Bearing The Pain

I sat back in my chair and reflected on what Kreeft had said so far. Some of his arguments were stronger than others, but at least he wasn't merely offering canned explanations. The clues seemed to be leading somewhere.

I decided to ask him about a quote from Augustine, who said: "Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." After reading him those words, I said, "Does that mean suffering and evil contain the potential for good?"

"Yes, I believe all suffering contains at least the opportunity for good," came his response, "but not everyone actualizes that potential. Not all of us learn and benefit from suffering; that's where free will comes in. One prisoner in a concentration camp will react quite differently from another, because of the choice each one makes to respond to the environment.

"But just about every human being can reflect on his or her past and say, 'I learned from that hardship. I didn't think I would at the time, but I'm a bigger and better person for having endured it and persevered.' Even people without religious faith are aware of that dimension of suffering. And if we can bring good out of evil even without bringing God into the picture, you can imagine how much more, with God's help, evil can work out for the greater good."

Bringing God into the picture, however, raised another issue: if he loves people, how could he emotionally tolerate the ongoing onslaught of pain and suffering? Wouldn't it overwhelm him? I pulled out Templeton's book and read Kreeft this quote:

Jesus said, "Are not five sparrows sold for a penny, and not one of them is forgotten before God; and are you not of more value than many sparrows?" But if God grieves over the death of one sparrow, how could even his eternal spirit bear the sickness, suffering, and death of the multiplied millions of men, women, children, animals, birds, and other sensate creatures, in every part of the world, in every century since time began?20

"I think Mr. Templeton is anthropomorphizing God by saying, 'I couldn't imagine how any intelligent being could bear this,"' Kreeft said. "And, yes, he's right we can't imagine it. But we can believe it. God does, in fact, weep over every sparrow and grieve over every evil and every suffering. So the suffering that Christ endured on the cross is literally unimaginable. It's not just what you and I would have experienced in our own finite human agony, physical and mental, but all the sufferings of the world were there.

"Let's go back to Templeton's photo of the starving woman in Africa-all she needed was rain. Where is God? He was entering into her agony. Not just her physical agony, but her moral agony. Where is God? Why doesn't he send the rain? God's answer is the Incarnation. He himself entered into all that agony, he himself bore all of the pain of this world, and that's unimaginable and shattering and even more impressive than the divine power of creating the world in the first place.

"Just imagine every single pain in the history of the world, all rolled together into a ball, eaten by God, digested, fully tasted, eternally. In the act of creating the world, God not only said, let there be pretty little bunny rabbits and flowers and sunsets, but also let there be blood and guts and the buzzing flies around the cross. In a sense, Templeton is right. God is intimately involved in the act of creating a world of suffering. He didn't do it-we did it-yet he did say, 'Let this world be.'

"And if he did that and then just sat back and said, 'Well, it's your fault after all'-although he'd be perfectly justified in doing that-I don't see how we could love him. The fact that he went beyond justice and quite incredibly took all the suffering upon himself, makes him so winsome that the answer to suffering is-" Kreeft's eyes darted around the room as he searched for the right words. "The answer," he said, "is ... how could you not love this being who went the extra mile, who practiced more than he preached, who entered into our world, who suffered our pains, who offers himself to us in the midst of our sorrows? What more could he do?"

I said, "In effect, then, the answer to Templeton's question about how could God bear all that suffering is-he did."

"He did!" Kreeft declared. "God's answer to the problem of suffering is that he came right down into it. Many Christians try to get God off the hook for suffering; God put himself on the hook, so to speak-on the cross. And therefore the practical conclusion is that if we want to be with God, we have to be with suffering, we have to not avoid the cross, either in thought or in fact. We must go where he is and the cross is one of the places where he is. And when he sends us the sunrises, we thank him for the sunrises; when he sends us sunsets and deaths and sufferings and crosses, we thank him for that."

I bristled. "Is it possible, really, to thank God for the pain that befalls us?"

"Yes. In heaven, we will do exactly that. We will say to God, 'Thank you so much for this little pain I didn't understand at the time, and that little pain that I didn't understand at the time; these I now see were the most precious things in my life.'

