God has all our suffering under control. If you complain about your suffering, you’re probably lacking faith.
We have already outlined a couple of the problems with our Option 2 (that God decrees or purposes suffering). But perhaps its biggest problem is that it explains too much. It appears to say all that needs to be said about the problem. Once you have said, it’s all part of God’s plan, then there’s no need for a further solution. Or for further discussion: everyone can just shut up after that. Certainly no place for further complaining from the sufferers!
The problem of suffering becomes an intellectual one, which is resolved intellectually, rather than a historical, existential one which needs a concrete solution. And being intellectual, it can be resolved on the spot. Today. With words. Suffering is no longer such a problem, because we have the explanation.
The explanation Option 2 offers holds out reassurance: ‘Even though it hurts, things are fundamentally OK.’ Most religions and philosophies seem to make this same move. They suggest some logic to suffering. This hopefully enables the sufferer to accept things the way they are, and not rebel too much against his pains. After all, they are probably incurable! In this way religion tends to be deeply conservative.
Most religion is therefore non-eschatological: it tends to have no story, no goal for the world. By neutralising the problem of suffering, it minimises the need for a real-life resolution, a rescue. If God is already in control of everything, then there’s no need for a victory. There is in fact no need for anything to happen. Time is not of great importance in this sort of religion: there is nothing to wait for.
Much of the Christian tradition (at least in the West) has had this tendency, this static, timeless quality. It has been captured by the forces of conservatism, institutionalised, and lost its forward-looking quality.
Trouble is, many sufferers do not find a purely intellectual solution that satisfying. They find themselves longing for a real-life solution to their misery. If my tooth is aching, all the explanations in the world are not that much comfort – I want it out! But many pains cannot be removed as easily as a tooth…
The Scriptures, by contrast, assert that evil and suffering are meaningless, as we have seen. Evil is and remains a problem. This view does not allow anyone to accept the status quo, but rather condemns the status quo as intolerable and wicked. There must be change! While the gospel does not promote violent revolution, at this deep structural level it is revolutionary. And this also gives the element of time central importance: things must move, there must be a before and an after. The gospel is essentially an eschatological message. It is an unfolding story in which the current order of things is overturned.
This insistence on change leads to a tradition of complaint from godly sufferers in the Scriptures. (The focal point for this tradition is the Psalms.) For complaint is a cry for help, an urgent call for relief and rescue. The classic cry of the sufferer in the Psalms concerns itself with the question of time:
How long O Lord?
Jesus, standing in this tradition, teaches his disciples to pray ‘Deliver us from evil!’
Now here is the great strength of the Christian account of suffering. While other philosophies give an explanation, the gospel tells a story: a story of change. And isn’t that a far more satisfying response to the problem of evil?
Tomorrow: the Victory of God