A friend recently passed along an article on suffering that said that “suffering is a gift,” and that suffering “pushes you toward Christ.” I must confess that I couldn’t get through the rest of the article. It seemed to me to be very bad theology.
I really gag on the whole idea that there is some divine purpose behind our suffering, and that God wants us to “grow” through it. Or that suffering will always “push” us closer to Christ. That’s not been reliably true, in my personal experience and as a pastor to others.
So here’s my (presumably better) theology of suffering, or the question of theodicy.
Suffering is inevitable because God created the world in absolute freedom. That includes freedom to wage wars that kill millions of innocents, and send tens of millions of others to refugee camps. Free to experience earthquakes and other natural disasters. Free to have cancer, and serious mental health conditions. Free to suffer.
No matter how “strong” your faith is, there is no guarantee that any of this will make you closer to God. Again in my experience, it sometimes has made me run from the God-room screaming, being careful to lock the door firmly behind me.
Any theology that suggests that God deliberately (or, worse yet, indifferently) sends us suffering is, IMHO, an evil theology that makes God either a sadist or someone who doesn’t give a shit about us.
Which is not to say that there aren’t blessings to be salvaged from life’s worst experiences. There are. But even to think that someone should “look for the spiritual silver lining” seems cruel to me. God will certainly be in the middle of the deepest depths with us, working frantically to bring something good out of it. But that’s for us to think about later, when the depths are behind us. And then only if we feel drawn to do that exploring.
Suffering is such a mystery. It seems very unequally and unfairly distributed.
The only thing I count on is that God is never closer to us than when we are in deepest pain and distress. WE don’t move toward GOD. GOD moves closer to us (if that’s even possible). Or maybe it’s just that the veil between God and us becomes thinner and more permeable, if we want to look through it.
At any rate, I don’t believe in a God who “pushes,” but a God who “pulls”—who draws us, beckons to us, entices us, lures us. Not God with a stick, poking us from behind. (More about that in another blog someday.)
I know that many people find strength and comfort in a theology that valorizes suffering, believing that God is in control and that it’s “all for their own good.” If it helps them live through their personal hell, then I’m glad for them. But it doesn’t work for me.
My go-to scripture in the dark times is Isaiah 43, which pretty much sums up my theology on God and suffering.
God is neither a sadist, nor a jaded Olympian filing his nails in boredom while humanity writhes I agony. Rather, I think that God’s decision to be with us in our suffering means that God’s heart is always breaking, along with ours. God is the very opposite of indifferent or cruel.
What do YOU think?
As they say in 12-Step programs, we can only “share our experience, strength, and hope,” and this is mine. So “Take what you need, and leave the rest.”
Kris Haig — artisan, teacher, spiritual director