Suffering that is not due to a consequence of a particular action, wrong, or mistake is a terrifying thing. The problem is that we do not have control over this type of suffering. The news of an unforeseen cancer diagnosis or the lost of a teenager in a car wreck hits our hearts like a train. It seems to come from nowhere and we often can find no just reason for its happening. This is exactly why we, especially in the West today, have a difficulty with suffering.
Because suffering is a spiritual and mental happening I want to reason with your mind to explain to you why I believe we have a difficult time with suffering. This requires me to dip my toes into philosophy and history. Please read and read again to understand what is being said and take it to heart.
The problem with how we deal with suffering has risen partially from existentialism. Existentialism is a big word that describes a theory that you are the determining factor for finding purpose and meaning in life. You are what determines what is right and wrong. Some would even say you are the center of the universe. Common existential statements are, “Do what makes you happy!” or “This is what I believe and that is what you believe and we are both right.” Most common today is the idea of, “Living your own truth.”
Unknown to many of us we think and live like existentialist. In existentialism there is the notion that the world is meaningless and you have a responsibility to find your own meaning or truth and then… that is what is true and meaningful. This type of thinking came into affect after the catastrophes of the Holocaust, WWII, and the nuclear bomb. These tragedies lead many to believe that an ordered world, or even a God, was not possible in such an evil universe. Interestingly, if existentialism really took root due to the Holocaust and the other horrors of the mid 1900’s then it was born out of suffering.
Now I am not one to say that the events of the Holocaust were not traumatic and if I myself lived through them I would have surely seen the world through a different set of eyes than what I do now. Still, I do not believe that living in light of existential concepts is a healthy way to live because it does not give us a good enough reason for how to suffer and whywe suffer. If we are to view the world as an absurdity (existential view) illustrated by a desert in which suffering causes us to cry and the desert does not do anything for us yet we meaninglessly cry anyway… this does not satisfy our souls.
Many of us have unknowingly adopted a form of existentialism in our pursuit of making our selves great in this world and in turn have bought into a type of ideology that in no way helps us in suffering. Most of us think that if I am the center of the universe then I should naturally be happy. This is why we pursue happiness so aggressively. Yet, the seemingly illogical suffering that comes to every person gives those who have adopted this type of thinking no comfort. Because of this existential mindset we hear statements like, “Suffering does not make sense!” “It is not fair!” Sound familiar?
When people embrace this type of Western existential mindset they have no way to cope with suffering. As a result when seemingly unreasonable suffering comes your way it is pretty hopeless. This is why so many who seem to develop their own meaning for their lives also embrace traditional notions of other religions during times of suffering. Timothy Keller notes:
“When facing unavoidable and irreducible suffering, secular people must smuggle in resources from other views of life, having recourse to ideas of karma, or Buddhimsm, or Greek Stoicism, or Christianity, even though their beliefs about the nature of the universe do not line up with those resources.”
To summarize, those who do have this existential worldview have to find comfort during suffering from somewhere else when suffering arises. This is why someone who has a very minimal desire or thought about God asks where He is when a type of unreasonable suffering comes their way.
Strange to many, you will not find good sufferers in the Bible with this type of thinking. This is not the type of thinking that Job had when his livelihood and family was taken away from him. Instead, he hit his knees and cried out, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Nobody who is the center of the universe that lives to please themselves can make that statement.
Let’s also look at Jesus. Even the words of Jesus before he was taken to endure the suffering on the cross were nowhere near a self-centerd mindset for his own life as he says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” God’s will over that of mine even if God’s way is painful? Jesus was human and wrestled with suffering but he came out of it much differently than many of us do. I don’t think we understand how far many of us are from a Christ-centered practice of suffering.
This is the first in a series of articles to be followed up in the coming weeks.
Caleb Rawls is the pastor at Pleasant Home Baptist Church located in Laurel Mississippi. He and his wife Taylor work lead the church to love God and reach out to their community with the good news. They also have a golden-doodle named Tiglath-Pilesar IIII.
Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.Penguin Books 2015. Pg. 17