I’ve been pondering covering the topic of suffering in a post for quite a while and have had difficulty in deciding how to come at it. Poor Jason has had to bear the burden of exclusive post-writing while I have been spending a lot of time furrowing my brow over suffering, although maybe this was a good exercise in suffering for him, and he’s done a great job, anyway. I finally decided it was time to just plunge into it, with the recognition that suffering is a complicated thing and that I’ll just do the best that I can to share what I’ve discovered in a post or three. We’ll see how it goes…
In this first post, I want to lay out my view of suffering as a Protestant and my experience with others’ views of suffering. No doubt, no one likes to suffer. It’s not really pleasant, suffering. And sometimes it is only made worse by the question of “why?” I’d rather not play guessing games, like the friends of Job, and speculate on whether or not this or that has happened as a result of some divine slapdown. Maybe it has. Or maybe it is just because we live in a sinful world and God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Very rarely, I think, can we pinpoint the direct and entire cause of a person’s suffering.
One piece of Calvinist baggage I was more than happy to unload was the notion that a particular person’s suffering was predestined. Implicit in that statement, it seemed to me, was the non-afflicted person’s thought, “Phew, glad it wasn’t me who was predestined to that!” Not really very helpful.
So where does that leave the suffering soul?
Well, in my experience, it leaves one with not very much. There really isn’t anything to “do” with suffering in the Protestant scheme of things, other than to get rid of it as soon as possible. “It’s just a season,” some people will say (don’t ever say that to me cause’ I’ll smack you in the mouth). As soon as the bad “season” is over I suppose life is just supposed to bounce back to normal like a piece of silly putty, with no sign of being stretched or marked? Ironically, children are one of the favorite things to be categorized as a “season.” As in, you’ll get through this wretched season in 18 years and then you’ll have the life you’ve always wanted. Nice.
There is also the #1 all-time favorite go-to verse: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. While I’m not disputing the truth of Scripture, of course, this sort of verse is the
kind of thing that is used to beat poor people over the head. To cause those who are really truly going through some major troubles to scramble to tie things up in a nice little bow so everyone can see the happy ending and how God made a terrible situation turn out so *perfectly*. Most of the people I have known are intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that sort of thing does not address the fact of suffering. Aside from that, the other alternative is to ignore the suffering aspect of life.
And by ignoring things like aging, death, and other miscellaneous suffering, I don’t mean turning one’s back on it as much as I think of anesthetizing oneself with all manner of stupid. In that case, I’d say we’re a heavily anesthetized society.
That’s not to say I haven’t known a few really amazing people- people who have the kinds of problems that are ongoing and can’t be resolved sitcom style, in 23 minutes with hugs and tears. No, I’m talking about the kind of people who display a heroic kind of faith in the face of constant struggle.
So when I laid out all the pieces on the table, this is what suffering looked like to me as a Protestant: Suffering stinks. Having a trouble-free life is the norm you should strive for. Don’t put yourself out there in any way that could inconvenience you or cause unecessary trouble for yourself. If you do have struggles, you can turn it over to God and stop worrying. If things get really bad, maybe it’s a sign that God is trying to teach you something. Hey, if you handle it well, maybe your faith will be a good example for others, and ultimately, maybe you’ll be a better person for it.
Well, that’s not all bad, is it? No, I can’t say it is. It did seem to me that there were things that didn’t completely square up with my conclusions, though. Why were there some people throughout history who have embraced suffering? Were they crazy? What about people around the world who know nothing but suffering? Have they been predestined to misery for little reason? Why am I, a 21st century American, lucky enough to escape that sort of misery? And why is it that some of the most “miserable” people are also the most joyful people? Is my life merely about dodging discomfort so that things will be as easy as possible?
Further, it occured to me that my comfortable life could be yanked away without a moment’s notice. What would I have then? If a life of misfortune was all that I knew awaited me, what would my faith have to offer? What would I have to offer God?
Stay tuned for my next post as I try, albeit imperfectly, to lay out what I have found in Catholic theology.