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THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING

The Pastoral Consolations

 

The experience of suffering has been reflected upon over many centuries by philosophers and theologians.  It is considered by Jews and Christians to be a "problem" because of apparently conflicting revelations about God and the experience of believers.  How can there be a God who is all powerful and all loving and yet there be evil and suffering in the world?  Attempts to answer this question have led some seekers to conclude either that there is no God, that God is not all powerful or that God is not all good or it has led them to close their eyes to the suffering manifest in the world.  All of these "solutions" as well as presenting their own problems are either in conflict with the self revelation of God in Scripture, or they are in conflict with the experience of Christians in their daily lives.

 

In the Church's reflections on Scripture it has come up with what are called "pastoral consolations".  Each of these consolations provide some insight into the mystery of suffering.  They will not by being shared eliminate suffering, but may help us to find meaning in the midst of our struggles.  The consolations do not impinge upon belief in the existence of God who is all powerful, and all loving and they do not minimize or ignore the very real suffering that is experienced.  These consolations have been summarized by Thomas Oden in his book Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (1983).  A concise summary of Oden's summary is as follows:

 

1. God does not directly will suffering.

 

"The evil that emerges as a result of sin and the suffering that is caused by it is indeed permitted by God, but it is far from God's original intention or direct will for humanity."

 

2. The free will defense.

 

"When God chooses to give us the extraordinary gift of finite freedom, that carries with it the possibility of abuse."

 

3. God's power can draw good out of any evil.

 

"Out of the abuses of our freedom, God still elicits goods that could not otherwise be elicited."  Often the good cannot be seen at present but requires faith that God knows what he is doing in history.

 

4. Evil does not limit God's power.

 

"Only an almighty God could permit alternative freedoms".  God does not stand back and allow all things in creation to deteriorate but shows steadfast love in works of redemption in the history of Israel, in coming into the world in Christ Jesus, and in the world today by the Holy Spirit.

 

5. The lessons of affliction.

 

"Can be occasions through which the conscience becomes awakened, the spirit becomes in time strengthened, the moral fibre toughened."  People can unexpectedly feel a deep bond of fellowship with suffering humanity everywhere.

 

6. The cleansing and educative elements of suffering.

 

God is not punishing - rather "chastisement" is cleansing, purifying, making chaste, and discipline is to be understood as "inner education" making us "more fully intelligent, stronger, more fit for mission".  "Suffering is not to be masochistically sought but neither is it to be compulsively avoided."

 

7. Individual suffering is socially rooted and socially redeemed.

 

Because human consciousness is formed in great part in interaction with others we are necessarily affected and formed by the good and bad within society. While this may seem unfair, the eyes of faith do not despair but trusts that there is a greater intention in allowing what evil does exist to exist.

 

8. The values intrinsic to struggle.

 

"Opposition, tension and struggle are necessary to growth, development and healthy formation."  "Suffering is permitted for a greater good - the nurturing of responsible free moral agency."

 

9. Suffering may put goodness in bolder relief.

 

"Suffering is a creative dissonance or transitional discord within a larger, harmonious symphony of meaning.  Evil and suffering are viewed as passing incongruities that are later resolved in a larger but as yet only partially perceived, concord."  "It may increase our capacity for joy".  By way of illustration, one can consider how the dull or dark portions of a tapestry could function to highlight with greater emphasis the bright colours.

 

10. Proportional receptivity of the good.

 

"We can only receive God's goodness in proportion to our receptivity to it.  "Our imperfection, myopic vision and moral dullness" makes us unable to benefit from God's incomparable goodness, and thus we experience suffering.

 

11. Evil as a privation of the good.

 

"God judged it better to allow physical limitations, suffering, and pain to exist dependently, because he judged it better to work toward bringing good functioning out of dysfunction than not to permit any sort of dysfunction at all."

 

12. Is this world the best God could do?

 

Because God is all powerful he could make any number of worlds, but God is also all good - so the world we live in must be the best - when viewed not from an individual, family, society or nation but from the view of the cosmos.

 

 

 

 

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ shows us that our God is a God who suffers (impassibly) with us and for us.

 

"The readiness of God to subject himself to the conditions of mortal life and to take suffering and evil on to himself to the point of the cross yields a more morally credible God than creationist belief elsewhere affords."

                                                                                           [B. Hebblethwaite]

 

In Jesus Christ God shows us dramatically that he is not distant or uninvolved or so transcendent that he is uninterested in the day to day struggles of an individual.  By becoming incarnate (taking flesh), God shows faithfulness to his promises of salvation, that he is completely involved in our redemption as individuals, and that he does understand intimately what our human struggles are like with temptation and with human limitations and sufferings.

"We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."                                            Hebrews 4:15

                                                                                                                    

"Although he was the Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him."                          Hebrews 5:8-9