the impossibility of thinking suffering through

The problem of intense and irrational suffering in a world that Christians proclaim as the object of God’s love is a problem that can never be thought through, only thought around. It is a dark mystery which stands as a stumbling block, a choking pain, a stunning blow, to faith, to love, to hope. Yet it never need be a fatal fall.The Christian answer can never be one that has fully thought through the problem of suffering because no human answer survives the complexity of suffering and death, all of them fall to the side. Job’s questions are only answered with a jarringly profound statement of God’s presence. His suffering is not answered, but accompanied in a way that elicits wonder and worship. For Job, that is enough.The Christian answer can never be one that has fully thought through the problem of suffering any more than one can think oneself through the cross of Christ. At the point of God’s death among us, all human answers simply fail. Here is God’s confrontation with suffering and death at the center of the world (which is to say both nowhere and everywhere). We cannot think through this event because it is either our own death or or our own doing. Either way, the cross is the terminus of human thought about suffering.We think around this subject, and we must. We must think and speak of God in a world where suffering overcomes lives everyday. We must think and speak of God’s love in the midst of this world, even at its most hellish, because that is the only answer we’ve been given. We must not stop thinking on account of that which stops all thought short. God’s suffering love in the midst of the suffering world. The good news that is the church’s necessary proclamation does not, in itself, overcome the suffering of the world, but it must always be proclaimed around that suffering.We think around this problem because we are drawn to it. The gravity of human suffering, whether that of brothers and sisters in the world or that of God among us commands our attention. No one who can simply ignore suffering is without fault—we feel that imperative like gravity.We think around this problem not in order to solve it, but in order to help those who exist in its throes—which is to say all of us at some point. We think around this problem in order to think practically, politically, and personally about addressing its symptoms and proximal causes. In order to address the problem most effectively, we are forced to think around it, because almost without fail, attempt to eradicate suffering and death altogether (to really think ourselves through it) finally creates more suffering and death through the attempt to implement the solution.The world’s pain and death threaten to numb faith and cast it aside. Faith is not capable of traveling (in thought or otherwise) through pain and death on its own power, but it is capable of seeing the other side, and of trusting around it. Precisely in that trust, precisely in being around God’s suffering in the world, is the promise that grace might pull us through it.That promise is the Word, spoken through death, Jesus Christ.

5 Replies to “the impossibility of thinking suffering through”

  1. I like the way you’ve framed the issue Eric – thinking AROUND the problem of evil, rather than THROUGH it. I think your conclusion is appropriate. We all have to have some way of thinking and living around the challenge of suffering in such a way that allows us to emerge out the other end – and emerge in such a way, I would argue, that allows us to continue to affirm life in this world as a good thing, in all of its difficulty and complexity. The work you’re doing on Bonhoeffer is very evident in the way you’ve approached this issue (and that’s a good thing!)

  2. Set forth eloquently Eric. (Hi Ryan!) The irony of it is that we discover more closely our true humanity in suffering. There’s no getting around this.

    The idea of thinking, or for some working around these issues seems to be the way we do business. It’s interesting that the conclusion drawn is that we don’t work through them. However, we seem to think of ourselves a being able to “get through it”.

    When we think of ourselves with respect to pain and suffering we tend to think differently about it that when we learn about others who deal with pain and suffering. There are many levels of pain and suffering.

    So the question comes to mind, how much of life IS suffering? Are we numb and don’t realize what we are doing to ourselves, the world around us, or for that matter what is happening to us.

    Culturally anesthetized, with money, power and influence, or for that matter for some chemically so, we work our way around these issues, or at least think so. In fact we seem to make them some kind of spiritual manifestation of God’s will at times, something I’ve not quite understood for a God of goodness and love. We see this in the Bible where pain and suffering is good and makes us better some how.

    I read a blog just a few minutes ago about this idea of suffering. Check it out . This is a cultural reality check for how this issue can be viewed, even spiritually. What’s interesting about this one is the idea of being “truly exquisitely human”. In the Zen culture, which is where this one comes from, maybe pain can be though of as “exquisite”. Psychotherapist call this re-labeling. I like the idea of “truly human” as a direct connection to celebrating the Life of the Eucharist.

    Eric…you end with The Promise, The Hope. The milieu of self and others in our response to pain and suffering gets pretty murky, especially with the infiltration and permeation of evil. So much has been said and written. Faith, hope and (hopefully somehow) love has been my journey here, trying to be honest with myself and God which more than often has been an insecure attempt at holding my own in the whirlwind of western culture, giving birth and raising family become the focus and so the cycle continues, like it or not.

    Take care. Give my daughter a big X & O for me. Love, Willy

  3. Thank you both for your thoughts—a lot of depth reflected in your words.

    Your first point offers the rhetorical counter-example to my post. But I do think that it’s merely rhetorical. Because even when we are “getting through” something, we are not resolving our pain or explaining its cause, we are living around those unanswerable questions and continuing on despite the lack of satisfactory answers.

    The thing that both of you brought up, and which I appreciate very much, is the sense that pain and suffering are only a part of our experience. At times, they seem to eclipse everything else, and many people deal with a great deal more of it than any of us. But, undeniably, there is always something more than pain and suffering going on. We become so inured to life’s abuses that we forget to notice the bits of life that seem to seep through the cracks. There is so much good, even when we fail to notice it; even when we cannot or should not notice it because of some great pain.

    Both Carolyn and I have commented how we love to see small green things breaking through asphault and concrete—left alone for long enough, these tiny plants would break and bury whole cities. That, to me, is a parable of hope.

    God’s peace,

    (p.s. Hug and kiss delivered–right on target)

  4. John,

    To dispute your claims in as terse a fashion as you present them, I’d ask you to argue a little more thoroughly your suggestion that born existence is suffering. Undeniably, existence contains suffering, but would you suggest that existence can be reduced to suffering?

    And subsequently, if you make that move, isn’t all spirituality merely escapism?

    Not the world for me, my friend, give me real physical and emotional suffering, and with it deep joy and pleasure. That which we have been given is so much a gift, so real, why negate it and look elsewhere?

    The point of the post was to suggest that even God does not engage in that strategy.

    Go well,

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