The first question people ask when disaster strikes is ‘Why?’ Why has this happened? Why has it happened to me? Did I deserve it? Is someone to blame? What does it mean?
Suffering is not a minor or peripheral matter in Scripture: it’s a big deal. The Scriptures always teach the reality and lordship of God. So then you would expect them to assert the reasonableness, the logic of suffering, some sort of cosmic plan behind it all. But strangely, you find very little of this in Scripture. There are two books devoted largely to the problem of suffering: Job and Ecclesiastes. Neither takes this ‘cosmic plan’ line.
In Job, Job’s ‘friends’ are constantly hitting on the Why question: finding a logic in the miseries into which Job has fallen. God does not do anything without reason. He is always just: therefore Job must in some way have deserved the disasters he’s suffered. Or at least, there is a rightness to them which requires him to trust God. Shut up, knuckle under, stop complaining.
This is traditional advice which would hold good in most cultures and religions. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when these ‘friends’ turn out to be the bad guys. When God comes on the scene, they are punished for their callous, pious platitudes. They got it badly wrong, regarding suffering.
What is going on, then, in Job’s calamity? He never finds out. Meaning never emerges. The reader knows more, we have been privy to the heavenly councils where Job’s lot was decided. But even we don’t know much. We see God agreeing to let Job be tested with miseries which he clearly doesn’t deserve. The ‘test’ thing makes sense, for a man of faith. But the suffering itself is never really given a meaning. It is not for Job’s moral improvement. It is not to expiate some sin. It is not to give Job wisdom or understanding, for he hardly gains any from his suffering, so far as we can tell from the story. The suffering itself remains a mystery to us also. If anything, it is a malicious assault from an enemy who longs to destroy Job: the satan. Why he wants this, we don’t know. Not much logic to all that. And God? All we know is that he allows the attack. We are never given a satisfactory because to answer the why.
Ecclesiastes is much blunter. The Preacher deals at length with the problem of ‘life under the sun’, which he finds to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (to quote Thomas Hobbes). What does it all mean then, all this labour and toil, this blood, sweat and tears in which we live our brief lives? The Preacher is painfully upfront about his conclusion:
‘Meaningless, meaningless!’ says the Preacher. ‘Everything is utterly meaningless!’
He conducts extensive investigations to check his facts. He explores the various sufferings and injustices which are the universal lot of mankind, and whichever way he turns, his conclusion is confirmed:
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
The Preacher repeats this word no less than 38 times in his discourse: it is his major finding. The Hebrew word havel can be translated ‘vanity’ or ‘futility’ or ‘meaningless’. It is an assertion of non-logic, of the absurdity of human life. The Preacher looks for a ‘Why’ – and concludes that there is no Why. Human suffering is not susceptible to rational explanation.
For the apostle Paul, too, creaturely suffering is a big deal. He picks up on the language of the Preacher, in his Letter to the Romans. He agrees with the verdict of Ecclesiastes,
The creation has been subjected to futility Romans 8:20
The word Paul uses here is the signature word of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: futility! (LXX: mataioteti) In this way he refers back to the argument about human experience found there. This then forms part of Paul’s own argument, about suffering. (we will return to this key passage in Romans later).
To return to our illustration of the tapestry, this Scriptural view would seem to say, ‘When seen from below the tapestry of life is shot through with dark and ugly threads. It’s covered in loose ends. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. And when viewed from above – it looks pretty much the same. In fact, it’s a sucky tapestry however you look at it.’
This is a pretty grim assessment of human life. Unpalatable, even. Sounds almost atheistic. A random universe and all that. How does this help people who suffer? As we will see, it does have something important in common with an atheist view, and in this regard we will assert that atheism is more faithful to Scripture than much ‘Christian’ teaching is.
Paul has more to say, new things to add to the OT account of suffering. He doesn’t leave us in total bewilderment as Job and the Preacher do. He ends with hope. But it’s important to notice that Paul’s starting point is agreement with the message of Ecclesiastes: the suffering of the world is futile and meaningless. His message of hope does not swamp or neutralise this insight.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this understanding of the futility of evil and suffering comes as welcome news to many sufferers. Often sufferers – especially religious ones – have a double burden: firstly the pain itself, and secondarily the pressure to somehow feel good about it, to find some positive meaning in it, to not cry out or complain. Sometimes the secondary burden can be even greater than the first. To hear that the evil besetting them is truly evil and need not be viewed as good – this can come as a great relief.
Interestingly, modern counselling practices have implicitly adopted this view of suffering. Victims of misfortune, such as those dying of cancer, will instinctively ask ‘Why?’. But the counsellors tell us that a mature response to suffering involves moving on from this, letting go of the why question. It doesn’t get answered – it’s just that people learn to stop asking! And this is considered a key part of the grieving process. Implicit in this model is that there is no Why. People must come to accept the irrationality of human suffering. In fact, counsellors are warned in their training to NOT go providing answers to the Why question, as this can hinder a person’s progress through grief. In any case, answers given at the Why stage are particularly objectionable to the sufferer, and can easily increase distress.