Q & A Monday: Why do we lose our faith because of suffering?

“I’m having a very hard time. There is this pain I’m struggling with regarding how logical my brain is and the pain I see around me… It literally keeps me up at night struggling to hold onto my own faith.”

-Ian

Preamble

Thanks for the honest question Ian. These are some of the deepest waters we wade into as human beings, and I must admit it is my biggest struggle as a Christian most days, so I get it. The first thing I’d like to say is that I won’t attempt a detailed response here to the larger question of ‘suffering and evil’ itself, though I am of course tempted because I want to help as much as I can, but that would be a very long response (for example, I just submitted a 35+ page chapter on this question in a recent manuscript for a book to be published in Fall 2017).

Secondly, I do think Christianity offers not detailed answers to every suffering event we go through in life, but it does offer the best answers, and the best hope, among the marketplace of idea, including atheism (which is what we are tempted to slip into during times of trial). Christianity offers the God who brings comfort in the midst of suffering, it says God came and suffered himself, God himself wept, God himself was scared, God himself was beaten and killed. God himself didn’t always get to walk on the water, but actually drown like the rest of us, and won’t always protect us from drowning, but offers us life on the other side of it. He died, but he rose again – and now lives in a state of glory that all the suffering in the world can’t compare to if we trust him and hold on to him as we live and as we die (Rom. 8:18).

All of that comfort and peace are where the true answers to your question lies. But for now I would rather hone in on just one idea which you are asking about, namely, your logic on this issue. So, in a sense, this is not an answer to the problem of suffering as a whole, but is a first step toward a fuller answer to what you have focused in on here: the inability for your logic to comprehend the suffering if a loving God really exists. And I think that point by itself is extremely important.

A Unique Doubt

The Bible is very honest with the question you are asking. One of the earliest stories the Bible records is the book of Job – an entire treatise on this topic, but, you will notice that it does not present the question of suffering as an objection to the existence of God. Which in and of itself is the point I want to make. That in a book that examines suffering and it’s relationship to us and God for forty-two chapters should not conclude that God doesn’t exist, but the opposite – that he is completely sovereign over everything that happens in the world – should cause us to pause and consider. Beyond that, the fact is that even though ancient people were arguably exposed to more suffering, grief, loss and evil than we are in the modern western world, and their writings are filled with laments and mournings of these experiences, they do not conclude that evil and suffering equals the absence of gods/God.

“There is virtually no ancient thinker who reasoned from such evil that, therefore there couldn’t be a God” (Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, 37).

So, we must ask why we in our day make this jump.

Philosopher Charles Taylor connects our ‘logic,’ as you rightly call it, to our belief and confidence in the power of our own intellect as modern, post-Enlightenment people. He says that ancient people didn’t assume they could understand the exact ways of the complex universe as we do. They did not assume they had enough wisdom and knowledge to judge how an infinite God maintains every aspect of the working world and how it unfolds. It is only with the certainty and confidence of the modern person that we have developed such a doubt that connects evil/suffering with the possibility that God may not exist. But,”the reality is, it is assumed, not proven, that a God beyond our reason could not exist” (Ibid).

In this way, the problem of suffering is a unique kind of doubt to us as modern people.

Being Aware of Our Own Background Beliefs

This is an encouragement to simply be self-aware of our own pre-suppositions, and our own process of thinking about things, and to recognize that we are a product of our times and geography, and to be careful to not let those factors be the primary framework through which we experience the world and make decisions about the most important things. To slow down and say ‘Okay, how is my environment and even the time in which I was born, and the ideas I have come to adopt, influencing me right now in making me have these doubts versus these ones, etc.,’  How are your background beliefs (as a modern, Canadian person living in 2016) setting up your conscious reasoning to fail to be able to hold the idea of suffering and the idea of God together at the same time?

The answer lies in the fact that you are not abandoning faith altogether, but are simply trading one kind of faith for another – “a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and the ability to comprehend the depths of things,” and this new faith position is displacing the “older, more self-effacing kind of faith” (Ibid).

Conclusion

Like I said, this is not a detailed answer to the question of evil and suffering itself which I will post about in the future (and which you can watch some thoughts I have offered in the past if they are helpful here), but more of a clearing away the deck for future thinking, a preliminary step in the midst of the crisis, and one which I think is important for all of us to consider as we then take the next step to humbly come before the world and its evil and its pain and connect it to the question of God. A connection which is wholly natural, but when we conclude that the one means the other can’t exist we must tread carefully, and recognize that in that moment we may have simply slipped into a doubt/new faith position which is simply a product of modern thinking and experience – and not an objective view to build our life on at all.