In her book, ‘The Choice’ Pyschiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Edith Egar says, ‘There is no hierarchy of suffering, there is nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another.’
One of the words that has stood out to me recently is the word loss. Loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of future plans, loss of home or security, loss of a loved one. Many have experienced significant loss recently.
One of the biggest reasons people walk away from faith is because of suffering. When something happens in life that feels unbearable and agonizing, usually our resources are so low that lots of areas of our life can take strain, our work, our health, our relationships especially. It makes sense that in a time of pain or suffering a person’s faith could take strain too. But there is a deeper sense in which suffering can cause us to walk away from faith. If there is a God, then that God surely is the one being with the power to stop our suffering. God by definition would be able intervene, to revoke it, and if he does not do so, then far from loving us, it feels cruel.
When life is going well, we could feel relatively happy to consider in the back of our minds that there might be a God, one look at a stunning sunset, one bite of a delicious meal, one hug from a little child might just tempt us to think that all of this goodness and beauty could emanate from something divine… but when tragedy strikes those thoughts can feel like a mockery. Believing in a God during a time of suffering and loss for some can add to the pain. And has led many to conclude with the atheist philosophers that there is no loving God out there and that the suffering we experience is simply part of the natural world.
Whatever our beliefs about the existence of God, I think all of us can identify, not simply with suffering, but with the sadness of suffering. At the core of suffering is that sense of loss. We grieve the loss of a life we had hoped for, we grieve the loss of person we wish we could have had more time with, we grieve the loss of our hopes. Perhaps we grieve the loss of a stable or happy childhood. As sentient beings we suffer additionally in that we are aware of our suffering and the suffering of others and we grieve that we experience this sense of loss. We grieve that the world is not as we wish it were, as, on some level we feel it should be.
While there is a lot about suffering that remains a mystery within the Christian faith. But there are some answers that speak deeply to me. First, the Christian faith makes sense of the experience of loss. It explains that the world we are inhabiting is a world that was meant to be lived in relationship with a loving heavenly father, but that the peace and well-being that comes with that relationship was lost. All of the losses we experience are part of that greater loss. But the Bible says that that relationship has not been lost forever, that there is hope, that God has made a way for restored relationship with him. If we choose to enter into this relationship with God, the Bible says that we will begin to experience the peace that comes with being found. While we will still experience deep losses in this life, the Bible also promises that our longing for a world in which there is no more pain, no more death, is one that has been put in us by God and is going to be fulfilled. That there will be a day when there will be no more suffering, no more sadness. That he will make all things new.
Lastly, while the Bible does not answer the question of why God allows the specific suffering that we experience, the question it does answer is whether or not God is indifferent to our pain. The Bible pictures a God who weeps with those who weep, a God who is close to the broken hearted, a God whose love for us causes him to lay his own life down for ours, a God whose heart is moved by the suffering of each person and who did not leave us to suffer alone, but suffered with us, and suffered for us.
Three of the most famous parables that Jesus told were about loss, the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son. In each case the loss represented a deeper loss and sadness. But in each of these stories Jesus pictures restoration. The Christian faith speaks to our experience of loss and says that there is a hope for restoration of all that has been lost. Atheist philosopher Luc Ferry in his book, A short history of philosophy reflecting on the Christian faith says that he can’t see why anyone one wouldn’t wish that is was true.
CS Lewis speaks to this desire for restoration. He says,
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.