A Meditation on Suffering

by | Jan 24, 2021 | Science and Religion | 4 comments

A man I knew, a very nice man, recently died after a period of horrible suffering from an aggressive cancer. He was 55. His death got me thinking about how anyone can have faith in a loving God when contemplating the hellish, pervasive suffering we all see, and sometimes experience.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, summed the matter up thusly:

“Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil [and suffering] but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent? Is he both able and willing? Whence then, this evil?”

Suffering can come from natural causes (cancer, COVID, natural disasters, accidents) or from acts of brutality, cruelty, and destruction we humans inflict on one another and nature. In this post I want to limit the discussion to the questions raised by  of suffering from natural causes, a situation theologians and philosophers call natural evil. If there is a loving, all powerful God, why does he not protect us from it?

It is astoundingly pretentious to tackle the question of how (whether) the idea of a loving God can be reconciled with the reality of natural evil. It has been the subject of hundreds of books and has captured the attention of some of the best minds in history. Nonetheless, laying out in ultra bare bones form how mankind has addressed this conundrum is for me a necessary step toward answering a question we all ask: despite the natural evil afflicting all of us at one time or another, is there a rational basis for hope, if not faith, that there is an all-powerful, loving God that knows and cares about us individually?

No amount of intellectualizing about the problem of pain will make it go away, but without some rational basis for our views, any strength and comfort we might derive from them in the midst of our suffering will disappear like a morning fog. Reason cannot substitute for faith, but can it serve as a buttress or at least not be corrosive? Maybe.

I distill the various ways people have addressed the problem of reconciling a loving God with the reality of suffering down to the following:

  1. Materialism (atheism)
  2. Part of God’s Plan
  3. An unavoidable side effect of necessary freedom
  4. A mystery but there is hope of rescue. 

I ignore the widely held view that God permits us to suffer because we are born sinful (whatever that means) and therefore deserve to suffer. We brought it on ourselves. This argument is self-contradictory and contrary to experience. The concept of a loving God is not compatible with a God that automatically consigns his creatures to suffering by the very fact of their being born. Further, while everyone has flaws, we all know really good people who absolutely do not deserve the suffering that befalls them.

Materialism 

The root assumption of materialists is that there is no God and therefore nothing to reconcile. We humans are nothing but beings arising from the interactions of matter and energy. Suffering just happens randomly. Get over it.

I believe this assumption is disconfirmed by science. The evidence from  science that some unimaginably powerful, unimaginably intelligent force or being created the universe to me is overwhelming. I call the creative force God. Note that I am not here claiming that God is aware of us or cares about us individually, just that there is a creator.

What evidence makes me so confident?

  1. The universe had a beginning; it was created apparently ex nihilo about 13.7 billion years ago. For something to be created, there has to be a creator. Nothing can come from nothing.
  2. The universe is exquisitely fine-tuned for life. The features of the universe necessary for the existence of complex life depend on incomprehensibly precise initial conditions and constants of the laws of nature. Also necessary  are a multitude of “local” planetary conditions that not only have to be present, but also have to be in a “just right” relationship to one another. List-of-Fine-Tuning-Parameters-Jay-Richards The probability that all these conditions occurred randomly is so small that it may as well be zero. To take just one example, the physicist Roger Penrose, who is not a Christian apologist, estimates that the chances of an initial low entropy state of the universe occurring by chance is 1 in 10-123 which is a decimal point followed by 122 zeros and a 1.

The literature on fine tuning is extensive. If you peruse the links below, https://truthornonsense.com/fine-tuning-and-other-mysteries/  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BB5SNXS/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 I don’t see how you could possibly avoid agreeing with English astronomer Fred Hoyle:

      “Would you not say to yourself, some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” In short Hoyle believed that the universe was a put up job.

