God and Explaining Suffering

Last month I listened to the podcast of a sermon series about the problem of pain called My God Why? in which head pastor of The Meeting House, Bruxy Cavey, attempts to answer the question:

Why would a loving God allow there to be so much suffering in the world?

Bruxy’s first sermon on this topic boiled down into one sentence:

We can’t know for sure on this side of eternity but take comfort in the knowledge that God suffers alongside us. The links at the beginning of this provide a great deal more detail and nuance to his argument, of course. If you only have time to listen to one podcast in this series I recommend the first one and if you happen to listen to the third instalment, The Origin of Evil, I highly recommend checking out Drew’s response to Bruxy’s theory on the origin of evil. I was actually planning to write a very similar blog post about that part of the series here but Drew nailed every point I had compiled in my head!

What I like about Bruxy’s sermon and the idea of a God who suffers alongside with us:

  • People who are suffering are not blamed for their misfortunes.
  • A suffering God seem more human and far less distant than the other versions of God I’ve been introduced to in the past.
  • Bruxy acknowledges that there will always be a new question behind the one that has just been answered.
  • Bruxy affirms the idea that we see things through a glass dimly on this side of eternity. I appreciate his honesty here.

These are my disagreements or issues with this answer:

  • The idea of a God who suffers with us doesn’t actually alleviate anyone’s suffering.
  • Suffering yourself and allowing someone else to suffer are two completely different actions.
  • If God suffers with us wouldn’t that give him or her even more of an incentive to intervene? I know that I’m far more apt to work to solve a problem if it’s physically or emotionally painful for me.
  • How could a deity who created the entire universe not be able to think of an alternative way to encourage people to worship and embrace him or her that doesn’t involve billions of lifetimes of often unrelenting suffering? Surely he or she could think of something!

To be fair, this is an incredibly difficult question and Bruxy’s answer is best one I’ve ever heard from a theistic point of view. It also avoid many of the often unbelievable offensive assumptions made by or trite phrases embedded in traditional Judeo-Christian responses to this question:

  • God has a plan!
  • Suffering is a divine pop quiz.
  • You’re suffering because of a past un-repented sin.
  • You’re suffering because your parents or grandparents have un-repented sin.
  • If your faith was stronger you and your loved ones wouldn’t have these problems.

Unfortunately something is still lacking in this explanation. Or at least it is for me.

Imagine  if a storyteller began to quietly share a new tale of adventure over a roaring fire late at night. Just as the hero or heroine gasped one last breath before his or her seemingly grisly, unavoidable death the storyteller says “and then somehow it all worked out in the end and everybody lived happily ever after. The end. Who wants another marshmallow?”

Bruxy’s explanation sounds a little like this to me. It begins in one place, veers off in a completely different direction and then ends abruptly. I want to find solace it but it has too many rough edges.

A blog post isn’t enough space to figure this all out, of course. Honestly, a lifetime isn’t even long enough. There are other explanations out there, though, which is the other half of what I’d like to discuss today.

Alternative Explanations

Sh*t happens. You can make all of the right decisions, take every known precaution and still end up being diagnosed with an incurable disease or die in an accident tomorrow. There are no guarantees in this life, no magic elixirs to protect your loved ones from harm. This also means that no one deserves everything that happens to them. Tragedies to triumphs, some things we earn, others are given to us, and others show up out of nowhere. The problem with this explanation is that, at least for me, this  doesn’t provide any hope that tomorrow will be any better.

God doesn’t exist. This isn’t actually something I believe but it does account to a certain degree for the randomness in which fates are doled out. If there’s no one working behind the scenes it makes more sense for selfish, wicked people to prosper as much if not more than those who are kind and giving.

God exists but isn’t involved. At times I do believe this one. One of the benefits of being Agnostic is that I don’t have to claim anything as the capital-T Truth. When I do lean toward the idea that God exists it makes far more sense for God to be uninvolved  in the affairs of his or her creation than it does for God to love us, have both the knowledge of intense suffering and the ability to end it and yet still do nothing to alleviate it. This (apparent?) lack of action is something that disturbs me to the marrow of my bones.

None of this is real. Another theory: we’re living in the matrix. Everything we think we’ve experienced has been a simulation, a computer program of sorts. I’ll admit that it is one of the wackier theories out there but there is a certain allure to it. If nothing else it’s an intriguing metaphor for how we interact with this thing called existence.

What do you think?


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13 Responses to God and Explaining Suffering

  1. I think the problem comes from trying to boil the explanation down to just one of these perspectives. In isolation, I agree that each leaves something to be desired. However, from my standpoint, if the shit happens, god doesn’t exist and non of this is real answers are rolled into one, then that does it for me. 🙂

  2. 'Seph

    I think part of this problem is assumption we make in regards to God (or maybe better yet, g0d).

    The monotheistic God ultimately cannot be both benevolent, good, and loving (or Love itself) and judgemental. We presume God is omnibenevolent, intelligent (as we understand intelligence), and therefore understandable.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that “God” (g0d) is more akin to the Tao.
    Nameless. Beyond description. Beyond personhood or non-personhood. Even beyond being intelligent. (Omniscience? Wouldn’t that be an attribute to some sort of spiritual supernatural superman?)

    • You’re absolutely right – I have been looking at this with the assumption that God is a person (or at least person-like) instead of something beyond that instead.

      And I didn’t even realize I was doing it when I posted this!

      • 'Seph

        The tao that can be told
        is not the eternal Tao
        The name that can be named
        is not the eternal Name.

        Opening lines of the opening verse of the Tao Teh Ching.

  3. 'Seph

    “None of this is real”. We’re living in the the matrix or a computer program of sorts.

    I suppose this is really what Gnosticism is about. (Most especially The Matrix idea).
    The Gnostic God(s) is (are) incredibly different from the Christian monotheistic superman God.

    • Sorry about the delay in responding to you, Seph. I’ve been away from the computer lately. 🙂

      I’d never thought about Gnosticism in that way before. It makes me want to learn more about it. Can you recommend any books/blogs/etc?

      • 'Seph

        Although this is only my personal ‘take’ on the issue, I don’t think the Gnostics’ concept of God was intended to be taken literally. (One God, Two Gods, Emanations, Aeons, the Pluroma, etc.)

        Not too sure what would be the best recommendations… I think we’ve talking ’bout this before, haven’t we? I think you picked up a copy of “The Gnostic Bible”.
        Let me think a bit more on this…

  4. Pingback: Non-Theistic Morality | On The Other Hand

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