Answering the unanswerable on suffering

Sam was asked by Scott Gray some unanswerable questions, so after trying his own answers he decided to turn this into a meme and ask five others, including myself!

Here are the questions:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

Wow! How am I supposed to answer this? I will have a quick try, but don’t expect anything profound. I won’t try to make four separate answers here, but perhaps answer all four questions together.

The basic reason, as I see it, why God does not simply remove all human suffering is that in doing so he would have to override the free will which he has given to his human creatures. (I will not go into the separate issue of animal suffering here.) The issue here is nicely illustrated by the psalmist, speaking here as the mouthpiece of God:

Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.

Psalm 32:9 (TNIV)

God could make us humans do exactly what he wanted us to do, controlling us by the “bit and bridle” of his almighty power. But this is not what he wants us to be like. He has made us with understanding and he wants us to act according to it. We can only do so if we are released from the “bit and bridle” and given our freedom. Sadly, as has been seen ever since the Garden of Eden, humans choose to abuse that freedom by doing all kinds of wrong things.

The inevitable result of those wrong things we humans do is suffering. Most human suffering is caused by human folly. I can say that even of natural disasters, whose impact is usually vastly more than it might have been because people have chosen, or have been forced by other people, to live in unsuitable homes in unprotected areas which perhaps should not be inhabited at all.

God could act to stop people living like this or take them out of danger zones. But he can do this only by overriding human freedom. And that is something he has chosen not to do. He has chosen to limit himself in order to make for himself a mature people who can stand on their own feet. So, just as a wise parent does not protect a growing child from every possible danger but allows him or her to learn by experience what is good and what is bad, so God allows his children to learn by experience, even of suffering. Just as his own special Son Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8), so we too, his children by adoption, are expected to learn obedience through suffering.

But suffering should not be taken out of perspective. As I wrote in a provocative post a week ago, at first quoting John Hobbins,

Suffering and death have no meaning whatsoever except insofar as they will be vanquished forever.

Indeed! To Christians death should be a joyful release from this earth (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), although of course tinged with sadness for those left behind, and suffering is temporary and a preparation for greater glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

When we taste the heavenly glory, it will so overwhelm us that we will no longer count our sufferings here as something to be remembered or compared with anything else. This is how Jesus put it:

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

John 16:21-22 (TNIV)

I nearly forgot, this is supposed to be a meme and I am supposed to tag others. So I hereby tag Lingamish David, MetaCatholic Doug and Koiya Chronicle Eddie. It would be interesting just to see your initial thoughts, don’t feel obliged to post a theological tome!

0 thoughts on “Answering the unanswerable on suffering

  1. those are some serious things to tackle…

    i’d like to first say how impressed i am at even addressing them. then say happy birthday if it really is…

  2. Pingback: An idiot’s guide to the problem of pain, or the delight of theodolite « Lingamish

  3. Thanks for running with it Peter. In discussions with many people, atheists and agnostics, the problem of suffering seems to loom very large. I’m coming to the view that it isn’t as crucial an issue for Christians as it is for them. I’m very interested to hear other Christian viewpoints on this, to see how far that makes sense.

  4. Thanks, Roger, David and Sam. Yes, it really was my birthday yesterday. I think I know who found out from my Facebook and spread the news round the blogosphere.

    Yes, Sam, this is much more of a problem for atheists and agnostics who have no hope for anything beyond this life.

  5. Strangely? I didn’t think so. Maybe not with great enthusiasm for yet another year on my age, but I am grateful for the attention. It was meant to be humour that I had found out who was spreading the news. I didn’t think it was you, but on second thoughts…

  6. Pingback: MetaCatholic » The unanswerable questions meme

  7. Pingback: Theodicy: Suffering and the Goodness of God | Kouya Chronicle

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