To complete the Capstone paper requirement for the Master of Arts in Christian Studies degree program, I wrote a 40+ page paper on the subject of suffering and sanctification. Yes, it was and is a heavy subject, but one I wanted to wrestle with.
C. S. Lewis commented in his preface to The Screwtape Letters that he found the writing of diabolical thoughts scarily easy and twisted “one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp.” He went so far as to proclaim the writing of the Letters to have been a stifling experience. In a small way I know what Lewis was talking about.
For nearly six weeks I was immersed in reading and writing about suffering. My emotions swung from low to high depending upon the subject matter for the day. Concentration camp tales, other examples of unjust suffering and stories of natural disasters brought me down, but the recognition that God feels compassion for sufferers, and his only son willingly endured untold pain and suffering to provide redemption made my heart and sometimes my mouth sing. (Fortunately I wrote at home and tortured only myself with these outbursts.)
Why choose this particular subject when almost any would do?
Because I’ve cried my heart out walking on a windy, rain-soaked golf course the night of a dear friend’s death from cancer. Because I’ve watched the news and seen footage of tsunamis, terrorist attacks, tornadoes, wars, school shootings and famines. Because I’ve been wheeled into an operating room on several occasions. Because I’ve heard tales of childhood and spousal abuse from friends. Because I’ve watched people lose their faith, become embittered or disillusioned. Because I’ve watched people rise from the ashes strengthened, determined, undefeated and undeterred.
I wanted to explore what purpose(s) suffering can serve in our lives. I wanted to look at the phoenixes and the defeatists and find what personal qualities and thinking patterns separate the two. I wanted to look at the sufferings of Christ throughout his whole life, not just on the cross. I wanted to look at the theological questions surrounding suffering while steering clear of the issue of theodicy. (Theodicy is defined as the problem of the existence of evil in the world in light of the sovereignty of an all-loving God. I assume evil exists as do the biblical authors.)
Did I answer all my questions? Not by a long shot. Anyone who claims they can explain the purpose of natural disasters, discern why suffering is occurring, or tell someone why they have cancer is a proud fool. If you rob a bank and spend 10 years in prison, I will tell you there was a cause-and-effect relationship between your actions and your suffering. For most everything else, the cause and purpose remain obscure and undefined. Perhaps a look in the rear-view mirror ten years down the road will provide greater understanding, but maybe not.
What did I learn from the research and readings? Lots, and I’ll share one lesson today and more over the coming weeks.
One biggie: God doesn’t answer “why” questions. Read the book of Job,Job 38-42 in particular, and see for yourself. Rather than answer why there is suffering or why am I suffering in particular, He often reveals the answer to “what”. As in, “What can I learn about God, myself, life and the world through this time of suffering?” “What character defects need work?” “What character strengths didn’t I know I had?” “What gaps in theology and my understanding of God are coming to light?”
In a strange way the fact that the “why” question remains unanswered provides comfort and consolation. If I could understand God’s answer, which God assures me I cannot (Isaiah 55:8-9, Job 38), then life would be simple enough for a created being to understand, and God would be unnecessary. Instead I am asked to accept God’s incomprehensibility and trust his goodness even when it seems veiled. If God were beholden to answer my questions, then I’m God’s equal or superior and he’s rendered non-essential. Instead I’m asked to humbly accept the mystery and exercise faith. Not an easy thing to do.
What lesson(s) have you learned through suffering?
Internet Monk weighs in on the subject of suffering and spiritual formation.