On Suffering

Tim Dalrymple, a world class gymnast who broke his neck at Stanford and lost a career, recently wrote a post about suffering and connected his experience with that of acerbic atheist Christopher Hitchens. I like his perception of the instrumental element of suffering as much as the absence of seeking to know the mind of God in our suffering. Good serious piece.

At a recent event at the Pew Forum, I asked Hitchens whether he ever doubted his views on God and faith. Immaculate certainty is an essential part of his public persona, but was he ever troubled in the dark of night by the possibility that there is a God who loves him? Hitchens answered (as he did in God is Not Great) that he is one of those, referenced by Pascal, who is so constituted that he simply cannot believe. (He is misusing Pascal here, but that’s another matter.)  Like any skilled debater, Hitchens prides himself on his ability to argue both sides of an argument. In the case of Christianity, he said, he could not even begin to make it seem credible.

Yet I did not ask whether he could begin to believe the Christian gospel. I asked whether he could begin to doubt his own standpoint. Hitchens, asked whether he ever doubted himself, spoke instead of the doubtfulness of a view that was not his own. The nineteenth-century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that false doubt is boastful and delights in pointing out the doubtfulness of other things. True doubt, the doubt that saves, doubts itself over all else. This is what suffering can teach. Suffering shows us our own horizon; it lays bare our weaknesses; it reveals that we, even in those seasons when we felt self-sufficient and invincible, have always been utterly dependent upon God for all things.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Richard

    “false doubt is boastful and delights in pointing out the doubtfulness of other things. True doubt, the doubt that saves, doubts itself over all else. This is what suffering can teach. Suffering shows us our own horizon; it lays bare our weaknesses; it reveals that we, even in those seasons when we felt self-sufficient and invincible, have always been utterly dependent upon God for all things”

    Kierkegaard FTW… I feel obligated to go meditate under a pine tree or on a cliff somewhere now.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Here at Fuller, we’ve had occasion to think about suffering quite a bit this past couple of days. Thanks for this perspective.

  • http://tomroes.ca Tom Roes

    Ironically, one of the side effects of our obsession with avoiding suffering (isn’t there a pill for that?) as much as possible is that we miss so many opportunities to learn the lessons that can only be learned by experiencing the full extent of the pain. I believe that our culture’s greatest failure may be that we believe that we can do it all ourselves. Self-sufficiency is the anti-Christ.

  • EricG

    Tom – In the context of this post, which discusses suffering of the sort Hitchens is going through, or Darymple’s pain, I don’t think it is fair to disparage our society’s efforts to avoid suffering. This is serious stuff and we should do what we can to reduce it. I’m experiencing something very similar to what Hitchens is going through myself (getting chemo for Stage 4 cancer as I write this), and I disagree strongly with what you are suggesting.

    OTOH, I agree that an effect of suffering is a far greater realization of utter dependence on God. I am not in control and never was. That has been a positive effect for me, even though I would prefer the “no suffering” option.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    “Yet I did not ask whether he could begin to believe the Christian gospel. I asked whether he could begin to doubt his own standpoint.”

    Sometimes jumping ahead to the next question is warranted.

  • Joshua Wooden

    @ Mark Baker-Wright: I’m from Orange, Mark, but I go to school in Chicago. What’s going on at Fuller?

  • EricG

    I have followed Hitchens’ fight against cancer closely and would be very interested to hear whether he has had the “I’m not in control and never was” response to his cancer (it is almost universal in his and my circumstance, from what I can tell). I’m curious where this effect would lead an atheist.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Ray @ #5

    “Sometimes jumping ahead to the next question is warranted.”

    But at other times it is a cop-out. In any case, I guess my question for you is: Why? Why is jumping ahead warranted when the question being asked is not, “Would you ever believe in Christianity,” but instead was, “Do you ever doubt your views on God and faith.” Two different questions.

