The existence of human suffering poses a unique theological problem. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving, then why does suffering exist? Indeed, this difficulty is confronted in scripture itself: perhaps the most important look into the problem of suffering comes in the Old Testament story of Job. Mainstream Christianity continues to have a variety of ways of approaching this theological question, although historically Christians had a much broader spectrum of responses. For example, today's mainstream Christianity is a result of the establishment of orthodoxy in the face of Gnostic Christians, who used the existence of suffering as a way of questioning whether God was indeed omnipotent or all-loving. Gnosticism instead posits a "demiurge" or "alien god" that created this world and its suffering without being omnipotent or good. But the oldest mainstream form of Christian orthodoxy today -- represented by the Roman Catholic faith -- came into existence as a response to these early challenges to basic theology. It is worth acknowledging one particular vocabulary word in addressing this topic: the word is "theodicy." A theodicy is a defense of God's goodness in considering the problem of human suffering, and the term "theodicy" itself dates from the Enlightenment when the idea that an all-loving being could be responsible for so much pain and wickedness came to seem something other than rational. The rationalist character of post-Enlightenment thought, which continues to this day, has necessitated a renewed approach to the most basic issue of theodicy, which is whether God can be apprehended by human understanding. As I shall argue, the theological problem of suffering -- of the extreme sort that is seen scripturally in the Book of Job -- has been fully dealt with not only by the Vatican but also by more mainstream theologians.
I describe the problem of suffering as it is outlined in the Old Testament's Book of Job as being "extreme" because it encapsulates the nature of the theological problem of suffering. Job is presented in scripture as having led a blameless and pious life. If it were the case that God merely rewards good persons for doing good things, then the Book of Job makes no sense whatsoever. But of course, the form of early Christianity which eventually became condemned as the Gnostic heresy can find a fair amount of scriptural support in the opening chapter of Job, which presents the suffering of Job as being part of a wager between God and Satan. Heretical sects like the Gnostics or Manichees simply separated off the evil in the world from part of God's actual creation, and saw it as part of a lesser divine power, usually the devil. The Book of Job, however, does not indicate that the devil causes Job's suffering -- indeed it is explicitly stated that God Himself sends the afflictions to test Job. God is proved correct against Satan that Job will not abandon his faith even under such a severe test. But for those concerned with the application of reason to theology, God's answer to Job does pose a problem:
Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said:
Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words?
Gird up thy loins like a man: I will ask thee, and answer thou.
Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? Tell me if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Upon what are its bases grounded? Or who laid the corner-stone thereof,
When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody? [footnoteRef:1] [1: Job 38:1-7 (ESV Study Bible).]
The problem here is that God does not offer Job a rational answer: instead God attacks Job's right to ask such questions altogether. Regarding philosophical logic, this is known as the "argumentum ad hominem" in which the opposing speaker's arguments are ignored for a personal attack on the speaker's motives or identity in making the case in the first
While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment when connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament.[footnoteRef:2] [2: John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, 11. Vatican website. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html]
John Paul II distinguishes here from the kind of suffering that is intended as a punishment and the kind that may afflict those who are otherwise righteous and virtuous as Job was. The difficulty then becomes in distinguishing between the two, which is done by assuming God is all-righteous and that it is human beings who must be examined instead, to determine if they are wicked and deserved the suffering, or good and did not. Then God's purpose -- which is either punishment or not -- can be discerned. For example, we do not need to consider that John Paul II was wicked to realize that the last years of his Papacy were affected by his tremendous suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Instead, we might see John Paul II's personal suffering as being in some way intended by God for a greater educational purpose: John Paul II's successors as Pope have, unprecedentedly, respectively abdicated office (Benedict XVI) and announced the intention to abdicate office rather than die in it (Francis). But clearly they did not see in John Paul II's medical condition a proof of God's punishment. Otherwise, John Paul II would not have been canonized so rapidly after his death.
If John Paul II provides us with an example of how we can understand the good that might come from suffering, however, we must ask what it does for those of us who are not Popes or Saints. Here, the discussion by Timothy Keller in Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is most helpful. Keller observes the Christian approach to suffering by contrasting it with those of other belief-systems:
Christianity teaches that contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us as a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 30.]
We can see here that the most important thing is to understand that suffering has a meaning behind it, even if that meaning is ultimately known only unto God -- that is why Keller acknowledges that it is, as with Job or John Paul II, often unfair. For Keller, however, the purpose of suffering is to strengthen faith -- in his words, to "drive us like a nail deep into the love of God."
Thus, the dynamic of suffering as understood in these texts appears to be that human beings -- who are already minuscule in power and understanding compared to the majesty of God -- really have no purpose except to worship God. When suffering seems like a punishment, then humans should acknowledge God's justice. When suffering seems unfair, then humans should acknowledge God's omnipotence. In either case, when reason fails to provide meaning for the suffering, then renewing faith becomes the meaning.
The question remains, however, what role does suffering play in God's plan for us? That question is answered to some extent by the Christian novelist Flannery O'Connor, whose unorthodox stories set in the regional South in the 20th century depict characters who are filled with pride and self-love, to such an extent that God cannot get through to them. It takes some sort of violent action, ordained by God, for His love and grace to finally find a way to penetrate their wall of self-love. For instance, in the story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the character of the Grandmother is constantly asserting her own will on all the members of the family. Instead of following the Christian example to lay down one's life for others (that is, to put others first rather than your own self), the Grandmother insists that everyone do what she wants: "The Grandmother did not want to go to Florida," is how the story begins -- and it ends with the…
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