"Even if I don't find myself emotionally capable of doing that right now, even if I cannot honestly say to God in the middle of pain, 'God, thank you for this pain,' but have to say instead, 'Deliver me from evil,' that's perfectly right and perfectly honest-yet I believe that's not the last word. The last words of the Lord's prayer aren't 'deliver us from evil;' the last words are, 'Thine is the glory and the honor.'

"I do think that any fairly mature Christian can look back on his or her life and identify some moment of suffering that made them much closer to God than they had ever thought possible. Before this happened, they would have said, 'I don't really see how this can accomplish any good at all,' but after they emerge from the suffering, they say, 'That's amazing. I learned something I never thought I could have learned. I didn't think that my weak and rebellious will was capable of such strength, but God, with his grace, gave me the strength for a moment.' If it weren't for suffering, it wouldn't have been possible.

"The closeness to God, the similarity to God, the conformity to God, not just the feeling of being close to God but the ontological real closeness to God, the God-likeness of the soul, emerges from suffering with remarkable efficiency."

"You mentioned heaven," I said. "And the Bible does talk about our sufferings in this world being light and momentary compared to what God's followers will experience in heaven. How does the heaven part play into all this story?"

Kreeft's eyes widened. "If it weren't for that, there would hardly be a story," he said. "Excise all the references to heaven from the New Testament and you have very little left. Saint Teresa said, 'In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.' That's a challenging or even an outrageous statement! But she didn't speak from the kind of insulated bubble that so many of us live in; she spoke from a life full of suffering.

"The apostle Paul uses another outrageous word in a similar context when he's comparing earthly pleasures with the pleasure of knowing Christ. He said the privileges of Roman citizenship, of being a Pharisee of the Pharisees, of being highly educated, as to the law blameless-all of this, as compared to knowing Christ, is 'dung.'21 That's a very bold word!

"Similarly, compared with knowing God eternally, compared to the intimacy with God that Scripture calls a spiritual marriage, nothing else counts. If the way to that is through torture, well, torture is nothing compared with that. Yes, it's enormous in itself, but compared to that, it's nothing.

"So the answer to Templeton is, yes, you're perfectly right in saying that this photograph of the African woman is outrageous. This lack of rain, this starvation, is indeed outrageous in itself. And in one sense, the answer is not to figure it out; one answer is to look in the face of God and compare those two things.

"On the one side of the scale, this torture or all the tortures of the world; on the other side of the scale, the face of God-the God available to all who seek him in the midst of their pain. The good of God, the joy of God, is going to infinitely outweigh all of the sufferings-and even the joys-of this world."

THE POWER OF GOD'S PRESENCE

I was glad that Kreeft had brought the conversation back around to the woman from Templeton's photograph. I didn't want the interview to get too far afield from her. She personalized the issue of suffering, standing as a powerful representative of the world's one billion destitute people.

"If she were here right now," I said to Kreeft, "what would you say to her?"

Kreeft didn't hesitate. "Nothing," he said simply.

I blinked in disbelief. "Nothing?"

"Not at first, anyway," he said. "I'd let her talk to me. The founder of an organization for the multiply handicapped says that he works with the handicapped for a very selfish reason: they teach him something much more valuable than he could ever teach them. Namely, who he is. That sounds sentimental, but it's true.

"One of my four children is moderately handicapped, and I've learned more from her than from the other three. I've learned that I'm handicapped and that we're all handicapped, and listening to her helps me to understand myself.

"So the first thing we'd need to do with this woman is to listen to her. To be aware of her. To see her pain. To feel her pain. We live in a relative bubble of comfort, and we look at pain as an observer, as a philosophical puzzle or theological problem. That's the wrong way to look at pain. The thing to do with pain is to enter it, be one with her, and then you learn something from it.

"In fact, it's significant that most objections to the existence of God from the problem of suffering come from outside observers who are quite comfortable, whereas those who actually suffer are, as often as not, made into stronger believers by their suffering."