  1. The universe is intelligible. Einstein said it best: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” There can be no intelligibility without lawfulness, unchanging laws that direct the behavior of matter and energy, and no laws without some intelligent force making them.
  2. There is a large body of evidence, meticulously documented, of people having experiences under conditions where their brain processes could not possibly have been operating. https://www.amazon.com/Irreducible-Mind-Toward-Psychology-Century/dp/1442202068 Materialism cannot explain these phenomena. 

Part of God’s Plan

Some people conclude that suffering from disease and disaster is all part of God’s plan. If we understood the “big picture”, we would see that such suffering is best for us and consistent with the idea that our Creator loves us. Suffering in this view not only is  a learning experience, but is a necessary price to pay for the ultimate glory of a restored creation. God by this reckoning has performed a cosmic cost-benefit analysis.

I find this explanation revolting. I don’t think I would want to say these things  to the family of a dying child or a child who has just been killed by a random accident. I am reluctant to worship a God who would want even one of his creatures to suffer. There is nothing redeeming about suffering itself. It is vile, demeaning, and worthy of our hatred.

 How people respond to suffering, however, can be inspiring, well worthy of our awe and homage.  When I see or hear about the magnificent way many people experiencing intense suffering respond, I sometimes wonder whether somehow God is giving them a hand. Can’t rule it out.

A personal experience supports this intimation. When I was on the table at Johns Hopkins, about to have brain surgery where the outcome ranged from death to vegetative status to recovery and a normal, healthy life, I was stunned by my calmness. Was I just blotting out the terror of extinction or  was something keeping me serene?

A more palatable version of the “God’s plan” explanation for suffering is the concept of karma, the idea, roughly speaking, that what happens in one’s present  – reward or punishment – is a consequence one’s actions in a prior life (or lives). Seen over a long period of time, what one gets is what one deserves.

The idea of karma can’t be considered nonsense on grounds that  nobody has had a past life. There is a mountain of empirical evidence to the contrary. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/our-research/children-who-report-memories-of-previous-lives/fifty-years-of-research/

If the idea of karma is a true description of reality, it is logical to infer that some people will be condemned to suffering before being born. Since there is nothing they can do, they are doomed from birth.  Just like the “God’s plan” view of suffering, the karmic concept of inexorable payback for past behavior, no matter what one does in the present, is not compatible with the belief that God loves us. Predestination offers no hope.

Suffering as an unavoidable side effect of freedom

Einstein once asked whether God could have created the world differently. Perhaps not. Suppose, as Christians believe, there really is a God and he wants to have a relationship with his creatures. No genuine relationship is possible unless each party has  both the freedom to say, “No” and the power to follow a different, independent path. Apparently, we humans have been given the priceless gift of freedom. It is daunting to realize that it seems to be up to us humans to decide whether to turn toward or away from God.

Just as human freedom seems necessary for humans to have an authentic relationship with God, so nature must be free for life to exist and evolve. If any change is to happen at all, natural processes of any sort (organic,  geological, astronomical, etc.) must have the inherent freedom and energy to develop according to the physical laws scientists have discovered they must follow. If these laws were not constant over time and were not operative everywhere all the time, our world could not exist.

With freedom, however, comes the possibility of disaster that can lead to horrific suffering. The very natural processes that make life possible sometimes can run amok. Cell growth, which is essential to life, can start to run away – that’s cancer. Organic processes somehow get corrupted or perverted. The process of plate tectonics, which is now understood as essential to life, https://www.quantamagazine.org/plate-tectonics-may-be-essential-for-life-20180607/ can also cause earthquakes that kill thousands.

In a world that is necessarily free, even God can’t generally and routinely override the harmful effects of the actions of humans and natural forces without simultaneously destroying freedom. That is not to say that God never intervenes, just that He doesn’t perform miracles or “tilt the playing field” very often.  

What would be the effect on humans if there were no pain and suffering, or if God immediately healed the sick and disabled? We humans might become passive and dependent, not bothering to take responsibility for ourselves or seek to understand what causes what and why. We would have no incentive to learn and no incentive to master our environment so as to be wise, effective stewards. We would become perpetual, blissed out children. In sum, the suffering we see is not necessarily inconsistent with a loving God if freedom of humans to act according to their will and the freedom of natural forces to act according to the laws of nature are unavoidably necessary.