    If somebody asked me if I ever doubted my belief in God and Christianity, then the answer would be, “yes.” But I don’t jump ahead to debunk atheism, because that, for me, is not on the table yet- that’s the next question, not the one before me.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Oh, and while you’re on this post, I should mention that I responded to an earlier post (by Patrick), and was wondering if you had read it or not. Here’s the link:

    http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/02/07/a-very-religious-atheist-indeed/#comments

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Suffering comes in all shapes & sizes. I think it would help us to acknowledge that doubt is the suffering of the intellect. Tim’s question needed to be answered. He essentially asked Hitchens, do you allow your mind to suffer doubt in your own position? Hitchens’ response begged the question, because it denied his own intellectual suffering. He cannot deny that his body suffers, of course, but it’s telling, in my view, how many non-doubters get paid for being non-doubters. To acknowledge doubt (intellectual suffering) for such a non-doubter would be akin to a faith-healer admitting they have a chronic illness, in a way. (Wayne Dyer comes to mind.)

    The certainty of our faith is in the love of God in Christ Jesus & our relationship with God; we pass on God’s love to others in acts of compassion, mercy, justice and love when we are faithfully being the Body of Christ. Pastor Eugene Cho wrote about our struggles & pain well, here: http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/life-is-both-beautiful-and-broken/

    Joshua, re Fuller, cf. Mouw’s statement here, http://fuller.edu/About-Fuller/News-and-Events/News/President-Richard-J–Mouw–Responding-to-a-Day-of-Tragedy.aspx

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joshua Wooden –

    Why is jumping ahead warranted when the question being asked is not, “Would you ever believe in Christianity,” but instead was, “Do you ever doubt your views on God and faith.” Two different questions.

    When the one asking the first question has a history of specifically Christian apologetics – and ones comments are subjected to detailed analysis by hostile parties – it can indeed be sensible to preempt a line of attack.

    Of course, it also depends on context. In a personal conversation, one shouldn’t assume hidden motives. Hitchens, along with many other public figures, don’t get to have very many personal conversations, however.

  • http://www.tomroes.ca Tom

    @EricG – I did not know that Hitchens is suffering from cancer, and I am sorry that my comments were offensive to you and others who are. They were insensitive. I wish you well in your treatment.

    I have no problem with using medical technology to treat cancer, or headaches for that matter – I do so myself. What I meant to say (and failed in my effort to be succinct) is that our efforts to curtail physical suffering instead of choosing healthier lifestyles are an example of a greater evil of believing that there is no limit to what humanity can do, after all that is what modernism taught – it is just a matter of time before humanity solves all problems and gains all knowledge. Therefore, there is no need for God. If we are self-sufficient then we don’t need Christ.

    I hope I did a better job of commenting this time!

  • Joshua Wooden

    Ray, I don’t know if Dalrymple was trying to mount an attack on his atheism (if that was what you were implying), but was genuinely curious. Actually, I myself am genuinely curious. Skipping ahead to counter an anticipated argument makes sense and it doesn’t- I understand why someone would, but I think that that was an emotional reaction rather than a logical one (an understandable one, but emotional nonetheless).

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joshua Wooden – Has Hitchens ever claimed not to have emotional reactions? I guess I’m not clear on your point…

  • Joshua Wooden

    Ray:

    No, no, that wasn’t my main point; that was really an aside more than anything. Disregard it altogether if you like. My main point was in my original comment (#8). In short, I think Hitchens was side-stepping the issue. In your response, you clarified your initial comment that it was justified for Hitchens to “skip ahead” to counter an anticipated argument, knowing that that is where questions very often go (if I understood you correctly). The skipping ahead to counter an argument that may come from answering the first question is what I am saying he’s side-stepping. So the point I would like to make is that, regardless of any justification, I would be curious to know the answer to the initial question, and I still think that, however justifiably, he was side-stepping the issue by responding to a question that wasn’t being asked. I wasn’t saying anything more or less than what seems obvious to me. No penetrating commentary- just pointing out what it looks like from my perspective.

  • EricG

    Tom — you weren’t being offensive. I just wanted to be clear about what sort of suffering we are talking about in the post, and how it related to what you were saying.

    Joshua Wooden and Ray — to be fair, I think people like Hitchens have reason to be careful about how they answer these sorts of questions. For example, Dawkins feels like the movie Expelled duped him and took something he said out of context, and he is probably correct. Not that Dalrymple can’t be trusted, but Dawkins doesn’t know him from Adam — or from Ben Stein. I’m a theist, but understand why he is being careful.


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