Suffering, grief and the existence of God

Suffering, grief and the existence of God

I am regularly amazed at the ability of my 2 1/2 year-old daughter to communicate.

Don’t get me wrong:  not all her attempts to communicate succeed.  At the dinner table, she may (with no little passion) share a thought that none of the other five of us can decipher.

But even when her words remain an enigma, they nevertheless succeed to endear her to us.  My five-year-old son will respond, “Awwwww . . . Julianne is sooo cute!”

In those (and many other) little moments I often pause to take in the undeserved privilege of my family:  daily I truly marvel at my family’s health–physically and spiritually.  And I recall the sagacious yet ever-sobering counsel of Ecclesiastes:

“However many years one may live, let them rejoice in each of them.  But let them also call to mind the days of darkness [to come], for they will be many.  All that is to come is beyond [one’s] grasp.”

This counsel summons us to a robust enjoyment of the present, an enjoyment that soberly recognizes the inevitability of “days of darkness” that, we are assured, “will be many.”  “Days of darkness” is an ominous phrase describing future events that are both evil and enigmatic.  True to their enigmatic nature, these days to come, says Ecclesiastes, are “beyond one’s grasp.”

(This is my own paraphrase of the Hebrew word hebel, after examining its 79 usages in the Old Testament and reading a number of leading scholars:  often, and perhaps unfortunately, translated ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity,’ hebel refers to that which cannot be conserved, comprehended, or controlled–in a word, ‘grasped.’)

Ecclesiastes in Hebrew
A scroll with Ecclesiastes chs. 2-3

With respect to my family, Ecclesiastes’ counsel demands that I recognize the inevitable:  various evils and enigmas will afflict my family.  How, when, and with what intensity I do not know; these are beyond my grasp.

But I use my imagination.  And as a both a scholar and pastor, I have much fodder for my imagination.  I have wondered if there are “days of darkness” that would make me question my belief in God:  is there a certain amount, or kind, of suffering that my family and I would undergo that would be the occasion for me to abandon my faith?

Is there an experience of suffering underneath the weight of which my Christ-centered hope, as yet unbroken, would in fact break?

. . . . . . .

I often look for books that accessibly and articulately express perspectives with which I disagree, not least because, as a pastor, I want to recommend such books to my congregants:  it is incredibly important to listen to those with whom we Christians disagree, lest we caricature others or hold to Christian convictions too carelessly or conveniently.

One such recent book on this topic, written by Fordham Professor of Philosophy Bryan Frances, is called Gratuitous Suffering and the Problem of Evil: A Comprehensive Introduction (Routledge, 2013).   I found Frances’ presentation marked by clarity, caution, rigor, and humanity, though at times his tone is somewhat acerbic (though, I suspect, that might appeal to today’s undergraduate student?).

If I were to make only one critique Frances’ work, it would be this:  he claims for his guild (of “philosophers”) a neutrality–or, at least, an exceptional lack of bias–that I believe is altogether naïve.  As with my own field (of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity), his is, overwhelmingly, populated by white, middle- to upper-middleclass European males, most all of whom share a common educational training.  (As an aside, a demographic study of both atheists and agnostics is quite revealing.)

Frances’ rationale is as follows:

“If the universe has been created by a supremely morally good, knowledgeable, and powerful being, then that being arranged things so that there is no gratuitous suffering [i.e., suffering, the greatness of which outweighs any compensating good that may accompany it].”  However, says Frances, in our world “there is gratuitous suffering.”

Movingly, Frances takes the reader on a brief yet horrific tour of history (both human and natural) right up to the present day, forcing us to gaze into the abyss of unjust suffering that constitutes so much of the affairs of human (and animal) life.

It would be both unwise and unfair (to Frances, not to mention to the reader) to attempt a direct reply to his presentation.  Rather, I will only ask this question:

Can we grieve without God?

Again, I am regularly surprised at how well my 2 1/2 year-old daughter can communicate.  For example, at mealtime with a single syllable she can communicate her opinion of the food:  “Yuck!”  (Her faces always reinforce this opinion.)

Or At playtime, when a toy breaks, she can express her concern with only two syllables:  “Uh-oh!”

