Psalms 2. So Jesus in His life and suffering has meaning. It is glory, honor, riches, a kingdom, a bride and so much more. But the question still stands “What is our meaning to suffering?”
Buddha who founded his religion/philosophy on four noble truths the first of which says “To live is to suffer” from the suffering of birth to death and all of that lies within. Though there is some truth to this, Buddha based his whole religion on escaping suffering. Jesus on the other hand came and contrary to Buddha came to lead humanity not out of suffering but to lead us into suffering, for Him sin was the key issue to all suffering. This we know as Christians is the ultimate Efficient Cause to suffering. So if for the Christian all suffering came from the root of our sin what is the purpose?
In Hebrew 5 it says that Jesus had to learn obedience through His suffering. Along with that the Greek Poet Aeschylus said “Wisdom comes alone though suffering.” So is the purpose of suffering to gain wisdom or obedience? Paul states in Romans 8:28 “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God…” So though that doesn’t answer the question entirely it does mean God can create a meaning for it, the meaning being good. In the case of the abused child the good can be they grow up to poor into those that come from broke homes. Which is simply Nietzsche Frankl’s point; the child survived the abuse grew up and found meaning in it by using their understanding of the issue to help others. But is there more purpose to it?
If God brings good out of suffering, then is their more? For the woman caught in adultery in John 8 it was Jesus. In her suffering she found God. For David in the midst of his suffering we see in the Psalms it was an opportunity for him to cry out to God. So in the midst of our suffering we can find some meaning in that it is an opportunity to encounter God. For the abused child it is an opportunity to cry out to God, though that does not mean the suffering will stop, for as we know as Christians that suffering will never end until sin is gone. For sin is the Efficient Cause.
As Dr. Peter Kreeeft says “However these Four Causes are not meant to be a solution to the problem of suffering but to hone in on its centrality. There are two parts to the problem of suffering: Practical and Theoretical.” The practical being simply what do we do with it?
The theoretical which is the logic of it, why must we suffer? Through a secular lens we can try and keep growing in society and in our understanding and eventually we will evolve into a more enlightened being that has become above suffering and injustice. But to quote Sigmund Freud in “Civilization and Its Discontents” puts it “Why, now that we have become gods aren’t we happy?” Now that we are so enlightened why does life stink? Why do we suffer? Was Buddha right? Are we just destined to keep suffering? Is there a purpose? Is there an end? Well practically through the secular lens we must simply live through it and endure…that is a very depressing answer. However; if you are a Christian there is a hope and His name is Jesus. Jesus is the answer to the problem of suffering, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Theoretically if you live in a corrupt system, then you can always revolt and build a utopia on earth free of all corruption and be done away with the issue of why you are suffering, but then again you are still going to suffer death so issue is still unresolved.
But if you are a Christian and believe that God is the author of a story and is writing both the beginning and the end and all that lies within then the question is “Why does He write such a dreadful story?” This seems to be part of where Job the “archetypical sufferer” who in the midst of his suffering asks God “Why me?” in which God instead of answering his questions responds with His own questions. To ultimately sum up God’s response “Who do you think you are, you can’t possibly understand, I’m the author, you’re the character but that is ok I still love you.” David seems to a have a similar response as Job in the midst of his suffering when he asks “Why me?” except David always seems to add something Job doesn’t seem to remember “Why me? Either way I still trust You and know that You are good.” Coincidentally both seem to encounter God in the midst of their suffering. Concerning suffering Dr. Kreeft states “Perhaps one of the things God wants us to do is to get angry with Him, because that makes us similar to Socrates. It makes us ask questions.” I myself have found this to be true in my own life because of the anger I experience from my suffering I have found myself turning to God to ask Him the hard questions. Much like Job and David in the Psalms I turned to the One who could see the end from the beginning.
Dr. Kreet makes the point that, if in fact we are characters in a story written by God then that means we cannot truly understand all that is going on, even suffering because if we did that means God would no longer be God and instead simply He would be us. But since the character cannot see all that the author is writing, then we cannot fully comprehend all that is going on all we can do is simply trust in the leadership of the transcendent author. If this is true then this is one answer to the problem of suffering, simply to Trust or Faith in God’s leadership.
Another answer to the problem is Hope, which is simply Faith in the future. So it is possible that we will not fully understand suffering in this age but in the age to come when God has done away with suffering. Or in other words it is like the character trying to figure out where the author is taking him in his story but ultimately can’t fully understand until it is all over and book two starts and he can look back. So consequently all he can do is trust in the leadership of the author by putting his hope that the author will right the wrongs.
Lastly the deepest answer to the issue of suffering is love or rather solidarity with sufferers and if you truly do love someone then you want to be with them wherever they are, you want to be close to them, you want intimacy. It is one thing if to show love by bailing someone out of their suffering but it is another to experience their suffering with them. It is the shortest verse of the Bible; “Jesus wept.” In which when Jesus wept over the loss of his friend with Mary the people said “See how He loved him.” Jesus experienced both the pain of Lazarus’ death and the pain that Mary was experiencing. Sure Jesus could have stopped Lazarus from dying, but He didn’t because He is the author and brought good out of it. But in Lazarus and Mary’s suffering Jesus was their relating with them.
Thus if you are a Christian the greatest answer to the problem of suffering is as stated earlier is Jesus. Who took off His garments of light and clothed Himself in dust to walk among the broken to identify with their suffering, thus showing the greatness of His love. In being with us in our suffering we experience a greater level of intimacy is birthed, this is for everyone because everyone suffers.
Dr. Kreeft paints the picture: If your car breaks down in a horrible snow storm and all you can do is contact your brother. When he shows up he doesn’t know how to fix your car, but all he knows to do is sit with you in the midst of your trial until the morning when you can get a tow truck to come to your rescue. So looking back is guy more thankful for the brother or the tow truck guy? Is he more thankful for the one was with him in his suffering or rescued him? Well it would be the one who was with him. I can attest to this in my experience more times than naught, in my times of suffering all I really wanted was someone to just come sit with me as I experienced the inevitable pain. Now praise be to God that Jesus is both the brother in the story who sits with us in our suffering and the transcendent author who at the end of the story will right every wrong on our behalf. Jesus was with the child being abused, He was the One who rescued the child from being abused and the One who healed and matured the abused child into a grown man capable of ministering to the broken. Jesus is the answer to suffering. Thus knowing I can meet Jesus in my suffering well to quote Nietzsche: “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Those that have a ‘why’ or a meaning to be found in suffering can endure it because Jesus is there.
 “Four Causes”. Falcon, Andrea. Aristotle on Causality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2008