The meaning of human suffering is not The Meaning of Human Suffering

The meaning of human suffering is not The Meaning of Human Suffering October 25, 2012

I started writing this a while back in response to a long, thoughtful, but ultimately misguided post at Bad Catholic on the problem of human suffering (“An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out“).

Bad Catholic’s post is a constructive bit of theologizing, pointing toward profound truths that I wholeheartedly agree with about the incarnation and the crucifixion. I’m totally down with all that Moltmann and Weil stuff. Amen. Preach it brother, as far as that goes.

But the problem is that this is not the problem. Our desire to explain human suffering, or to make sense of what it means, is a problem, but it is never, ever the problem.

The Fifth Station: Fire Capt. Chris Fields cradles Baylee Almon on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City. Photo by Charles Porter.

Human suffering is not primarily a metaphysical problem. It is also that, and such metaphysical conundrums are immensely important in many ways. But these philosophical and theological dilemmas are always secondary.

The meaning of human suffering is never primarily The Meaning of Human Suffering. The meaning of human suffering is to be relieved.

Hunger, for example, is not a metaphysical problem. It is an acutely, urgently physical problem. The meaning of hunger is not to be found in theodicy or philosophy or mysticism. The meaning of hunger is to be fed.

Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation.

These are not, primarily, metaphysical puzzles for us to ponder. Such puzzles are also significant, but they mustn’t ever be confused for the most important, most urgent, or most obvious response to human suffering. Human suffering is cause for action — for individual and institutional and structural steps to relieve it and to prevent it.

This, I think, is where that Bad Catholic post goes astray. It frames the matter of human suffering as primarily something to be explained, rather than as something to be addressed. And it goes one step further into abstraction by framing the matter as something to be explained to atheists. That’s fine, as far as it goes, that can be a fascinating conversation. (As to whether BC’s explanation is something atheists will find persuasive, see responses from vorjack and Daniel Fincke.) But such apologetic concerns aren’t even a secondary matter. If we’re going to set about trying to justify The Meaning of Human Suffering, then such justification does not need to be addressed to skeptics but to those humans who are suffering.

This business of theodicy isn’t important for Christians because it may come up in the next debate with Richard Dawkins. It is important because when we encounter people going through misery, horror and pain, we don’t want to add insult to injury by responding with something glib or shallow or stupid.

That Bad Catholic post is not glib, shallow or stupid, and yet, like every primarily metaphysical response to suffering, it still is inadequate. Because, again, suffering is never primarily or exclusively metaphysical.

When it came to human suffering, Jesus always kept his eye on the ball. “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” he said. Not, “For I was hungry, and you gave me an explanation as to how the existence of hunger could be reconciled, philosophically, with belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.” The latter gift is unlikely to be appreciated unless it accompanies the former.

Hungry people want food. That is the meaning of hunger.

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” Jesus said. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. …”

It exposes how far we’ve come from what Jesus was talking about — and how far removed we are from who he was talking about, “the least of these” — that this can strike us as a dodge, as some attempt to evade the question of theodicy and The Meaning of Human Suffering. That’s backwards. For the hungry, the thirsty, the alienated, the naked and the sick, all of our metaphysical thumb-sucking is the evasion. They believe, rightly, that they have the more urgent claim.

“Love is never abstract,” Wendell Berry wrote. And I suppose that is, itself, an abstract statement of an abstract thought. It’s probably not possible to avoid abstractions and theoretical musing about the nature of love or the meaning of suffering. But I think what Berry was saying was that whatever else may be true about all such theories and abstractions, if they are not also made material, then they do not matter.

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

“Keep warm and eat your fill,” can be an excellent thing to say to someone who is shivering and hungry. Or it can be a hideous and horrible thing to say to them. The meaning and the value of those words do not depend on the words themselves, but on what the person saying them is doing. If the speaker is, as the epistle of James says, supplying their needs, then those words are meaningful and they go a long way to addressing The Meaning of Human Suffering. But if the speaker is not meeting those needs, then the words are meaningless. If those needs are not met, then any words are meaningless — even the most profound and insightful ruminations on theodicy and metaphysics.

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John’s Gospel says. And his disciples immediately took this as the basis for a metaphysical discussion.

“Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What is the cause of this suffering? What is the meaning of it? Who is to blame? What should we think about this?

Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.

