Lesson 3: Cause of Suffering

After writing, “Suffering is inevitable for all, but some suffer more, and some feel the pains of life more deeply than others, or so it often appears,” Concordia asked, “Is there a point or purpose to any kind of suffering? Does suffering build character?” The answer to those questions is essential for understanding our way for overcoming suffering.

in one of our most beautiful statements of God’s grace, Paul says suffering builds character and leads to endurance (Romans 5: 1-11). He is referring to suffering when persecuted for the sake of the Gospel. The New Testament does speak of this as having a purpose. It is our way of sharing in Christ’s suffering as we contribute to God’s healing of creation. The “character” he describes enables us to endure until Christ makes all right.

This is not suffering from disease, natural disaster, personal loss, bad luck, crime, or broken hearts. The best that can be said of these is that they are signs that things are not as they should be. Christianity does not justify in any way innocent suffering, especially if it applies to children. Unlike Greek tragedy, we do not see any purpose, meaning, beauty, heroism, or benefit from this.

Instead, the Gospel promises God will raise up the fallen and end their suffering. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21: 1- 5) God overcomes suffering; he does not cause it. We often seem to blame him when we ask Voltaire’s question: “If God is all good, and God is all powerful; how come there is any suffering at all?” Voltaire was a deist who thinks the cosmos is running as God intended. We do not.

It is true some parts of the Bible do blame God, claiming he is punishing us for our sins. Preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson use these to blame the ACLU, the court, pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians for the 9-11 terrorists’ attacks. They believe the United States is God’s new chosen people whom he has protected for 225 years. He raised his protective curtain to warn us about following the sinners among us.

Jesus certainly does not teach this. He said God loves his world so much he sends rain and sun on both good and evil people; (Matthew 5: 43- 48). In another passage (Luke 13: 1-5), Jesus rejects this idea of punishment with two examples. In the first, he points to Pilate massacring people worshiping in the temple. Obviously, these were not sinning. Pilate acts evilly, opposing God’s will. In the second, bystanders are killed when a tower collapses. Jesus sees this as a natural disaster like earthquakes, famines, and floods, evidence that creation is not operating as God intended. The tribulations that frighten so many ate not punishments but the cleansing of these cosmic malfunctions (Mark 13).

Juan reminded me that with all the injustice and suffering in our present world, “there is a real danger of losing the hope of the Gospel”. That Gospel is good news, because it reminds us “evil will not prevail”. Next week I’ll look at how this offers us a way to overcome our suffering as well. In the passage Concordia cited, God pours his love, the Holy Spirit, into our hearts so we can not only rescue other people from the evil done to them, but also find ways we can recover as well.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. bob nordvall says:

    There is a difference between suffering brought on by actions of mankind (war, oppression, etc) and that caused by natural diasters. Although the latter may at times be exacerbated by human action, they are not caused by such action. So why floods, famine, hurricanes, etc? If suffering builds character, we can see them as another character building opprotunjty. I don’t find this rationale persuasive. Are these excesses of nature inevitably connected to the benefits of nature — e.g. we cannot have the benefits of sun, wind, rain etc. without occasional diasters. This says that God was unable (or chose not to) create a world that did not have this connection. Or could God have created a world without natural diasters, and simply did not do so.

  2. Lupe says:

    I think the issue you bring up for discussion is very appropriate for our times, when words like “evil” are used with such abandon. I believe (with many Christian philosophers) that evil is like darkness, not a thing in itself, but an absence of good. Evil exists where there is no goodness, or not enough goodness. Darkness exists where there is no light. Cold, like dark or evil, is also a negative quality, a lack of energy. In order to diminish evil, people must energize; strive for more goodness, for more virtue in their individual and collective lives. Each individual’s contribution, either toward more good, or toward passively allowing evil to exist, is significant, in that it contributes toward the prevailing levels of evil: more hate, racism, greed, violence, etc. Each of these evils is also a lack, a negative quality: not enough understanding, a lack of tolerance, a lack of generosity, a lack of peace. As we -as individuals and communities- strive for positive action, these negatives will tend to diminish, even if they may not disappear.

    As for suffering, that is also negative: a lack of happiness, of health, of wellbeing, of peace. In many cases in our developed world, let’s face it, it sometimes indicated a lack of awareness of our blessings. Again, though we must all endure inevitable suffering,it seems to me that this suffering can be greatly alleviated when there is an abundance of good, of virtue. People can be happier with an awareness of joy; made healthier through more peaceful, less stressful lives; illnesses can be more tolerable with kindness and generous care. Even that last inevitable step, death, can be made less terrifying when families envelop each other in love.

    All this, is to say that I believe God gave us humans the tools, the capacity for good and for happiness. When we do not use them, when we turn away from them, then we allow evil and suffering, like darkness and cold, to take over our lives.

  3. paul wildman says:

    Some views please, possibly esp. from Fritz, thx.
    I was with a religious group (Xtian) a while back for two years (Brisbane – Australia) and they said dont accept anything negative as that will cause suffering to you. My response was that one cant know what is positive or negative without a culturally validated value screen i.e. a frame of reference to say this is positive or negative.

    For me this was one reason i left after bringing it up with two ministers i found their views extremely naive as if there was some simple + and – calculus in the universe. In some cultures what we see as negative and suffering is honoured as deeply positive and vice versa plus at different times in ones life positive and negative swap over.

    So suffering is strongly mediated by culture and life cycle in my view. Christianity has no 100% answer for why bad things happen to good people. No religious path does if it says it does its bullshit. Life doesn’t always add up the dots dont always join sometimes the msg is in the jarring of the lack of fit. In my view most religions locate at this very juncture in a sense esp. Buddhism which is built around expiating and explaining suffering. All laudable. Some however put a cash register here – a lot of evangelical Christian groups and Tele-evangelists – crapola i say.

    Fritz i deeply appreciate your comment above Xtiainity does not justify suffering of children – yes exactly. The 12yr old girl going into the gas ovens at Auschwitz demands respect and in fact a reconstruction of our theology – so yes i fully agree with and endorse your point here.

    The photo of Mother Teresa is most apropos in my view. For me was far more than a Saint. She said something like – ‘when we are attending the destitute dying on the streets of Mumbai we are tending Jesus in all his disturbing guises!’ This brings me to tears – and i dont fully know why. This is in a sense the opposite of loving others as god loved us (God to man) it is loving god as we love one another (Man to God).

    So i think (and this is where Fritz could come in pls) that MT is relevant to the Girl going into the Gas Oven at Auschwitz?

    Thx ciao paul

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      Paul, I am right with you. One of the chief functions of any religion is to address suffering. And I think it does this by creating as you say “ a culturally validated value screen”. For Christians that screen assumes the context of sin and evil, the need for change at the deepest level. Our screen does not explain suffering so much as it offers a way to overcome or transform it. God’s ultimate act in our story is his refusal to abandon humanity after it executes his son. Instead he raises Jesus in an act of unconditional love that makes enemies into friends. To deny suffering is to ignore our central proclamation which is what a lot of popular Christianity has done with the Power of Positive Thinking school that began with Norman Vincent Peale, continued with Robert Schuller, and presently is led by Joel Osteen. It surely sounds like the two ministers you encountered share their beliefs that faith ignores rather than confronts suffering or for that matter anything that is not comfortable. Your example about the Nazi’s final solution is terribly relevant, because it seems our society is increasingly adopting its methods. Too often we have decided the most efficient way to end our suffering is to eliminate our enemies rather than to make them friends. I think this brings out the need for the Christian message in our time and place.

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