Western society is probably the worst that has ever existed at dealing with difficult times. This is concerning given that we are currently living through the worst global crisis since the Second World War. No wonder COVID19 is causing panic. Tim Keller explains:
“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity . . . Sociologists and anthropologists have analyzed and compared the various ways that cultures train its members for grief, pain, and loss. And when this comparison is done, it is often noted that our own contemporary secular, Western culture is one of the weakest and worst in history at doing so. . . Our own contemporary Western society gives its members no explanation for suffering and very little guidance as to how to deal with it . . . In the secular view, this material world is all there is. And so the meaning of life is to have the freedom to choose the life that makes you most happy. However, in that view of things, suffering can have no meaningful part. It is a complete interruption of your life story—it cannot be a meaningful part of the story. In this approach to life, suffering should be avoided at almost any cost, or minimized to the greatest degree possible. This means that when facing unavoidable and irreducible suffering, secular people must smuggle in resources from other views of life, having recourse to ideas of karma, or Buddhism, or Greek Stoicism, or Christianity, even though their beliefs about the nature of the universe do not line up with those resources . . . Life for our ancestors was filled with far more suffering than ours is. And yet we have innumerable diaries, journals, and historical documents that reveal how they took that hardship and grief in far better stride than do we.” (Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering)
This quote sets the scene for the first section of Keller’s book where he examines different views and assumptions about suffering. In fact Keller argues that the whole purpose of philosophy is to learn how to cope with hardship and suffering. Religious thought is one approach to philosophy. We live in a world which has increasingly dissmissed religion, and in which many of us manage to escape real suffering until middle or even old age. Perhaps that is why philosophy and religion are no longer seen as crucial to life. Too many people live with an unexamined philosophical framework. Yet when someone like Jordan Peterson engages his hearers, forcing them to really think, it turns out he is scratching an itch many people didn’t know they had.
You probably don’t have time right now to do a university philosophy class. You may not even have time to read Keller’s excellent analysis of the different approaches to suffering in his book. But you definitely do have time to read a short summary of his magnificent work.
In case you think Keller is making up the modern view that suffering doesn’t really matter, here is the popular Atheist Dawkins stating just that:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. (Richard Dawkins 29. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books, 1996), pp. 132–3)
The problem is it is very hard to believe that. Especially when a loved one is dying in hospital, or you are facing financial ruin as a business you have lovingly built for decades is collapsing in front of you. At times of real suffering we all cry out the same desperate question:
The answer to that question cannot surely be pure chance. And that ultimately our pain does not matter and is meaningless. Our hearts cry out for meaning and purpose especially at times of deep pain.
Keller argues that the thing that is missing in modern culture is a higher goal or purpose than simply pursuing happiness. If happiness is the goal then when happiness is not present no wonder we collapse psychologically. Peterson makes a similar point.
One of the ancient approaches to suffering Keller outlines is stoicism. Here we are to see suffering as inevitable, and submit to it fatalistically. The goal of the stoics was becoming detached from the world so that suffering doesn’t hurt any more. This is a similar concept to Buddhism. Suffering is seen as an illusion to the Buddhists. We are taught to attain to a state of tranquility where we can disspassionatly observe it passing us by. Keller explains:
“Prince Siddhartha Gautama was living a secure and secluded life of wealth and luxury, but when he went outside his palace, he was confronted with the “Four Distressing Sights”—a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a poor man. In response, he determined to give his life to discovering how to live a life of serenity in the presence of human suffering. After a number of years, he achieved enlightenment under a tree. In his first sermon, he outlined for his followers the Four Noble Truths, namely that (1) all life is suffering, (2) the cause of suffering is desire or craving, (3) suffering ends only when craving is extinguished, and (4) this can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. . . The way to overcome suffering is to detach your heart, to not love anything in this world too much.” (Tim Keller)
But if we seek to become so detached, what happens to compassion? There is none. Professionalism teaches us to be distant from those we are tasked to look after. And whilst we do need to learn to protect our hearts from being overwhelmed, getting to the point where nothing really upsets us any more somehow seems subhuman. And there is nothing more precious to a suffering human than even a small dose of compassion which doesn’t have to take a long time. It is just about recognising the suffering the other person is experiencing, acknowledging it, and treating them as a fellow human being. None of us are an island.
Another approach to suffering is the idea of Karma which is found Buddhism and Hinduism. Karma suggests that suffering is something that is deserved by the victim’s behaviour either in this life or a previous one. Even Christian’s sometimes ask if their sin caused their suffering. Jesus’ answer was an emphatic “no” with the corollary that whilst typically victims of suffering have not behaved worse than others, we all do in fact deserve death and so witnessing others suffering is an opportunity to get right with God. Christians know that suffering is often unjust and undeserved. Life is not fair.
Dualism teaches that the spiritual world is all that matters and so what happens in the physical doesn’t. Christianity has such a high view of the physical realm that God himself became a physical man and entered into human suffering, being treated in the most unjust and tragic way experiencing physical emotional and spiritual pain greater than anyone else in history. Sometimes when we suffer we want to know who has suffered the most. It can be almost a competition. Who trumps who? Well Jesus’ pain trumps all of us.
Christianity according to Keller contributed two unique things to taking about suffering. The first is the idea that the world is broken and that it is OK to feel pain about it. We see this in the Psalms where pain is expressed openly to God. And we see it in Jesus who it says WEPT about the suffering of one of his brothers. He also cried out in the garden of gethsemane: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow even to the point of death” (Mark 14: 34) and he was so anguished blood came out instead of sweat.
And so culminating in the cross we see that “Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story.” (Tim Keller). In the Cross the one being who never deserved to experience pain and suffering took the place of all of us. He carried our pain. He was punished for our sin. And thanks to his infinite worth, grace is now lavished on us abundantly. Grace teaches us that nothing good we receive in this life do we deserve. Suffering is not deserved but nor are good things. Why should we be treated better than anyone else?
Jesus did not stay dead. And in his resurrection we see that ultimately suffering will be undone. A great glorious hope and future awaits those who will trust in Jesus. “Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.” (Tim Keller)
And so we see that Christianity gave the ancients a strong philosophical foundation to face suffering. And whilst many Christians today do forget this, and drift towards a modern secular view of life as the pursuit of happiness, we can adjust our thinking to match the early Christians.
“Early Christian speakers and writers not only argued vigorously that Christianity’s teaching made more sense of suffering, they insisted that the actual lives of Christians proved it. Cyprian recounted how, during the terrible plagues, Christians did not abandon sick loved ones nor flee the cities, as most of the pagan residents did. Instead they stayed to tend the sick and faced their death with calmness . . . Cyprian, Ambrose, and later Augustine made the case that Christians suffered and died better—and this was empirical, visible evidence that Christianity was “the supreme philosophy . . . The Christian approach to pain and evil, with both greater room for sorrow and greater basis for hope, was a major factor in its appeal” (Tim Keller)
So as a Christian we must remember two truths that our faith uniquely teaches us.
- It is OK to grieve and be upset by suffering. The world is not as it should be. Pain is real. Even Jesus wept. We are allowed to feel sad, and angry even and we can express that to the God who shares our pain. But we know that by observing the story of Jesus pain really does achieve something eternal for us.
- Suffering does not destroy Christian hope. We have a hope that goes beyond the Grave. Jesus promised us that he had overcome the world and int he midst of our troubles he is with us. Our glorious future inheritance is being prepared for us in heaven. And in the meantime we can expect glimpses of the glory of the future to break into the present.
I hope you have enjoyed theses posts based on Keller’s book and will be encouraged to read it yourself.