2015 was a year of a number of tragedies both globally and personally (I lost people I love dearly, and people I know suffered tragedy). How do we understand the meaning of these events, if there is meaning to them? This is part 3 of a few reflections on the question of pain and suffering to end off 2015.
Not a Christian Problem
The challenge of suffering is not a uniquely Christian problem. Every worldview has to deal with it whether you are an atheist or a Hindu. We don’t have space to deal with each and every worldview and how it answers this challenge, except to say I think the Christian answer is the best. The western world struggles with interpreting suffering. There are a number of reasons for this: we see the point of life differently than a large portion of the world. Our lives focus primarily around the pursuit of happiness. In contrast to that, as social theorist Max Scheler writes, an “essential part of the teaching and directives of the great religious and philosophical thinkers the world over has been on the meaning of pain and suffering.”
Every society and worldview seeks to give instructions to its people on how to deal with suffering. Sociologists have compared the various ways different cultures deal with suffering. They have noted that western culture is one of the weakest and ill prepared in history when it comes to dealing with pain. Whether it’s a terrorist attack, a hurricane, or a shooting in a movie theatre – whenever a tragedy hits the western world, we seem unprepared philosophically for it. The most fundamental reason is that our worldview does not offer us an explanation for suffering or show us how to deal with it. In a secular or atheistic worldview, the material world is all there is.
Pain, therefore, has little to no meaningful part to play in our lives. It is always an enemy to be avoided. So, when it hits us, we end up borrowing concepts from others faiths and religions. When the Boston Marathon bombing took place, my Facebook news feed filled up with people offering their ‘prayers’ and ‘thoughts’ to the victims and families. Atheists and agnostics had to borrow language and hope from religious categories because their own story offers little comfort in these times.
At that point, which faith to borrow from becomes important. Many of my friends use Karma language to explain life and events (“what goes around comes around”, etc). On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing and the shootings in Paris, that Karma theology didn’t work – as it would have to blame the victims for their fate – so people borrowed the Christian worldview for the day. “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful.”
The Suffering God
In Christian theology, the moment of greatest good and glory and love is also the moment of greatest suffering – the cross of Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is where God is seen loving the world most potently – dying for humanity. The Bible says this was the greatest moment of sacrifice, courage, and love ever to exist. The resource Christianity offers us to deal with suffering in our lives – one that is unique from other worldviews – is a God who Himself suffered. In every other religion, God remains aloof and distant, removed from suffering. Christianity, however, says that God entered in. He suffered. He was tortured. He died. Theologian John Stott tells of a time he was visiting a Buddhist temple. He was staring at a statue of Buddha sitting cross-legged with a philosopher’s grin on his face.
“I wanted to look away and look to see a cross – the bloody, mangled God in the flesh, who became a human being because that is not a removed esoteric philosophy of life, but a self-giving, selfless sacrifice that says ‘I’m with you. I entered into your evil. I took and absorbed the evil onto myself. I suffered for you, so that you wouldn’t have to. I’m not aloof. I’m not distant. I’m in the pain. I’m in the suffering. I took it all on myself so that one day I can redeem it.’”
Christianity says that, while there won’t always be detailed answers as to why evil and suffering befalls us, there is an actual answer to the reality of it: the life and work of Jesus. When we look at Him, we see that the answer can’t be that God doesn’t care. He came and he died an awful death for us. This shows care.
Why did He do this? The answer, Christianity says, is so much deeper than we think. Many say ‘to save us from our sins,’ and, of course, that is true. Christianity goes even further than that however. It says something else which is very unique in the marketplace of ideas. It says that the suffering of the cross was not only about God’s will or plan, but about His very nature. Have you ever wondered why Paul explains the cross of Christ so closely to his discussions about the nature of who God is – His identity (Colossians 1:15-20; Philippians 2:5-11)? It’s because suffering is part and parcel of the very identity of who God is, not just what He does. “If the incarnation of the Son,” Jurgen Moltmann says, “is viewed merely as the functional presupposition of the atoning sacrifice made necessary by sin, then it is only an expression of the saving will of God. It only affects God’s relationship with the world,” and has little to do with who He himself is in his nature.
However, the cross of Christ in the New Testament is more than an atoning sacrifice to save sinners or a response to humanity’s sinful choice. It is also about who God is. Paul is saying: our need was the occasion for the suffering but not it’s only reason. We must grasp the powerful uniqueness of the Christian view: a God who sacrifices and suffers with, for, and because of humanity. He does this, not in spite of His identity, but because of it. He will therefore be “with us” through all our own pain and re-make it in eternity into something we could never imagine (Romans 8:18).
This is the precise point Samwise Gamgee makes to Frodo in the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when trying to convince him to keep pressing on to Mount Doom after all the pain and suffering they have seen:
Sam: It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
 Max Scheler, “The Meaning of Suffering,” in On Feeling, Knowing and Valuing: Selected Writings, ed. H.J. Bershady (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 98.
 Ibid., 31.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993), 115.