Both questions lie at the bottom of an ocean of ink spilled over millennia, and I’ve made my own small contribution to the quest for an answer. Over the years I’ve become convinced of two things: One, there is no entirely satisfactory answer to either question. And, two, the questions themselves are not the ones to which the Christian tradition finally provides an answer.
To put it baldly: The Christian faith does not explain why we suffer, nor does it offer a means of avoiding suffering. The Christian faith is about how we respond to suffering.
With good reason, there will be people who will differ with that assessment, especially because I put it so baldly. They will point to the fact that Scripture itself raises the question, “Why?” (See any number of Psalms, including the oft quoted, Psalm 13.). They will point to the answers that biblical writers offer to the same questions (See any number of prophets, including Jeremiah 3:6ff.). And they will point to the explanations that have been offered by the church and continue to offer (far too many to cite here).
All of that is true enough and the questions themselves have their place in both academic and personal conversations about our experience of loss, pain, and death.
But subtly that way of focusing on the “the problem of pain” has led some to believe that a definitive answer can be had to our questions, and – in some circles – it has led to the notion that the life of faith is all about finding a refuge from suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth: Witness any daily news cycle or the life of any number of good, faithful people. But when it comes to mind-numbing, world-ending pain, we are all inclined to sit pretty loosely with the facts.
The result has been that we miss the point that both Scripture and tradition does make: i.e., that the Christian faith is about how we respond to suffering.
The task of describing that response deserves a longer answer, but to be concise about it, there are these pieces of advice that the tradition offers:
One, come what may, God is God and God will be God.
Circumstances may seem to contradict that truth along the way, and history hardly offers a predictable, upward movement toward a better future (no matter what Gene Roddenbury’s Star Trek might suggest), but God is God and God will be God.
So, act like it. Don’t give into fatalism. Don’t surrender to the suffering of the moment. Don’t act in ways that are faithless. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped by self-pity.
Two, believe anyway.
The prophet Habakkuk puts this in the most frustrating fashion you can imagine. He raises all of the “why” questions in lengthy detail, but then sweeps away all of the problems he has surfaced and simply asserts, “The just will live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4) The writer of Job sends the same message by giving us the picture of the ideal man of righteousness, and then he describes just how miserable life can be. Both the writer of Job and the prophet share one thing in common in their assessment of the problem of suffering: Respond to it with faith.
Once you set aside magical expectations and embrace the hope that God is and will be God, then the central task of life becomes clear: Believe (and live like you believe) anyway.
Three, remember, your suffering — whatever the cause — does not place you beyond the love of God.
To be sure, the fragmentary answers that Scripture and the Christian tradition offer to the problem of pain includes our own willful, mean-spirited, and sinful choices. And, to be equally sure, if we are honest with ourselves, we can all offer illustrations of how that didn’t work for us.
But there is a lot more to life’s miserable moments than the pain we visit on ourselves and, even when we do, the affirmation of the Christian faith is that nothing we do places us beyond the love of God. That’s true, even when the consequences of our choices continue to unfold.
So, the Christian faith reminds us: Whatever you do, don’t add the burden of believing that you are unloved to the loss that you might be experiencing. Continue to live as if you are loved, and love others in kind.
Whether there is an explanation for your misery or not, God loves you and the pain you are experiencing is not evidence to the contrary.
Finally, light a candle and curse the darkness.
No small amount of human suffering is misery that we inflict on one another.
The Christopher’s have a motto: “It is better to light a candle, than curse the darkness.” I prefer the motto: “It is best of all to light a candle and curse the darkness.” We underestimate the power of words, and we are too often overwhelmed by the practical challenges associated with taking action when evil is done to our sisters and brothers.
This week Netflix airs a documentary called, “The White Helmets.” It features the work of “average human beings,” living in Syria, who have donned White Helmets and are now rescuing people who are lost, wounded, and dying in the violence there. It is not an explicitly Christian project, but the trailer includes pictures of the White Helmets’ work with the music, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” interposed over the images of their efforts.
That is, indeed, what we are taught: When and where there is suffering, “the saints go marching in.” They go marching in because that believe that God is, because they believe that God has entrusted us to the care of one another, and because — as The White Helmets put it, “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”