Thoughts on suffering

When it comes to difficulties and tragedy in life, a question has always been on my mind:  why does God not reveal apparently important things to us, especially things regarding terrible experiences that have the potential to emotionally ruin us?  Why does God remain silent as to its meaning or ultimate purpose in our lives—people whom he has a loving relationship with? Didn’t he himself suffer on Earth with clear purpose?  Shouldn’t we likewise be knowledgeable of the reasons behind our portion?

I began to see that behind these questions lie ones even more primary in nature: why do we seek so strongly to find meaning in our lives, especially in the arena of suffering and pain?[1] Why is the natural inclination of men to seek meaning in their suffering when other valid, albeit less acceptable explanations exist which we at times are all too eager to offer up when consoling others?  Is a desire to find meaning in suffering a selfish one?  It seems a corollary area of study alongside the study of suffering would be something akin to a theology of meaning.  It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to understand this primary motivation for seeking answers about evil.  If we do not start our inquiry here, we will not solve the problem at its source.  Theodicies constructed in this fashion are like pain killers taken without a concern for understanding the source of the pain.  All theodicies and explanations for evil in the world stem from this desire: to find meaning behind why we suffer.

Is it possible the desire for meaning is similar in nature to the desire for God?  It is one that is seduced by a thousand false alternatives: a good job or perfect marriage; to achieve them is to experience disappointment if what we desired in their consummation could not be found in them.[2] As Augustine is so often quoted, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.”[3] Maybe similar also is the nature of the multiple dimensions of love.  According to C.S. Lewis[4] who was likely influenced by Platonism[5], the lower levels of love, such as eros, seem to have been designed not as the ultimate fulfillment of relational desire, but as gateways into a selfless realm.  Even more so they are pointers or signposts: that once experienced with an excessive expectation beyond its intended design, leads to disappointment that painfully but thankfully points us to something greater—ultimately culminating in a sincere adoption of a selfless, agape love.  Eros can best be experienced when it is enjoyed within its designed sphere just like a good job can be best experienced if our hearts have found God and so its desire is regulated to something more appropriate than one that only a relationship with God could fulfill.

Does the desire for meaning follow a similar pattern?  In our suffering, we find ourselves in a position to strongly desire meaning to explain it.  Pat answers will not suffice because our pain demands truth, and our selfishness which is normally an enemy in intellectual thought naturally steering us towards self-centered answers becomes instead an ally.  In our desire to find meaning, we may in some circumstances find answers on a factual level that nonetheless remain unsatisfactory: we were robbed because the criminal was a drug addict in desperate need of money and not in his right mind.  Although we may see beneficial outcomes, such as a newfound knowledge in how to add more security to our house and keep our family safe, we will often take the search for meaning to the next level because the first one proved unsatisfactory– to inquire of the governing bodies of the universe as to why such an event was meaningful in our lives.

Maybe we are told that an idea or force, such as karma, is responsible, or that innocent suffering is needed for the benefit of the cosmos in some mystical way.   Another answer is that the ultimate purpose of evil in our lives is for our learning benefit. It seems in my experience however that ideas, no matter how well constructed, objectively true, or strongly believed, seem inadequate to satiate the desire for meaning.  They feel to me to be a secondary product of a more primary source; the explanations of the rational minds of men to explain the indirect workings of a more primary governor of reality.   Ideas and explanations will never satisfy a desire to find meaning; only an audience and a relationship with the Creator of all reality will.[6]

This is an important point: it is an interactive relationship with God, not an idea of God that contains the satiation for our desire for meaning.  The divine relationship satisfies our desire for meaning like food satisfies our hunger, not pictures of food or the concept of food.  The idea that God exists and has all the attributes of classical theism is not the object of meaning’s satisfaction because the idea of an all powerful God is still that—an idea. This is why deistic forms of Christianity fail to provide answers to the problem of evil.  If we encounter God, the Creator of the universe, and we are told categorically that he loves us and that he is in control in convincing ways, is that not the very end result of our desire for meaning? Now the lower levels can be comprehended because they have a satisfactory context or framework with which to extract meaning from.  Returning to our earlier event of theft, the factual evidence of the situation is now more satisfactory because it is understood in its proper context (that it only provides a lesser level of meaning but is missing the ultimate context): The criminal who robbed me was desperate for money, but God loves me (and the thief!) and is ultimately in control of all things, which he often reminds me when I talk with him.

