Suffering 1 – God’s megaphone

Posted: June 10, 2013 by J in Pastoral issues, Theology
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Aiming to do some thinking on the important topic of suffering. Although it might be inconsistent: my wife has been sick lately!

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‘It was meant to be’.

‘Que sera, sera’.

‘It’s fate. It’s all fate’.

‘It’s his karma’.

‘It is God’s will’.

‘God is sovereign’.

‘It’s all part of the cycle of life’.

“Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”

Most people at most times in history seem to have believed that the events of their lives were not random – they were in some way part of a cosmic plan. And this includes their sufferings and misfortunes. Believed it – or at least wanted to believe it. Hence the sayings. We use these as labels for our experiences to help reassure us that what has happened, however painful, makes some kind of sense. Maybe not to us, but if we could see the big picture…

Many of these statements are overtly religious, and are found in pretty much every religion around. But some of them are more agnostic. ‘It was meant to be‘ is an assertion which does not tie itself to any particular metaphysical scheme.

What all of them have in common is the assertion of rationality, of purpose, behind seemingly irrational events. Our sufferings are not meaningless. Their is a reason, however secret, for each of them. If we knew the whole story, we would see the point of it all. 

This is sometimes illustrated by the idea of a tapestry being woven. If you look at the under-side of it, it’s all loose threads and random blotches of colour. Strands interwoven without any apparent pattern. But if you look from the top, you see the design. From above it all makes sense. What appears from below as ugly and pointless, from above is beautiful and, once it is finished, satisfying.

We live below the tapestry of life, says the illustration. It’s not very satisfying from here. Downright ugly at times. But if we could see what God can see, from above – we would see that all of these dark and messed up threads are part of a masterpiece of breath-taking beauty taking shape: God’s plan for the world. All the pain and misery and terror and trauma – nothing is left out, nothing unnecessary, it all contributes to the finished tapestry. It all has a reason. It’s all for our ultimate good.

British Poet Laureate John Betjeman put it like this:

If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.
But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan

from The commission of St Paul

I don’t know how you feel about this story. I’ve heard variations on it from people of widely different religions and cultural backgrounds. For most people it seems to bring comfort. Though not when in the midst of the worst pains and griefs. Then, it’s not a welcome message. But later, once the worst of the storm is past, people will often embrace these ideas.

C.S.Lewis expressed the idea in memorable terms: Pain is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’ (The Problem of Pain 1972 edition p.81). Though horrible to us, pain is necessary for mankind’s ultimate good, our salvation. Lewis agreed with the view of his hero Aristotle (in his Nichomachean Ethics) that pain brought moral improvement and that to avoid it was to degrade oneself.

You can see why people like this idea of a cosmic plan. Pain is scary and confusing. It makes us question whether life is good. If there is a sense that our pain is worth it, that it is achieving something, it’s easier to bear it. If I have pains in my legs I may become discouraged. But if I know that they are the result of the half-marathon I ran yesterday, all part of my fitness plan – that’s different. I can embrace that pain. However, the thought that I might be suffering, not for any good reason, but just as an accident in an impersonal and meaningless universe – that’s pretty hard to take. We want to feel there’s a point to it somewhere, somehow. In fact, the first question people ask when disaster strikes, is ‘Why?’ ‘Why is this happening to me?’ We instinctively look for a reason.

This ‘cosmic plan’ idea is such a widespread view among such a broad range of religions and philosophies, that it is somewhat surprising to find little trace of it in the Bible. In fact, what we do find the Bible saying about human suffering is often strikingly different from this.

Tomorrow: “Meaningless!” says the preacher

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