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  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Nah. I do get the whole theology talk not helping anyone point, amazingly enough. Just take issue with this talk of distractions. Declaring talking about God’s role in allowing suffering a distraction is in itself a good distraction if you don’t want to discuss the problem of evil. Surely it is possible to discuss theology and help people during different times in your life, no?

  • Jurgan

    This reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  If people’s most basic needs aren’t met, there’s no hope of meeting their more advanced needs.  Hence the fault in focusing on “witnessing” instead of direct help.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Evil being inherent in our universe would rule out God’s omnipotence since even God himself couldn’t create a different kind of world.

    God herself couldn’t make a square circle. Does that also rule out her omnipotence?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes! This! Get people food and health care, then worry about why God made a world in which people can have insufficient food and inadequate health care.

  • Lori

    Some how I seriously doubt that you’d be out helping at a soup kitchen if Fred hadn’t written this post and people hadn’t commented on it.

  • Madhabmatics

    You must really hate existentialists. “God this person says the meaning to their life is enjoying gardening!!!! DOES THEIR HATRED FOR TRUE WISDOM KNOW NO BOUNDS?!”

  • Lori


    You see a headline that promises a lot, perhaps the answer the question of why there is suffering or the meaning of life.  

    If that’s what you expected when you looked at the title of this post your problem lies with your poor reading comprehension, not the post. Fred didn’t promise you the meaning of life.


    This should not bother me anymore because it happens all the time but
    it’s still not very nice to find a yet another article that claims to
    deal with a certain subject but in the end is just full of off-topic
    platitudes masquerating as deep wisdom. 

    Sounds like it might be time to stop reading articles and get on down to the soup kitchen and help out.

  • Madhabmatics

    My favorite part of the original objection is that good works distract us from more important things – like settling the Agon about why evil exists with strangers using goofy nicknames on the internet.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Why, of course she could. That is what being able to do everything and anything means. Squares that are circles, rocks so heavy that they can’t be lifted and then lifting them. You are talking about all-powerful God, not some Batman or Zeus. Omnipotent, not quite potent. What does the word omnipotent mean to you, then? Quite good at things?

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Ellie, perhaps my snarky tone with you was unnecessary. I apologise. You seem to be quite serious so let me do the same. You talk as if we have to choose between to things: between helping the suffering and talking theology. We don’t. We can do both. You can donate to charity at 8 am, give blood at 4 pm and talk the problem of evil at 8 pm. It’s dismissive to shrug aside the theology talk, as if you have so many more noble goals to pursue and implies that you are so much better than those who do want to talk theology. Fred could do a post addressing the PoE and it would not distract us from say charity anymore than having breakfest or tv or going to work would. I hope he does write a post about that. I would find that interesting myself.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Omnipotence can make a set of perpendicular straight line segments the same thing as a single curved line? ‘Cause I have been working with the definition of ‘omnipotence’ that goes ‘capable of all things that are possible’, not the one that goes ‘capable of all things, even the ones that are contradictions in terms’.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Well, yes, of course we can do both. Fred’s issue is that a lot of people only do one, and a lot of those pick the one that’s talking about things rather than the one that’s fixing things.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Doesn’t really strike as omnipotence to me that. God, to be all-powerful, really should be capable to all. I believe there exist such theological consept as paradox of omnipotence? This I do not swear but I seem to recall the rock lifting to be example from that paradox. Omnipotence really is quite absolute. Either everything is possible or one is not omnipotent. Same with all-knowing: if there is something you do not know, you are not all-knowing. God really should be able to make your square circle or admit that he is someway limited in his powers.

    Perhaps we do see the OP differently then. I do see your point but frankly I also do think that it has a handwawing quality to it as I already wrote in my posts.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Honestly, looking at the Bad Catholic piece, my biggest question is: Why does Marc think that religious discussions “freak atheists out”?  And why does he think that his post, which contains no ideas I have not heard a thousand times before, would be less likely to freak out an atheist?

    Because the Bad Catholic is talking to an empty chair. 

  • Yes, of course, suffering must be relieved if possible. But.

    I suffer every day. I’m in varying states of pain, from utterly unbearable to just bearable with heavy meds, every single day. I sleep in pain, I wake in pain, I’m in pain while eating, while playing video games, while writing, while having sex, while taking a shower. And it’s not just pain — even if the pain were to miraculously disappear, my body would still not function correctly. I cannot drive. I cannot make my own bed. 

