There are two ways to end small talk:
1. Stop mid-sentence, flap your arms, and scream like a Nazgul.
2. Mention that Christianity is the only existing worldview with a satisfying answer to the mystery of why we suffer.
Both methods result in all present diving under bushes and shaking in horrible conniptions, strangely tempted to put on a ring of power and kill you.
But, in the words of St. Augustine, let dem haters hate. Nothing but the God-Man satisfies the Problem of Pain.
For the Muslim, suffering is either the painful result of sin, or it is a test. Either you screwed up, or God’s screwing with you.
For the Buddhist, suffering is rooted in desire, and freedom from suffering comes from the transcendence of this desire. This always seemed an aristocratic pose to me, as the desire to perform charity and to smell a woman’s hair must be transcended along with the all base and material desires. And what about the desire to transcend desires? Does that get transcended? Perhaps I’m too Western to grasp it — and far too attached to my Macbook — but Buddhism seems to lose the baby with bathwater.
And Our Dear Auntie Atheist — may she live long and prosper — must be content with a discontented shrug. C’est la vie, et la vie sucks. She must retire and think on why, if suffering is simply a part of the natural universe, do we have within ourselves a desire to be without it? Does that imply we are made for another universe?
I imagine I could go on, grotesquely simplifying various religious views. But what is suffering?
If a man sits on a stove, he suffers. But he doesn’t remain there, weeping. No, he jumps from the fires of Hell to — actually I don’t know. The sink? Could be difficult.
The point here is that suffering moves him from the bad to the good, from roasting to healing. Whether we’re being burned, frozen, crushed, slapped, poisoned, or smothered, it’s the suffering involved that demands we move — and move immediately — back to our normal, healthy state.
And this principle isn’t limited to the spiky realm of physical suffering — it encompasses the whole Veil of Tears. A man suffers when he is separated from his woman. In the manner of the old cliche (you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone), this suffering forces him to recognize the good of being with his love. Once again, suffering moves the man from the bad back to the good. For if he were to leave his lover and not suffer, only to forget and move on, why would he move back to her open arms?
It’s not the heroin that makes a man suffer, it’s the moving away from addiction that hurts, whether in rehab or for a few days without a fix. It’s not the act of watching pornography that causes a man to experience suffering. It’s the realization of the good he lacks (purity) that leads to suffering in the form of guilt, and the attempt to move back to the good (by not watching pornography) that makes him suffer physically — from withdrawal.
Enough examples then, allow me to put it in a phrase. Suffering is not a Thing. Whether in our bodies or in our hearts, suffering is an attempt to regain the Good. It is a motion, not a state. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, suffering is a wrenching into light, not a plunging into dark.
Well sure, I hear you say. Sure it makes sense, if you’re talking about bodily pain and separated lovers and all the rest. But what about children with leukemia? What about the gay kid who gets bullied to the point of suicide? What about the suffering that makes no sense? You could explain it as an ardent desire and attempt for the Good — whether in the body itself or in the will — but that doesn’t make it better. Sometimes the Good isn’t achieved.
The message of Christianity is quite simple: The world sucks. We are not where we want to be. The truth of this is validated by the man screaming in pain. He does not want pain, and yet pain is inevitable. Thus we arrive at a tension: The very being of man — which abhors pain — does not agree with the universe — which contains and deals out pain. Something is wrong. The atheist must deny that something is wrong, because to do otherwise would be to appeal to a supernatural standard.
Think about it: If all nature — with its cliff-edges, entropy, predators, and poisons — contains suffering, then to desire an end to suffering is to desire the supernatural, that which is outside of nature.
But Christianity doesn’t have this awkward problem. Christianity claims — rather obnoxiously — that sin is what went wrong. Human beings sinned — that is, they freely chose to act in contradiction to their own nature and in disobedience to God — and thus separated themselves from God, their Ultimate Good. You don’t have to believe this, obviously, but follow me for a bit.
Suffering is no punishment. It’s the method by which we are saved. We see this in our own lives, when it is through suffering that we obtain health, family, peace or success. Christianity simply claims that this truth are part of a larger picture.
