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.

Remembering One of My “Cloud of Witnesses”
Natural Family Planning Isn’t the Only Ethical Option for Christians: Why I Chose an IUD
Why “What Would Jesus Do?” Isn’t Exactly the Right Question
Believing with Our Bodies
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 for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Rachel Stone

    Amen and amen. Preach it!

  • fran

    I think too of those times when I have suffered–physically, spiritually, intellectually–as times when I am outside all of my normal interactions (with my body, my family, my coworkers, with God). When the suffering gives me a chance to see my self in a different way, not just to understand the grace of a healthy body but to welcome the grace of others who help me (doctors, friends, colleagues, strangers) and to welcome the opportunity to open myself for God’s love in the world (to accept help, to learn patience, to see a different solution, to teach others through my problems).

    As I was writing this, though, I wanted too to be honest and say that I am frustrated and I DO say “God, why are you doing this?”; I think part of our mortal nature is to cry at the suffering and hope that God will simply take it all away, like a parent putting a bandaid on a scrape. If I’m honest with myself then that frustration becomes the opening cry for God to open me to new grace. If I’m not, then it becomes a dead-end of breast beating and inaction and unproductive moaning. And sometimes there’s a long time between event and honesty. I guess I see that as the difference–God loves us despite our wailing and Christ teaches us to open ourselves beyond that to learn how to be better for ourselves and our world in its suffering.

  • Travis Mamone

    I’ve been reading up on process theology lately. According to process theology, not everything that happens in this world is “willed” by God. So in other words, it’s not “God’s will” that terrible things happen. But then that leads to another question: If God did not will this terrible thing to happen, then is God not paying attention?

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian and haven’t taken any religion classes beyond those for my undergrad religion major! But…I see the terrible things that God does not will as being somehow linked to the fact that the world is not how God intended it to be. Somehow, those things are part of the Fall. Now, with human sin, we generally attribute those bad things that are not of God’s will as being due to free will. But sickness and disease aren’t exactly clearly linked to free will. So I won’t even hazard a guess as to how this all works. But I think David B. Hart’s words (as well as Ben Wetherington’s) that I quote above get at something important: Christ came to defeat death, and it is good theology to see both death and great suffering as having no great “meaning.” Everything that comes from God is good.

      I do think/believe that God is paying attention, and that furthermore, God knows what it means to suffer, since he did it. That gives me tremendous comfort.

      But the mechanisms of how all this works? There I’m lost. And looking forward to when the glass isn’t quite so dark.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Mike Sullivan

    “While I refuse to ascribe God’s intent to disability, disease, and suffering, I acknowledge that they often provide life-changing opportunities for growth.”

    The answer lies in the statement “While I refuse”. Resistance (refusal) takes you away from accepting life as it is and the egoic thought that one should not suffer is the root of suffering. All humans suffer, we all die, it is part of being human. Suffering will destroy the ego, but it has to be conscious suffering. You have to say yes to suffering to transcend it – it’s a paraxdoxial truth. It’s the image of the man on the cross. As the Borg say, resistance is futile.

    The point about eugenics is that the concept of suffering is used in eugenic theory as a justification for releiving a person of that suffering by killing them. Modern eugnics includes birth prevention through embyro selection, antenatal screening and selective abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It’s a dumb idea ethically, morally and spiritually.

    One could take the view, thank God that no-one killed Jesus to relieve him of his suffering on the cross.


    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t believe that suffering leads to enlightenment. And I refuse to ascribe God’s intent in suffering (a position that many a good theologian shares). But as I went on to say, I don’t refuse to see that suffering can lead to new life and understanding. Just that I don’t believe God gives us suffering for that purpose. The whole “God gives special children to special parents.” Blech.

      • Ellen Painter Dollar

        And I think this conversation also points to one of the key tensions that makes reproductive decisions so difficult: They are a highly intimate, private decision that has public and cultural consequences. So I am concerned, as you are, about the effect that widespread prenatal screening will have on how our culture perceives and treats those with disabilities. On the other hand, I think it is spectacularly unfair to accuse individual parents trying to do their best for their specific families (for their unborn child as well as themselves and other children, and I think it’s completely reasonable for all of those people’s needs to be part of reproductive decisions) of culturally biased eugenics. I don’t have an answer to how to resolve that public/private tension, but I think it’s important to name it. I’ve written this before in various places, including my book, but I’ll write it again: Parents don’t make reproductive decisions in the public square. They make them in the fragile confines of the human heart. And I will simply not ascribe a eugenic mindset to every parent who makes a choice they believe is the right one for them and their family. I’ve seen egregious abuses of reproductive technology. But mostly, I’ve seen suffering people making the best decisions they know how to make in very difficult circumstances. And I believe in a God of grace who is right there next to those people in their darkest moments, when they don’t see any good way forward.

  • Mike Sullivan

    These so called “reproductive decisions” are about the parents, not the unborn child’s inherent worth and humanity. If prospective families can’t accept the type of child they have, then that is a decision to be made before having children, not a reason for killing ones own child.

    “Reproductive choice” is the new name for eugenics, choosing the type of child and weeding out the undesirable ones who cause suffering. Parents can go through all sorts of mental gymnastics, but they are selecting the type of child and that is eugenics.

    Why not just accept our children as they are without any judgment, rather than trying to have control over who lives and who doesn’t.