A mystery but there is  hope of rescue

We may not have to shut down our powers of reason to conclude that belief in a loving God is not disconfirmed by the reality of suffering, but that is cold comfort to people in the throes of suffering and their families. Why are these afflicted and those not? Why am I healed and others not? There is no getting away from the mystery. Even the Book of Job, the greatest meditation on suffering in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is silent on why a good person is brought low. It does offer hope, though. Job suffers grievously, refuses to abandon his faith in the Lord, and is restored.

Is there a rational basis for our keeping faith? I think so, but can offer no certain answers. Doubt remains my companion, but here are a few observations that help me keep hope alive, albeit precariously:

  1. We have the gift of reason, and have made stupendous progress in understanding how the forces of nature work at every level. As our understanding progresses, so does our ability to avoid natural disasters and heal disasters within our bodies. We may not be able to conquer natural evil, but we sure can beat it back.
  2. People near death usually are amazingly serene. When I was at Johns Hopkins, I asked the ICU nurses, who had seen a lot of death, what their impressions were. My conversation with one in particular, a woman of deep Christian faith, who had lost a son, stuck in my mind. With one exception, the deaths she had witnessed were peaceful and met with acceptance. All the nurses agreed that this was the pattern.
  3. The Christian gospel may be true. There is near unanimity among serious scholars that Christ lived, preached, was crucified, died, was buried, and — according to a large number of people of widely different backgrounds and beliefs – was resurrected in bodily form from being dead. If God emptied himself of his power, took on human form, and died to rescue us from dark “powers and principalities”, then we should be confident he deeply cares about us. The more I study, the more I permit myself to have hope.
  4. When I look around, I see terrible natural and man-caused evil, but I also see heart-stopping beauty and acts of kindness.

In the face of mystery, tempered by reasons to believe there is a rational basis for faith and hope, perhaps the best we can do is to use our minds to limit the damage from natural evil and offer kindness and connection when we can do nothing else.

How will I respond when I suffer or someone close to me, including an animal, suffers? I hope I will call to mind the words of Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who spent years in Auschwitz: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And, I hope this meditation will help me choose to have faith and hope while still acknowledging my doubts.

4 Comments

  1. Sam, this is, of all your musings, for me the most thought provoking, capturing my attention for many hours.
    I am an agnostic, wanting proof therefore of a “God”. However, I consider myself spiritual and say my prayers at night before shutting my eyes. I like to, to quote you, “use my mind to limit damage. .. and offer
    kindness. . ” To use my thinking to calm stress from many situations, keeps me in control, thus reducing tension. For me, this is a type of God. Maintaining hope that I can cope is my mantra. Borrowing a bit from AA, in working with adolescents with Substance Abuse issues, who question the existence of a God, I have them recite the AA moto-
    leaving out the word God- “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can”.

    Reply
    • Barbara, I am very pleased this post got you pondering. I put a lot of thought and effort into it as the question has plagued me for years. I consider myself a shaky Christian. My faith is like a current going through a loose wire — sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t. I will say, however, that the more I look at evidence, the more I am able to sustain some faith. In the end, I am turned off both by the bible thumpers and by the arrogant, clueless atheists. In the end, as your comment makes clear, what counts is behavior, attitude, and acceptance that some things remain a mystery.

      Reply
  2. Thanks, Sam.

    Reply
  3. This may be my most favorite work of yours Sam. And “doubt continues to be my companion” is one of the best statements I have ever read.
    As I too struggle with this topic daily, I fight to remain faithful to God and maintain my hope.

    Reply

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Sam Mitchell is a researcher by trade. For almost four decades, Sam's job has been to invest other people’s money as well as his own. The total amounts involved have been in the billions of dollars.

Sam lives or dies economically according to whether the findings and conclusions from his research are correct.

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