In the Judeo-Christian creation story, the first thing God says to his children after they sin is this:
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”
To the non-Christian, God is being an ass. To the Christian, these words are the hope of the world. These words are not separate from those directly preceding them, in which God foretells the coming of a Savior who will cast out sin, death, and Satan from the world:
“And I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” God’s decree that man will suffer is God’s decree that the world will be saved. For suffering is an attempt to regain the Good. God says, “Look, children, you screwed everything up. But there’s a way back. It’s called Suffering. It is the method by which everything will be made well.”
Does this make sense? If not, give it one more try before you leave. If it does, read on.
Now it seems to me apparent that the amount of suffering one experiences is directly proportional to the Good one seeks to obtain. If a man wants the good of a meal, he might run for it. Chances are he won’t cut off his hand. But if a man wants the good of his lover’s life, he may very well cut off both his hands — and his feet besides — in order to save her. I take this principle as self-evident.
But herein lies the rub: If the Ultimate Good of man is union with God, then man does not have the capacity to suffer enough for his own Ultimate Good. He cannot succeed at his attempt to regain Paradise (His Good). For God — outside of space and time — is infinite. Union with him is infinite union, a Good that cannot be achieved by human beings bound by space, time, and all manner of sin and weakness. An infinite Good requires infinite suffering.
“For God so loved the world…” Urinate upon and burn whatever cliches you’ve built up around those words. What is love? Desiring the Good of the beloved. I take this as self-evident. What is suffering? As we’ve established, it is the attempt to regain the Good. Thus love and suffering cannot be divorced. Let any man who claims he can love without suffering be hung as a liar, for to truly desire the Good of another (to love) is to be willing to work to move the other from the bad to the good (to suffer). Whether that Good be their safety, security, happiness, peace or just their full stomach, love sweats blood for it. Love suffers.
Suffering then, is the logical nature of a God who is Love itself. If — as we established earlier — love and suffering are inseparable — then Infinite Love willingly experiences infinite suffering. Enter Christ.
He is the one who suffers infinitely. He is the one who, because he loves you, suffers for you. If this claim of Christianity is true — that Infinite Love suffers infinitely on the Cross and thereby wrenches mankind from darkness into light — then all suffering is a part of this.
The cross is not bound by time. It is an action of an infinite God, and thus infinite in nature, saving those in the past, the present and the future. It is not an example of suffering, it is suffering. It is the motion of humanity towards the Good. This means that our sufferings — our motions towards the Good — cannot be separate from his — the Ultimate motion towards the Ultimate Good. We can never suffer alone. This is why Paul says “I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
For all those who understandably don’t like Bible quotes, I’ll put it simply. If Bob has an infinite number of blocks, can you own a block that is not Bob’s? Of course not, for then Bob would have infinity minus 1 block, which is no infinity at all.
In the same way, if Christ suffers infinitely, can you experience any personal suffering that is not Christ’s? Of course not. For then the action of Christ would be infinite minus your suffering, which is no infinity at all.
But then the Problem of Pain is resolved. For all suffering — even the most terrible, unexplainable, unbearable suffering — must be an essential part of the motion of reconciliation, the pulling of mankind back to God. The breast of the child dying with pneumonia heaves up and down with the strain of bringing the world back to its Father. The heart of the abused girl breaks with the weight of the world’s sin, as she hold us sinners up to the waters of Grace. All suffering must partake in the one act of infinite suffering, the Crucifixion, by which the world is brought back to the Good it was made for.
If this is true, no suffering is meaningless. If this is true, all suffering can be transformed in the heart of the sufferer by the simple recognition that this pain, this fear, and this stubbed toe — in some entirely mystical and entirely practical way — saves the world. All other world-views either ignore the problem of pain, accept it with resignation, or seek to avoid it. Christianity, that eternal contradiction, embraces it as salvation. Choose now who you will serve.
Am I saying Christianity is true? No, though I believe it to be. Rather, allow me to say this: The problem of suffering is the oldest and most fundamental problem for the human race. That there is no coherent, consistent and thorough answer to be found to the problem outside of the person of Christ should — at the very least — be indicative that belief in Christ is one of the most natural, human actions a man can perform.
Now go, no more Internet! Go love everyone!