A Purpose In Suffering

“I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.”

https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735.4429.102099916530784/703035336437236/?type=1&fref=nf

I keep seeing posts like this. I don’t know why it was this one that moved me to respond here – I’ve learned not to respond to the individual who shared it – and I wonder how people can be so experienced with God, and yet understand Him so little. Above, we read the statement of an ordained pastor, a Christian for forty years, abandoning his faith over what is admittedly one of the biggest challenges that any doctrine of a good God must face. And yet, I ask myself, how was he so sheltered, that this challenge has only caught up to him now? What world was he living in that this pain, so well-known to me, only batters down his faith after forty years?

Before going on, I will grant him one point. It is sometimes terribly, terribly cruel the way we speak of God to those who are suffering. We speak when we should not. Possibly we do this because there are no words in the face of intense suffering, and remaining silent seems callous and wrong.

We do it because we are human and flawed, saying, “God had a plan for the survivor,” and do not think about the dead. We are, at best, too grateful for our own blessing to think of the bereaved.

And that should never be. In the midst of our joy, we ought to be the most sensitive, the most careful, of the grief of those who are suffering, remembering that their sorrow could just as easily have been our own. That we are not so sensitive is a deep condemnation of our selfishness and pride.

May God help us if we dare think we escaped disaster because we are more valuable, more special, or “better” in God’s sight than those who died before us. Because the destination is the same in the end, and we should shudder to think we might face their Father with such hateful words on our lips.

And yet what is Biblical is the very thing that this man cries out against. Yes, God does have a purpose in the death of the people on the plane. God does have a purpose in the starving of children. God does have a purpose in slavery and genocide. At least one purpose is extraordinarily obvious: to show us just what the consequences are of the evil, the greed, the hardheartedness, the carelessness, the sloth, and the wrath that we nurture in our hearts.

And please spare me any self-righteous cries of, “We already know that!” How ridiculous. It is plain from the most cursory review of our actions that we do not know that. If we knew it, we would not allow them to happen. Certainly we wouldn’t allow slavery and genocide. These actions are the results of our negligence, murder, and uncharity. And we are shown, in the most horrible way, the cost of our separation from God. It is no fault of God’s that we have made the world what it is.

This is the point at which the holier-than-thou Pharisees of atheism will rise, and rend their clothes and cry: “How dare you reduce the lives of children to nothing more than a signpost that reads: ‘Repent, Sinners?’ Is that all the victims meant? Were they nothing in themselves? Is that all the value that your ‘loving God’ assigns them? It is morally vile!”

Well, of course it’s vile, you morons! Or rather, it would be, were the underlying assumption – that death is the end – true. That the starving simply starve in the end. That the beggar dies under curses and the spit of his “betters.” That the slave lies crushed by his burden, never to rise.

How opposite of the Gospel that proclaims the captive free, the reviled honored, and the dead raised (Luke 7:22)

It is not the Bible or its God that reduces children to ciphers, unknown and unloved. He is the God that numbers every fallen sparrow, though the sparrows do fall (Matthew 10). No. It is this man, and those like him who encode our children into history as ciphers of meaninglessness, as if they meant more because their deaths are robbed of any purpose. And then they are called brave and clearsighted for losing their faith.

I want to go to this man, my fallen brother, and ask, how could you have been what you were, for as long as you were, and not have known that our hope is not in a god of fairness-on-Earth, but in the God who raises the dead to eternal glory? Was it that you never knew, or is it some sudden pain that overwhelmed you? If our faith is true, then they are not dead, but risen. Like their Master, they wait for us, in the place where no shadows fall, where we must all one day go. Where God waits to be reunited to all His children that will come. He grieved their pain, and their deaths, and rejoiced in their coming home. As He will rejoice in our homecoming.

This is what we dare not forget, and I want to shout it from the mountains: We will all be there one day! Whether we are starved, murdered, or vaporized in explosions, and whether those explosions are accidental or not, we will be there. Even if we die in bed, surrounded by riches, and those who love us, we will be there. And the pain of that parting will be no less, because we are old, will it? Do we devalue the lives of the old so much that when they die, we say it was no great loss? Are the lives of the old less valuable than the lives of the young simply because they are old? What strange morality is it that says, “To live only six years is tragedy, twenty is tragedy, forty is tragedy, but eighty was enough, and this death is acceptable, because…” Because WHY, for God’s sake? Because we’ve gotten used to it? Have we seen so much of life that we will be willing to lay it down then, because we have seen everything there was to see?