    There are many things that can be done to alleviate my suffering. Much of it will be alleviated by surgery, and likely the surgery will also stop the constant increase of pain. But it’s also entirely possible that surgery won’t fix everything. It is possible that I will need heavy pain meds for the rest of my life. Meds that make my brain work not-quite-right and that mess up my body in other ways. It’s possible that, even if I somehow get millions of dollars tomorrow, nothing can be done to keep me from this extreme physical suffering. If there is an all-good personal god, how can this be? 

    Last time I even asked “why”, I was excoriated for it and my intentions were judged to be bad, and I was told I did not deserve an answer. But I want an answer. Even if it’s “I haven’t got the first clue.” My primary desire is for the suffering to stop, but people who suffer are not only suffering and nothing else. The hungry person is not only hunger, the enslaved person is not solely a slave. The suffering seek answers too. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I haven’t got a clue, I’m afraid. But if you had to choose between pain meds and an explanation of the great cosmic reason why you need them, I suspect you’d choose the meds. Certainly I would.

    There’s no need to choose between trying to explain suffering and trying to reduce suffering, mind. It’s just that a lot of people do choose, and a lot of those choose explaining, and the key point here is that the explaining isn’t worth much without the reducing.

  • But if you had to choose between pain meds and an explanation of the great cosmic reason why you need them, I suspect you’d choose the meds.

    Sure, but luckily, human beings are pretty good at multitasking for these sorts of things. 

    I have my own answer as to “why” — that there really isn’t one. Cuz I’m an atheist. But I really want to know Fred’s answer, and/or the answer of religious people of Fred’s basic ilk. Because it truly is an important question. And I think it’s easy to forget that of everyone who asks “why” about stuff like this, the people who ask most often and most loudly are those who are suffering. 

    Fred talks about giving food to the hungry and etc. But what if you are the person who is hungry? Or, in my case, in pain all the time? I’ve got everything I can have to alleviate it as much as I can (unless I take stronger pain meds, which I do not want.)  I’m not just pain. 

    Fred phrases this post as an outsider looking on suffering people and wanting to help them. That’s fine. But for me, suffering doesn’t exist as something in another person which I can help to alleviate and then go home. It lives inside me, it is part of me, all the time. “Why” is not a useless question. I want to know if Fred thinks there’s an answer to that, in his theology.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • Münchner Kindl

    If I had to guess (without studies to back up), I think it’s because of what type of suffering the average (white middle-class) American Christian usually encounters. It’s NOT the hungry (except in TV ads for Africa – and that’s explained as being either the black’s people fault or nature causing a drought), the thirsty or those in prison. (The prison and homeless problem is away from the eyes of the middle class, so invisible = forgotten, as happens with humans).

    Usually, the average person encounters suffering with illness or disease in their family or friends circle, or some tragedy striking: somebody killed/ injured by a drunk driver, somebody gets cancer/ stroke, somebody is laid off and can’t find a new job.

    There’s not much you can do in these cases, and with the just world fallacy (and Job) Christians are often implicitly or explicitly taught, the question of “why do bad things happen to good people” is the most important thing about the tragedy. Both the sufferes and their friends/ family try to grapple with it, to make sense out of a senseless thing, or why God/ Angels who help you find a parking space* don’t heal cancer.

    And in Dostojewskis books, the question of “If God is kind, why does he allow the suffering of innocent little children?” is the most basic question that leads not only away from faith but to the famous parable of the Grand Inquisitor.

    It’s one that Christians who argue that their faith is better than atheism will regularly encounter when debating atheists.

    That people who suffer must be helped first is, OTOH, something that both atheists (with a humanistic bent) and Christians (those who don’t obey the prosperity gospel / Calvinist predetermination) agree on, so there’s no argument and no need to clear it up.

    * The amount of personal involvment of God via Angels in banal miracles of daily life that’s passed around in glurge emails and Christian literature is theologically and spiritually very bad, because it doesn’t prepare people for bad things happening. There’s a reason that a smart person said “After Auschwitz, God is dead” – the concept of a God who interferes with miracles in daily life simply doesn’t fit in todays world for any half-way intelligent adults.

  • Omnipotence can make a set of perpendicular straight line segments the same thing as a single curved line?

    Actually, you seem to be working with a misconception of what “squaring the circle” means here.  It actually refers to taking a given circle, and using geometric methods, construct a square with exactly the same area.  And yes, it’s been proven impossible, with the universe and laws of geometry as we know them.

