Suffering: God, Buddha, Jesus and C.S. Lewis
I don’t think this is a blog post to read if you are deeply immersed in suffering for it deals with the theoretical, and theoretical answers while they may be true rarely lend comfort.
And it is about 3 times longer in length than my normal posts. I need to remove the pressure of writing a 500-word post. In trying to explain suffering, I can do much harm.
Suffering and pain keep many people from God. They ask:
“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God either lacks goodness, or power, or both.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p.26)
To be with those suffering is difficult; it is one of the parts of ministry that affects me a great deal. I think one of the reasons I struggle with it is because in some ways I don’t want to suffer. People in Luke 13:1-5 I think have a similar concern: “There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”
These Galileans were in the Temple offering the appointed sacrifices to God. Pilate and his men come in, kill them, and their blood mixed (as it were) with the blood of the animals being offered to God. The first century historian Josephus chronicles how Pilate was notorious for these sorts of antics.
Jesus hears the concern and immediately understands. This is not a hypothetical question – they themselves are Galileans on their way to the Temple!
Listen to Jesus: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered…" there it is, the word suffered.
Jesus goes on to ask... "were they worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Here Jesus frames the question in classical Jewish terms by asking if this reported suffering is linked to sin. This post is not going to answer that question. (You can read my thoughts about that here.)
Jesus in his discourse even presses the point further by pointing out another terrible thing that happened, a tower falls on some people.
We often think bad things happen because people are, well, bad.
Yet consider, this issue of suffering has captured the minds of many over the years. Before I return to Jesus, I want to consider Buddha.
Buddha based his philosophy largely on suffering. Its foundation is the four noble truths, the first of which is that “to live is to suffer.” He speaks of the trauma of birth, the trauma of disappointment, the trauma of pain, and the trauma of death. For Buddha, life is trauma. Salvation from this suffering is the goal, the goal is achievable, and the means is to eliminate the source of suffering; our egotism or selfish desire.
Christianity does not share this view, but I offer it because suffering is a pervasive part of life. C.S. Lewis, whom I quoted above examines suffering is his book The Problem of Pain.
All religions, writes Lewis, include an experience of awe and dread, as well as some kind of morality, or ideas of good and evil. Basic to the answer of the problem of pain is the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Why might this question be important? In Lewis’ view, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the very events that bring some sense into the riddle of human suffering.
Step One for Lewis is pointing out that the very nature of the universe is that not everyone can be happy… logically, this is not possible. Think about that for a moment. Is Lewis right, can everyone not be happy at the same time?
I think he is correct, and here I am not talking about evil. Evil is real and it is one source of human suffering. Rather I am talking about the type of suffering that most of go through day in and day out.
You might ask, “Why doesn’t God have everyone “be happy”?” Lewis’ answer is that to have a world where you and I get to make decisions, results in all not being happy. I am not talking about freewill. I am merely pointing out that I awake each day and make decisions that have consequences. Billions of humans do this every day.
Consider this question, I ask it in the first meeting of every pre-marriage counseling session I hold. “If you could make an adjustment in your fiancée’s brain, if you could turn the proverbial 'screw' in their head, so that they would always love you…would you?” The answer I believe is “no.” The best explanation I received was from a twenty something who said, “Because when I lay on my bed at the end of my life with him, suffering with Alzheimer’s, in that brief moment of clarity which is becoming ever fleeting, I want to know when I look in his eyes that he is there because he truly loves me of his own accord.” All I could say was Wow!
Our ability to make such decisions gives us the capacity for love, real love. Lewis suggests that without it we really have no life at all. And the logical consequence of a billion people making decisions day-in-and-day out, in a finite world, makes some suffering for some people a surety.
Yet while a certain amount of suffering is the result of these billions of daily decisions, there is a next question that arises when we ponder what it means to hold a Christian view of God and to believe in Jesus. We accept that God loves us and that God is love, and yet we experience pain. Cannot God orchestrate the world so that His people escape pain?
In approaching this question Lewis points out that by even asking it we demonstrate that we do not understand love. Love is not the same thing as kindness, listen to this quote from p. 40 of The Problem of Pain:
"And by Love…most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way, or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven—as a grandfather in heaven. A senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see the young people enjoying themselves,' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day that, 'a good time was had by all.'"
I have to admit that “I resemble that remark” and I quite frankly would like to live in world such as this, but I don’t. And if God is Love, and I believe He is – for when I look at Jesus Christ I am convicted of such – then given the nature of matter and love, to expect such a world as Lewis describes above is to ask for the impossible.
We indeed have a loving God. Lewis reminds us that love is different than kindness. That love is both splendid and stern so that we read from pp. 46-47:
“…in awful and inspiring truth, we are the objects of His (God’s) love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you lightly invoke, 'The Lord of the terrible aspect' is present: not a senile benevolence, that drowsily wishes you to be happy on your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists love for his work, despotic as a man’s love for his dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child…How this should be I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in the Creator’s eyes.”
Lewis concludes that we allow the philosophical problem of pain, only if we allow a trivial understanding of love.
But where does this leave us? Is the point, “Suck it up” or “man-up”? That seems to offer little consolation to the pain we are experiencing, and quite frankly casts God in a rather callous light…that is until you look at the Cross and Eternity.
Returning to that little snippet of the Gospel from today we see Jesus basically say, “Don’t get focused on the wrong thing, or you will similarly perish…eternally.” He says the awful words of love…repent…make sure you are going the right way.
Repent does not always mean “stop sinning”. It literally means “turn around”. You might say, “get yourself pointed in the right direction” or “aiming for the right goal”.
If you and I have our eyes on eternity and our feet firmly planted on the ground, then we have made a good start of it. We have much road to cover, but we are making a good start. The road will lead us through joyous peaks and dark valleys, that is the road of living in a land which affords us the opportunity to experience love.
Yet as we look heavenward our eyes will be looking through the Cross. The Cross, the terrible instrument of Love, which makes our eternity possible; the Cross, the terrible instrument that screams at us that God is not callous, quite the opposite; the Cross that proclaims there is no pain that God has not felt; the Cross that touches you in your pain and says, “come let us take up our crosses and walk together, and might I carry your pain for you.”
Buddha said to suffer is to live; therefore let us escape suffering by escaping life. Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Mt 11:30)…for I have come to give you life and give it to you more abundantly (Jn. 10.10).