People wonder how a good God can allow suffering in the world, and that somehow the existence of suffering puts paid to the idea of a good God. If there is not a good God (the reasoning follows) there is nothing but a meaningless void.
But it seems to me that suffering (rather than proving that there is nothing) actually proves that there is everything–including a good God. The turning point is this question: if there is nothing but a meaningless void, then why do we think suffering is bad? Well, we think suffering is bad because it hurts. When I burn my hand on the stove it hurts. But if the cynical nihilist is right, we should be matter of fact about it and say, “Putting your hand on the stove hurts because if you left your hand there it would burn up and so you have nerve endings which give you negative sensations so that you will remove the hand and not burn it up. Pain is therefore a simple biological response of self preservation. So what. Why make such a big deal about it. It’s not nice, but that’s life. Bummer. Bad stuff happens. Accept it and move on.”
The cyncical nihilist could say the same thing about any form of suffering. “Six year old girl gets a hideous cancer and dies a slow painful death? There’s disease around. It happens. It feels bad. Sure. Tough. That’s the way of life in this jungle.” Shrug shoulders, slurp slurpee, be glad it’s not you. Move on.”
But if we are even the slightest bit human, this is not our response. Instead we rage and weep and cry out against heaven. Pain hurts and suffering is suffering exactly because of it’s insanity and unreasonableness. We don’t mind so much when a serial killer gets cancer and dies a slow death, but we do mind when it happens to a pretty little girl. What gets us is not just the pain and suffering, but the irrationality and unfairness of it all. That there is suffering–yes–but that the innocent suffer drives us mad with rage and fury and grief and frustration.
However, this is exactly what makes the point that suffering–rather than being the big question–is actually the big answer. We rage and weep because of suffering because we know deep down that we are destined for something better. Our existential wail in the face of suffering is so deep because we know that we were made for infinite happiness. Our fury at the irrational evil of suffering is because we know deep down that there must be a rational meaning and a reasonable answer. The pain and suffering is our deepest awareness of our need–yea our demand–for joy.
Suffering–as terrible as it is–therefore validates our existence. My suffering affirms my eternal destiny. “This is so bad that it must point me to the good. My pain screams out to me and defines the joy I am lacking.” How do I know I exist? How do I know my humanity? Because of my pain. The pleasures of this life are ephemeral, and may be produced within me through all sorts of illusory and self-induced phenomena. They are therefore untrustworthy as validation of my existence. But I do not bring pain onto myself. I avoid pain. Therefore, pain is the sensation that not only makes me believe in the existence of pleasure, but it also makes me believe in the existence of me. Pain validates me. Not “I think therefore I am” but “I scream therefore I am.”
The cynical nihilist may still turn around and say, “That pleasure and reasonable answer you dream of is an illusion. It is wishful thinking. There is no such thing. Pleasure, like pain, is simply an animal sensation.–a primitive instinct of survival.” To which we reply, “Then why do I rage against the unreasonableness of it all? Why not simply whimper and crouch down and lick my wounds and run from the pain like a beast? Instead I rage against God for allowing this suffering and I demand an answer.”
There would be no such thing as thirst unless there were such a thing as water. Man could not reason unless there was such a thing as Reason. We could not ask questions if there were no such thing as answers. This is why Christianity puts suffering right at the heart of our faith. We do not avoid it. We do not come up with philosophical or theological theories. We do not say that suffering is an illusion and that we must simply rise above it. Instead we behold the cross. We preach Christ crucified. We say, “Ecce homo–Behold the Man” and as you behold the man you behold humanity, and as you behold humanity you behold everything else.
Here, we say, “Is the question and the answer. Here in the crucified one you find humanity in all its reality, and that reality is suffering. Here is the Alpha and the Omega. Here is the desire and the destiny. Here is the humanity and the divinity. Did you want to understand the riddle of suffering and human existence? Contemplate the crucified one. As you do you will not only come to understand the riddle of suffering and human existence, but you will also come to understand that the Good God you longed for is far stranger and disturbing than simply a grandfather in the sky who is there to take away your pain.
This is why we say that on the cross Jesus Christ not only bore the burden of mankind’s sin, but that he also shows us the action of God in the world. There God himself–the truly innocent one– gathered up all of the world’s pain and suffering and sin and darkness and evil and mysteriously takes it on himself, and shows us that suffering is at the hear not only of our existence, but of his existence too, and that through suffering we find our authentic selves and learn how to become all that we were destined to be.
The answer is there, but it is not an answer that can be easily explained or explicated. It is not an answer that can be analyzed or disposed of. It is an answer that is a mystery, for a mystery is something that can be experienced even if it cannot be explained.