    ETA: And to be fair, it looks as though Idefeatedvoldemort (Ms. Potter? Neville Longbottom?) shares your misconception.

  • Carstonio

     I may or may not understand the problem of evil, but I definitely don’t understand your point. Whether some see a weaker god as less than ideal, or want an all-powerful/loving/knowing god, is irrelevant to what type of god actually exists.

  • Carstonio

    Another point that I don’t understand. I’m not sure who is describing the world as dead, or what that even means.

  • Michael Albright

     Andrew: we weren’t assuming a deity, or at least I wasn’t.  The conversation was less broad than I usually like to have them (i.e., your way of thinking is not the only way; here’s what I think, here’s what Buddhists think, etc.) and thus was his Creationism vs. my materialist naturalism.  If the dichotomy is that firm, then there is an obvious distinction between divine act and natural process, explicitly the presence or lack of sentient intent.  God is a willfull being with the capacity to reason.  Natural selection is a process; the tendency of creatures better-suited to a given environment to overtake, in terms of population, creatures less well-suited, which really can’t be attributed any traits of sentient beings like empathy, understanding or interest in human affairs.  Natural selection, unlike God, can’t be said to know better — even removing God’s supposed and poorly-established omniscience (half of the plot points Genesis wouldn’t have happened if God hadn’t wandered off to some other part of existence where he couldn’t watch us, and the other half wouldn’t have happened if he’d tried any form of guidance other than retributive punishment), it’s horribly inconsistent to say that I continue to bear moral weight for Adam’s sin, but God bears none for flooding humanity out.

    The introduction of other philosophies such as theistic evolution (the acceptance that evolution happened coupled with the presumption that it was guided by God) would have probably affected that conversation, but none were involved.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Did I actually say ‘squaring the circle’ or did I say ‘making a square circle’? Because I’m pretty sure I said the latter, because I did in fact know what the former is, and with calculator and sufficiently precise ruler it’s quite doable, and I didn’t want to have that argument.

  • PandaRosa

    How about a “perfect” cylinder? A perfect square from the side, a perfect circle from top or bottom.

  • MaryKaye

    I think the “humanity requires suffering, but not THIS MUCH suffering” argument falls apart if closely examined.  In any universe with any human suffering at all, humans would still be saying “It could be less, right?” and I think they would always be able to point at any *given* instance of suffering and say “That one isn’t needed.  We’d still be human even if I hadn’t lost (whatever) or suffered (whatever).”

    But the end result of that argument is *no* suffering, and I hold that no suffering is no humans.  Angels of some kind, sure.  I have a view–an axiom, I guess, not derivable from anything else–that there is specific value in having humans.  I do not feel myself in a position to say “There’s a cheaper way to have humans than the painful messy universe we have.”  I can’t do the experiment and I don’t feel I can reason it out either.  –For those who can reason it out, you may well find out that you disagree with hypothetical creator-god about it, and I’d say, go for it.  You get to disagree.

  • veejayem

    And you won’t need to get your hands even slightly dirty. Or risk starting to think that free-at-source healthcare, higher taxes and/or a smaller defense budget could do an awful lot of alleviating.

    And now I’m thinking of Romney at that shelter for the homeless, washing those pre-washed dishes.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Ryan, not Romney, though I wouldn’t put it past Romney to have done the same thing if Ryan hadn’t thought of it first. Romney’s smart enough not to try it now that Ryan’s caught flak for it.

  • I was really, really tired last night, but in re-reading Marc’s OP, this catches my eye:

    The secular cannot answer the problem of suffering (as I’ve spoken in depth elsewhere), but suffering is still a problem we naturally want resolved. (If you don’t believe it is, develop leukemia, have a close family member die, and then try being content with not having any answers, meaning, or purpose.)

    This is not the first time I’ve heard that atheists obviously have never known real pain or loss, because otherwise they would believe, or at least they would not want to be atheists.

    (I guess I should “content warn” here: discussion of death and dying)

    Let me assure Marc, and anyone else who might think that, that I have mourned the loss of both beloved friends and family members.  Most recently, my grandmother died almost two years ago.  I watched the progression of her illness and was with her when she died.  I loved her, I miss her, and I will miss her always. 

