Sunday, May 24, 2015

The virtue of suffering

This chapter is a mixed bag. It comes elements of the freewill defense, a natural law theodicy, and a soul-building theodicy. But there's good material. I've excerpted what I think are the best parts:

It was certainly the first question that occurred to me in 1987 when I was told that my beloved wife Melissa, 34 years old and the mother of our two small children (Chris and Kevin), had cancer of the nose and sinuses, and in 1990 when we discovered that the cancer had recurred.

The cancer recurred two months after this surgery and I was terribly depressed for many years after her death. Since I am a pretty logical person, it never occurred to me to ask “does God really exist?” but I certainly wondered, “is God really good?”

I think most people who claim not to believe in God, say this not because of any shortage of evidence for design in Nature, but because it is sometimes so hard to see evidence that God cares about us, and they prefer not to believe in God at all, than to believe in a God who doesn’t care.

A wonderful little article in UpReach [Nov-Dec 1984] by Batsell Barrett Baxter, entitled “Is God Really Good?” contains some insights into the “problem of pain”...“As I have faced the tragedy of evil in our world and have tried to analyze its origin, I have come to the conclusion that it was an inevitable accompaniment of our greatest blessings and benefits.” In his outline, Baxter lists some examples of blessings which have, as inevitable consequences, unhappy side effects.

Much of an individual’s suffering is the direct or indirect result of the actions or misfortunes of others. Much of our deepest pain is the result of loneliness caused by the loss of the love or the life of a loved one, or of the strain of a bad relationship. How much suffering could be avoided if only we were “islands, apart to ourselves.” Then at least we would suffer only for our own actions, and feel only our own misfortunes. The interdependence of human life is certainly the cause of much unhappiness.

Yet here again, this sorrow is the inevitable result of one of our greatest blessings. The pain which comes from separation is in proportion to the joy which the relationship provided. Friction between friends is a source of grief, but friendship is the source of much joy. Bad marriages and strained parent-child relationships are responsible for much of the unhappiness in the modern world, but none of the other joys of life compare to those which can be experienced in a happy home. Although real love is terribly hard to find, anyone who has experienced it— as I did for a few short years—will agree that the male- female relationship is truly a masterpiece of design, when it works as it was intended to work.

As Baxter writes, 
“I am convinced that our greatest blessings come from the love which we give to others and the love which we receive from others. Without this interconnectedness, life would be barren and largely meaningless. The avoidance of all contact with other human beings might save us some suffering, but it would cost us the greatest joys and pleasures of life.”

Nevertheless, we cannot help but notice that some suffering is necessary to enable us to experience life in its fullest, and to bring us to a closer relationship with God. Often it is through suffering that we experience the love of God, and discover the love of family and friends, in deepest measure. The man who has never experienced any setbacks or disappointments invariably is a shallow person, while one who has suffered is usually better able to empathize with others. Some of the closest and most beautiful relationships occur between people who have suffered similar sorrows.

Of course, beyond a certain point pain and suffering lose their positive value. Even so, the human spirit is amazing for its resilience, and many people have found cause to thank God even in seemingly unbearable situations. While serving time in a Nazi concentration camp for giving sanctuary to Jews, Betsie ten Boom [ten Boom 1971] told her sister, “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”

In a letter to our children composed after she realized she had lost her battle with cancer, Melissa wrote:

While I no longer feel physically an odd sort of way, I feel even more human. I have seen and felt more suffering by myself and others around me in the last few years than I probably ever would have. I have seen children still in strollers hooked up to IV chemotherapy and young children, my own children’s ages, with monstrous tumors bulging from their necks. In the face of this unjust tragedy, they still had a sweet innocent smile on their faces. I have talked with young women and men my own age who are struggling with the reality of leaving their young children and spouses long before their responsibilities of parenthood are completed. 
I have also discovered a deepness in relationships with others that I probably never would have otherwise cultivated.... I have seen the compassion and love of others towards me. I have witnessed how good and true and caring the human spirit can be. I have learned much about love from others during these times.

We might add that not only the person who suffers, but also those who minister to his needs, are provided with opportunities for growth and development.

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