The deeper hearts of men are not fooled: a driving force or an idea can never be other than a secondary product of a more primary source. Do not the ideals of love, charity, and selflessness become more comprehensible and livable once we are in a relationship with the Creator?  Instead of a wooden application of them, a deeper, more enjoyable adherence to them is possible because their importance and meaning to our lives is understood in the context of their Creator.  This perspective may give some insight into explaining the rationality of Christian theism in light of criticism based on the Platonic Euthyphro dilemma.[7]

And so it was with Job.  Job received what he needed most: an audience with God himself.  Without the divine relationship, the ultimate consummation of our desire for meaning, how could the lesser levels of meaning be understood with satisfaction?  If, theoretically, Job was told about the heavenly meetings between God and Satan by one of the bene Eloheim, the Sons of God of the heavenly court observing the story from both realms, he might not have been satisfied.  He might have been even more confused and possibly more angry or in greater despair.  If he were told possible ideas behind God’s reasons, such as God wanting to make an example of his life to tell the world a new truth, he would not have been satisfied either.  Truth and ideas, no matter how good, would seem sour in the faces of his dead children.

We are never told about God and Job’s later interactions.  If our model is somewhat correct, we could tentatively say that with their relationship intact, God could reveal the lower levels of meaning regarding Job’s plight.  Maybe God only revealed those details to a glorified Job (when had died and was reborn and lived in God’s presence), whose mind and heart could only then comprehend its purposes.  In the end, it seems ideals are mapped to a relational person who embodies them, and it is that Person who gives them intrinsic meaning in a waterfall-like process.  This can be seen in a lesser degree by the person of King David, who represented God’s ideals, and who men respected a great deal and would die for, and who in some way inspired those ideals to be upheld by his people with more force than if David never were.  This may be another facet of the way we were intended to be as made in the image of God.

Unlike the similar model of the dimensions of love which seems to follow an upward experiential path from eros to agape, it seems the path of meaning must ideally take a top-down experiential path even though its arrival at the top came from questions from below.  A relationship with God is required for adequate satisfaction to be found at lower levels.  However, like love, agape transcends all lower forms, and similarly, a relationship with God transcends the need to comprehend meaning at lower levels.  Even though Job may never have understood why such suffering occurred in his life during his time on earth, his relationship with God satisfied him.

Perhaps this theory of meaning has links to other theological thought.  Anselm of Canterbury proposed that all Christian doctrine and by extension, all knowledge and meaning about our experiences in our life, require a relationship with God as a starting point:

“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.[8]”

So anyway, just some of my thoughts on the subject…

[1] The intersection of evil and a desire to find meaning in our lives is explored by J.G. Stackhouse in Can God Be Trusted?  Faith and the Challenge of Evil (2nd ed.; Downes Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 59-61.

[2] In Surprised by Joy (London: Harcourt, 1955), C.S. Lewis sees this desire for God at first found in surprising moments or things that elicit a deep joy that once experienced leaves a person wanting more. They in turn lead to other experiences in life which in turn continues the search until they arrive at a relationship with God.  This is the central idea in Lewis’ autobiography: that pictures of the divine reside in things and experiences of everyday life that ultimately point to him.

[3] The statement comes from Augustine’s opening discussions in Confessions (I,i).

[4] C.S. Lewis gives this subject serious treatment in The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960).

[5] This Platonic view of love is found in Plato’s dialogue The Symposium where Socrates is discussing the subject with others, and his speech begins in 201d where he quotes the philosophy of Diotima of Mantinea.

[6] This concept seems to be acknowledged by the downfall of the allegorical character of Virtue in C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1933). To be virtuous for the sake of the ideal of virtue inevitably leads to a desire to understand why virtue is to be followed when life becomes hard and tragic.  If there is no ultimate, conscious Creator who embodies virtue, we are left with no source of meaning for virtue and virtuous living, and thus begins our descent into nihilism and selfishness.

[7] The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a)?  In other words, what comes first, moral goodness and truth that God lives by that are separate from himself, or a God who commands obedience to them because they are real in that they reflect his nature?  It is my proposal that moral truths and ideals ultimately do not contain sustainable weight and meaning without a relationship with the God in whom they are the ultimate embodiment of.

[8] This idea is part of Anselm’s discussion on a logical explanation of the existence of God via the ontological proof, or that the existence of God is implicated by the existence of the ideas we have about him, which would not exist if they had no bearing on reality, Proslogion, ii-iv.  Anselm, like C.S. Lewis, was heavily influenced by Platonic thought.  In Philosophy & The Christian Faith (London: Tyndale Press, 1968), Colin Brown who is taking his cue from Carl Barth’s commentary on Anselm, sees that Anselm is not looking at our ideas of the divine from a purely existential perspective, but rather from the framework of the mind of one who already believes in God and has received divine revelation though that relationship (p.22, notes).

    3 Responses to “Thoughts on suffering”

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      Finding Meaning in Suffering | Life As Prayer and laughter a la carte

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