    But I am content, even with no grand, metaphysical “purpose” behind her pain.  I have a reason for her pain: she had cancer.  And there are many reasons that her pain was lessened: the excellent doctors working with her, and, at the end, the endlessly kind and devoted hospice workers.  Not to mention her daughter, my mother, who sat by her side for a month, all but living at hospice with her, so she would never be alone.

    Our lives (and our deaths) have the meaning we give them.  I know who my grandmother was, how much we loved her and she loved us, and none of us needed any grand “answers” to her final illness.  We live and we love, and we don’t need any religion to tell us how.

  • That was Paul Ryan, not Romney.

    However Republicans are now making a concerted effort to destroy that soup kitchen with a mass exodus of donors and a flotilla of harassing phone calls.

    The party of Christian Values indeed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    This is not the first time I’ve heard that atheists obviously have never known real pain or loss, because otherwise they would believe, or at least they would not want to be atheists.

    I kind of want to beat these people upside the head with a printout of Greta Christina’s grief diary, or at least make them read the parts relevant to grief vis-a-vis atheism. But that seems a really good way to get people descending on Greta who will seriously fuck with her mourning process, and I don’t wanna be responsible for that.

  • EllieMurasaki

    However Republicans are now making a concerted effort to destroy that soup kitchen with a mass exodus of donors and a flotilla of harassing phone calls.



  • Anton_Mates

    I agree with the posters saying that theodicy arguments can be worthwhile–or at least harmless fun–even if you haven’t managed to solve all suffering in the world yet.  Everybody spends time and energy on things other than charity; I’ve got no problem with philosophical arguments being one of those things.  However, Marc’s particular take on this issue does seem pretty liable to the “distracts from useful action” charge.  With the attempt to distinguish suffering from “useful pain,” the idea that “our suffering saves the world” and that when we look at a kid with leukemia we should see Christ suffering in order to undo the Fall…yeah, I can see why Fred calls that counter-productive.

    “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John’s Gospel says. And his disciples immediately took this as the basis for a metaphysical discussion.
    “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What is the cause of this suffering? What is the meaning of it? Who is to blame? What should we think about this?
    Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

    That’s one way to interpret John 9, but I’m really not seeing it.  So far as I can see, the disciples started a metaphysical discussion and Jesus joined in.  Good question, Jesus said.  And here’s the answer: the man is suffering “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  And then he heals this guy, thus performing God’s works, and then the guy goes off and talks to everyone about how Jesus must be divinely-powered because he can do stuff like this, and that conversation spreads all over town, and Jesus uses this as a springboard for telling people about his part in the divine plan, and there you go.  The man suffered so that people could be educated about and called to the true faith. 

    Even if you overlook the publicity-stunt aspect of it, Jesus is still saying that the man was made to suffer so that he could be healed, according to God’s timetable.  That’s totally philosophical and metaphysicsy.

    It’s also not exactly the disciples’ fault that they don’t jump to “the meaning of this man’s blindness is that we should cure it,” since, y’know, they probably can’t cure it.  (Odds are 21st-century medicine can’t either.)  Jesus can cure it–he can cure pretty much anything, at least as depicted in this Gospel–so if there’s anyone guilty of talking at length about theodicy and philosophy and mysticism when they should be eradicating world hunger and disease, it’s him.

  • Cissa

    I remember, many years ago now, reading an “enticing” summary of a new book written by a nun. It seems that she had been approached on the street by a young girl who had been forced into prostitution and was enslaved.

    The nun’s response? Hand her back over to her abusers/owners, then write a book about how sexually sinning women can find redemption in the Church. Because obviously her REAL problem was theological, not daily rapes.

  • Actually, nitpicky calculus-y nitpicker here.

    One way to create an “infinte plane” is, literally, to make an “infinite disc”.

    So yes, a circle can become a square in physics, because the approximation of an infinite plane of charge is how we characterize parallel plate capacitor behavior.

  • Carstonio

    I’m confused. What does worship have to do with it? One can believe that a god exists without believing that the god is worthy of worship. Are you suggesting that a god that’s worth worshiping is far more likely to exist than a god that isn’t?

  • Carstonio

    And I suppose my point wasn’t clear either. I don’t understand why that particular concept for a god is treated as a default. The only reason that I can think of is that people understandably want a god to have those qualities, and obviously there may be other reasons that escape me. I’m not saying that the existence of suffering disproves the existence of such a god, or of any gods.