Christians: Let’s Get Real About Suffering

My post last week on why prenatal screening for disabilities is motivated by different impulses than prenatal screening for gender led to a lot of heated but helpful discussion. One commenter was troubled by my empathy for parents who, motivated by a desire to spare their child great suffering, terminate a pregnancy after learning that their child has a disability. He felt that I was using a typical “eugenics” argument to justify the devaluing, perhaps even the eventual extinction, of people with disabilities. We went back and forth, on the blog and via e-mail. While we still don’t see eye to eye, we’ve also learned from each other. He is even writing a guest post for me, so stay tuned.

But I’d like to write again about suffering, because I think how Christians perceive and respond to suffering is a huge component of how we respond to disabilities and medical technologies designed to address them.

As Christians, we believe that life is worth living and that human lives are valuable, even if they involve suffering. We even believe that suffering can become a means of grace. Through Christ’s suffering on the cross, we are reconciled with God. Through our own suffering, we can be transformed in life-giving ways.

But Christians too often gloss over the harsh realities of suffering to get to the transformation part. We want to rush right past the cries of agony to get to the grace. This tendency is obvious in all those terrible cliches that Christians pull out of our hats when responding to someone’s pain, fear, and grief: “It’s God’s will.” “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “Everything happens for a reason.”

Nonsense. This is bad theology. It is even worse pastoral care.

The following is an excerpt from my recently released book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction. I hope it sheds a bit more light on how I approach suffering in general, and specifically as it occurs with disabilities and genetic disorders:

In responding to the devastating Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart argues against any attempt to rationalize, ascribe meaning to, or trumpet God’s intent in human suffering: “Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” Hart calls attempts to justify human misery on grounds that our suffering is necessary to reveal God’s true nature “immeasurably . . . vile”; he goes on to ask which attributes of God the tragic deaths of children (and I would add, the painful disabilities of children) are meant to reveal: “Capricious cruelty, perhaps? Morbid indifference? A twisted sense of humor?” A thousand ancient knots in my chest undid themselves the moment I read this sentence: “Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

I have come to believe that illness, disability, and disease are neither fundamentally good things disguised as bad (thus not the intentional work of a loving God who works in mysterious ways) nor value-neutral manifestations of human diversity. I view suffering as a characteristic of life in a fallen world; illness, disability, and disease are, quite simply, the result of life in a world that does not work as God intended. I believe they are bad things and that we are allowed to name them as bad things. This does not mean, however, that we have license to try to fix what is wrong at all costs, or that we can’t learn valuable lessons, find meaning, and come to know God and ourselves better as a result of suffering. There is a huge difference between saying that my bone disorder was intended to reveal God’s truth or teach me something I need to know, and saying that my bone disorder ended up revealing God’s truth or teaching me something I need to know. While I refuse to ascribe God’s intent to disability, disease, and suffering, I acknowledge that they often provide life-changing opportunities for growth.

I’ve been pondering Christian responses to suffering in part because of the dialogue inspired by last week’s post on prenatal screening. But I also came across several posts by theologian Ben Witherington as he reacts to his 32-year-old daughter’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolism a few weeks ago. In the first post in this series, titled Good Grief, Witherington writes:

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby.  God is not the author of evil.  God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms.  Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world…“He came that we might have life and have abundantly.”  If there are promises I cling to, as I weep for my sweet Christy, it is this promise, not the sorry solace and cold comfort of “God did this but we do not know why.”  No.  A thousand times, no!  God and his will are always and only for what is good, and true, and beautiful, and loving, and holy.

This post includes an interesting look at the line in Job, “the lord gives and the lord takes away.” Witherington asserts that this view does not come from God, but from Satan. Go read this post, and the others in Witherington’s Good Grief series. When it comes to Christian responses to suffering, he’s got it right. And that he has written something so clear and moving in the immediate aftermath of searing grief is something of a miracle.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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