Once when it was a toy she really liked, she gave a louder and repeated “Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh, Mommy!”, and she brought the toy to her mother in the hope of its restoration.

Even more intensely, when her older brother Winston hurt himself rather badly in the backyard, she came running inside urgently, with tears of concern, screaming, “Uh-oh! Winston! Uh-oh! Winston!”

On these latter occasions she did not say, “Yuck!”  Although broken toys and a hurting older brother were undoubtedly things she did not like (they were, one might say, yucky), her response of choice was not “Yuck!” but “Uh-oh!”

So what’s the difference?

It’s the difference between grumbling (“Yuck!”) and grieving (“Uh-oh!”).

Grumbling results from a deviation from what was desired.  Grieving results from a deviation from what was designed.  Grumbling announces distaste.  Grieving announces damage.  Grumbling says, “Yuck, this isn’t how I want it to be.”  Grieving says, “Uh-oh, this isn’t how it is supposed to be.”

My 2 1/2 year-old’s distinction is hardly exceptional.  In fact, it’s not even general.

It’s universal.

Who among us humans has not both grumbled and grieved, whether at things small or great?  Do we know anyone who would say, “Upon serious autobiographical reflection, every time I have cried, been disappointed, discouraged, felt like giving up, been deeply hurt or fearful, it’s only and ever because I didn’t get what I wanted. I’ve only and ever complained.”

Similarly, when witnessing another person’s response to loss–whether they’ve lost a wallet, a job, or a loved one, who would say, “Their tears only show that they didn’t get their way”?

Whether we ourselves grieve or grieve along with others–behaviors ubiquitous to humanity, are we merely lamenting our unmet preferences?

Or are we lamenting unfulfilled purposes?

Funeral procession for Rev. Dr. King

In grieving are we merely betraying our own selfish (or even societal) biases?  Or are we betraying a knowledge of Someone Else’s blueprint, and a truly tragic and enigmatic departure from it?

Apart from the existence of God–yes, I will venture to say the Christian God, the One who created the heavens and the earth as an order that is “very good,” does not our grieving inevitably break down into mere grumbling?  A more socially acceptable, sympathetic grumbling perhaps, but grumbling nonetheless.

I do not claim to have rational explanations for the inestimable suffering of this world.  However, I confess that I’m suspicious that the unspeakable evil that lurks within our world and within our hearts may itself not be rational or even rationally explicable.  By not “explaining”  evil, is Scripture trying to tell us something?  “The heart,” says the weeping prophet Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  If this is the diagnosis of the evil within us, what of the diagnosis of the sinister evil around us, whose apocalyptic mark is a sacrilegiously triune counterfeit 666?  He is, Jesus declares, the Father of lies.

In Cairo, Coptic Christians mourn martyred loved ones

This is not, however, to suggest that a rational explanation could not be given.  But it is to suggest that the Christian’s first “response” to the problem of unspeakable suffering of this world is not an argument of logic but an act of lament, followed by an act of love:  presence and silence; tears, prayer and service; vigilance and remembrance.

And in the midst of that act of lament and service of love, the Christian points to the Crucified One, who is Loss and Suffering incarnate, the slain Lamb, who is now forever triumphant over every power of darkness, reigning with Resurrection authority.

However unspeakable, however bitter the suffering, they do not suffer alone.  And neither will my family suffer alone, when the many days of darkness do come and we find them, as Ecclesiastes promises, beyond our grasp.

There is One who has gone before us–all of us, who has tasted days of darkness more bitterly, more unjustly, and He has overcome.  When in the midst of days of darkness that one simply cannot grasp, to be able to grasp that he has overcome is grasp Deep Wisdom–something that Ecclesiastes again, startlingly, anticipates:   “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

He is One who grieves with us and yet goes before us into glory, having secured a new order in which there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

I have no doubt that atheists and agnostics grieve; indeed, I know some who, I strongly suspect, grieve more readily and more fully than do some who profess faith in Jesus.  Never would I doubt the sincerity and genuine humanity and dignity of their grieving.  But I would ask:

Do they grieve with good reason?  Can God-less-ness give warrant for genuine grief?

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