That's a phenomenon many writers have noted. After wide-ranging research into the topic of suffering, Philip Yancey wrote, "As I visited people whose pain far exceeded my own ... I was surprised by its effects. Suffering seemed as likely to reinforce faith as to sow agnosticism."22 Scottish theologian James S. Stewart said: "It is the spectators, the people who are outside, looking at the tragedy, from whose ranks the skeptics come; it is not those who are actually in the arena and who know suffering from the inside. Indeed, the fact is that it is the world's greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith." 23

"Why is that?" I asked Kreeft.

His response was crisp. "Free will," he said. "There's a story of the two rabbis in a concentration camp. One had lost his faith and said there is no God; the other had kept his faith and said, 'God will rescue us.' Both were in a line to enter the death showers. The believer looked around and said, 'God will rescue us,' but when it became his turn to go in, his last words were: 'There is no God.'

"Then the unbelieving rabbi, who had constantly heckled the other rabbi's faith, entered the gas chamber with the prayer 'Shema Israel' on his lips. He became a believer. Free will, both ways. Why do some people in starving Africa or concentration camps become believers and some lose their faith? That's a mystery of human unpredictability."

"Let's go back to the woman," I replied. "You said we should listen and react to her, which sounds like a good thing. But there must be more."

"Yes," he said. "We would want to be Jesus to her, to minister to her, to love her, to comfort her, to embrace her, to weep with her. Our love-a reflection of God's love should spur us to help her and others who are hurting."

Kreeft gestured toward the hallway. "On my door there's a cartoon of two turtles. One says, 'Sometimes I'd like to ask why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it.' The other turtle says, 'I'm afraid God might ask me the same question.' Those who have Jesus' heart toward hurting people need to live out their faith by alleviating suffering where they can, by making a difference, by embodying his love in practical ways."

"That cartoon reminds me of the way God likes to turn questions around," I commented.

"Yes, he's constantly doing that. This happened to Job. Job was wondering who God was, because it looked as if God was a cosmic sadist. At the end of the book of Job, the all-time classic on the problem of suffering, God finally shows up with the answer-and the answer is a question.

"He says to Job, 'Who are you? Are you God? Did you write this script? Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?' And Job realizes the answer is no. Then he's satisfied. Why? Because he sees God! God doesn't write him a book. He could have written the best book on the problem of evil ever written. Instead, he shows himself to Job."

"And that satisfied him-"

"Yes! It has to-that's what's going to satisfy us forever in heaven. I think Job gets a foretaste of heaven at the end of the book of Job, because he meets God. If it were only words that God gave him, that would mean that Job could dialogue and ask God another question and God would give a good answer and Job would ask another question the next day and the next day, because Job was a very demanding philosopher. This would go on and on and never end. What could make it end? God's presence!

"God didn't let Job suffer because he lacked love, but because he did love, in order to bring Job to the point of encountering God face to face, which is humanity's supreme happiness. Job's suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that God and joy could fill it.

"As we look at human relationships, what we see is that lovers don't want explanations, but presence. And what God is, essentially, is presence-the doctrine of the Trinity says God is three persons who are present to each other in perfect knowledge and perfect love. That's why God is infinite joy. And insofar as we can participate in that presence, we too have infinite joy. So that's what Job has-even on his dung heap, even before he gets any of his worldly goods back-once he sees God face to face.

"As I said, this makes sense even among human beings. Let's say Romeo and Juliet have a much deeper and more mature love than in Shakespeare's play. Let's say that what Romeo wants most in all the world is Juliet. And let's say that he has lost all his friends and possessions, and he's bleeding and he thinks Juliet is dead.

"Then he sees Juliet rise up and say, 'Romeo, where are you? I'm not dead; are you?' Is Romeo completely happy? Yes. Completely happy? Yes. Does he mind at all that he's bleeding and tattered and poor? Not at all! He would much rather be in love in the South Bronx than divorced in Honolulu."

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Responses

  • Ginger
    What does "the ontological real closeness to God" mean?
    7 years ago

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