I cannot imagine that. I have lived in the generation that saw the first pictures of Jupiter and Saturn close up. I have seen the face of Jove boiling in livid red crystals of ice. I have seen the colors of the nebulae brought to us by telescopes in orbit, and I shall not pronounce, “Enough of this life,” until I have walked on the planets they spawned, and sung a hymn beneath them to the Lord of Worlds.

Except that the pain is too much for me to last that long. Except that I will grow old, or sick, or be wounded, and die for lack of life. And whether that day is tomorrow or in fifty years, I will have suffered loss, and pain, and sorrow. And I pray God that there be a purpose behind that, though I never know it in this life, because in the end, it is not cruel. Cruel is the belief that the blessed in this life are the only blessed. Cruel is the belief that only those who know pleasure can be happy. Cruel is the belief that all the things we were is in the end void of meaning. To have purpose in suffering is a blessing indeed.

2 thoughts on “A Purpose In Suffering

  1. Pingback: Theology vs. The Memes #4: If At First WHO Doesn’t Succeed? | The Logoccentric Orbit

  2. It is the problem of the atheist that in his mind, this life is all he has. So he has to try to find some purpose in it, some meaning, some validation. But to too many, this validation is all external… it is the way that they are seen, that they are perceived by others, that makes them feel some sense of purpose. That is why so many of them are so vitriolic towards people they deem their moral / ethical inferiors… their rationality is “This life is all we have, we need to make it count. Look at me doing blah blah whatever, how dare you do less?” But no matter what good deeds they do, no matter what charity, it is not altruistic. It is not based on a genuine sense of wanting to do good unto others. It is a desire to BE SEEN doing good unto others.

    The other problem is Man’s inherent inability to truly understand God. We do not understand his purpose, his thinking, his nature, (even whether we should use “his”, a pet-peeve of many feminists). By not understanding God, we project human motivations unto him. He did X or allowed X to happen… clearly that means it was done because of Y, because that is the only way we could explain this behavior in a human. But God is beyond Man. He is beyond our means to explain. The closest we can come is an idea, an interpretation. I know that many Faithful consider Agnosticism a sin almost as bad as Atheism, but look at it in another way: I believe in a God who is so powerful, so all-encompassing, so beyond my understanding, that trying to describe him by any human words would not do him justice, would limit him in some way.

    The problem is, that in many ways we need God as a moral compass, but that does not mean that we should neglect our own sense of right and wrong. Which is why I have just as much a problem with hardline anti-Christian atheists and activists as with fundamentalist Christians who want to enshrine the Old Testament in the legal and educational system. Nobody should be forced by law to bake a cake for a gay wedding, as this is private business. But neither should somebody be refused a wedding license (a state-issued document) because this is no longer an issue between two private parties, but between one party and the state / government. But I digress.

    The true pain in losing somebody, whether at age 6 or age 96, is in most cases not sorrow for them, but for us who remain. We are the ones who have to live on without our loved ones. Who do not see them realize their potential here in this life. There is a very poignant scene in a childrens’ book by Astrid Lindgren called the Brothers Lionheart (you should see if you can get it for your kids… it is really, really cool.. read it yourself first to vet it though, it may not be suitable for their ages yet). The younger brother, Karl, is very sick and knows that he will die soon. The older brother, Jonathan, tells him of a wonderful, magical land, that he will go to after death, where he will be able to walk, play sports, and enjoy life. This takes away Karl’s fear of death, except for one thing: he knows that Jonathan will live to a ripe old age, and it will be decades until they see each other again. Jonathan tells him that for Karl these decades will pass in no time. It is Jonathan for whom it will be hard, since he has to live all these decades without his little brother.

    That is why for a Believer the pain can be so hard, because we know that even though the loved ones we lost are in a much better place, it may take a long time until we see them again. But how much worse for somebody who believes that this life is all we have?

    I am sorry for the rather rambling nature of this post, it is hard to put these thoughts into proper words, that correctly convey what I am trying to say. I hope it makes sense nonetheless 🙂

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