- lost a loved one
- know of someone who has battled or is battling with what could be a terminal disease
- moved away from home and miss lifelong family and friends
The list goes on and on…
Whatever the situation, one thing we all have in common is the universal experience of suffering.
How do we deal with it? Where do we look for answers? What possible solutions can we come up with? Do these possibilities help us find a degree of solace? And, more importantly, do they accurately reflect reality?
While there are any number of ways to approach the issue, some providing greater degrees of helpfulness than others, I would like to present three of the most common approaches.
One of the more popular approaches utilized by those who see God as more or less absent from the world is commonly referred to as fatalism. Perhaps the slogan which best describes this philosophy would be ‘whatever will be, will be.’ It holds to the idea that there is a significant degree of determinism built in the cosmos, the result of some impersonal force (fate). The primary component of fatalism is that whatever the universe decides to happen will happen, regardless of whether we want those things to happen or not. The solution is fatal in that it gives in to this cosmic plan and surrenders to its verdict, for good or bad, with little to no motivation to move in a different direction.
While this philosophy may provide a degree comfort, particularly due to the plan aspect inherent within it, it can often do more damage than good. For example, people can cop out of the necessity to take charge of their own lives and end up blaming everything that happens in life on whatever the universe has decided. Furthermore, it basically eliminates God from the equation, making the universe nothing more than an arbitrary and aloof decision maker. Finally, it removes any notion of free will, human or otherwise, and the element of consequence (good and bad) within the equation of choice. While much more can be said about the failure of this philosophy to make sense of the complex world we live in, with all of the variables inherent within it, suffice it to say that the idea proves inadequate to do justice to the world and the most tragic events within it.
This term is very similar in its overall train of thought to fatalism. Obviously, it shares a strong deterministic bent, while differing on the source of that determinism. Those who see the world through this lens believe there is a pre-determined cause and effect for everything that happens. God, as the source of all there is, determines every event in every life; from the mundane to the extravagant. Also referred to as the blue-print model, it tends to emphasize meticulous sovereignty – the notion that God ordains and brings to pass every event throughout history. This may not seem like a particularly bad idea when we reflect on the good things in life, but the bad and tragic events prove to be a different story.
For just a moment, think about some of the tragedies that you have experienced; either personally or from a distance. Family members or friends who have died because of a serious illness; babies who died at birth or shortly thereafter; senseless accidents that resulted in loss of life; suicides. Now begin to think about events on a more global scale. Genocides; the holocaust; poverty; starvation; injustice. As I mentioned before, it is much easier to maintain belief in determinism when we contemplate the good things in life, but the same cannot be said when we remember some of the most tragic events within human history.
I see this played out almost on a daily basis. Perhaps the slogans that best identifies this idea would be, ‘I guess it was just meant to be,’ and ‘there is a reason for everything.’ From this perspective, it is easier to see how it closely resembles fatalism. People who hold to this way of looking at the world tend to acquiesce to some sort of pre-determined plan. So, when someone discovers they have cancer, they respond, ‘I guess it was meant to be,’ and ‘I guess God has a plan for all of this.’ It ultimately sees God as the only source of the good and bad; the mundane and extravagant. God meticulously controls everything in our lives and there isn’t anything we can do about it. He always knows what’s best, and we simply have to take whatever comes our way with a smile. I can’t speak for you, but I refuse to accept the holocaust as coming from the hand of God. Not only does it do a serious injustice to the nature and character of the God we see revealed in the person of Jesus Christ (whom John defined as a God of love and light – 1 John 4:8, 16; 1 John 1:5), it also doesn’t take into account the existence of other beings, human and otherwise, who have a legitimate say-so, and who can affect and explain some of the things that happen all around us. This leads us to the final category.
Free Will Theism
I chose the term free will theism more as an all-encompassing phrase than anything else. Others have utilized similar terms, such as warfare worldview (Greg Boyd) to capture the essence of the model I’ll outline now.
The basic idea behind this way of looking at the world is that other creatures have a legitimate say-so in what transpires. God is the ultimate source of all that exists in that he provided the means for us to make choices between this and that, but free will theism contends that others, human or otherwise, also have input into what happens. Remember, in order for a decision to be real, it has to be free of all coercion and manipulation. If God decided to create a world where this kind of freedom exists, then our choices must retain this element of freedom. This means, of course, that God took a risk in creating this kind of world, in that his best intentions for us may or may not be fully realized. But, love demands such a risk, as it can never be defined as legitimate if it has been forced in any way.
In relation to the two other options outlined above, free will theism presents us with another option when reflecting on the problem of suffering. Most importantly, it creates space for other beings to live and make real decisions that can impact both themselves and others. As I’ve already alluded to, these choices can be for or against God’s best for his creation. Good decisions can render positive results, whereas bad choices can result in a plethora of negative consequences. Given the dynamic and interrelated nature of the cosmos, including human relationships, these choices can have a butterfly effect that can reverberate around the world; sometimes in ways we would not even conceive of.
Perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous prayers, and one that he taught his followers to emulate, began with this petition, “Father…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” If nothing else, this prayer points us all toward the conclusion that, as it stands, God’s will does not always find itself expressed in creation. If Jesus requested that the Father’s will be done, it means by extension that there will be moments when it is not. The only way to account for this is that other beings, human and otherwise, have a say-so, that in one one way or another impacts the final outcome. As a result, while God’s will is no doubt finding expression in the world as his kingdom ideals are lived out in and through those who call his kingdom home (i.e., the church), many other factors are also at work that seek to move against it. Human choices, along with angelic ones, can have a detrimental impact in the world, personally and globally. And, we would do well to remember these things as we attempt to better understand human and cosmic suffering.
How do we account for and frame the pain that we all experience on a daily basis? When we reflect on the tragedies of life throughout human history, what conclusions do we come to as we do our best to locate answers? In this article, I have briefly outlined three general models and the most common features within them that people utilize in their attempts to make sense of the world.
While I don’t expect to immediately change your mind and adopt my ideas as your own, I do encourage you to reflect on them and dig a little deeper in your bible reading and theological studies as you contemplate the possibilities.
If suffering is in fact a universal phenomenon, we need to do our very best to understand and account for it. Some of the options I’ve outlined above do a better job of this than others, primarily because they more accurately reflect the nature and character of God we see in the person of Jesus Christ, while at the same time appreciating the freedom, complexity and diversity of the world.
Simply put -
…not everything happens for a reason. In fact, some things happen for no reason.
…not everything that happens is a perfect reflection of God’s best intentions for the world.
…God created a world where other beings have a legitimate say-so; beings that can move with or against God’s will (remember Jesus’ prayer).
However, remember that all is not lost. All to often we realize that what may have been originally intentioned to bring harm, God can redeem and bring about good. This doesn’t mean that he needed or sanctioned it, only that good can sometimes come from bad when we surrender even the greatest of tragedies to his care.
Beauty can come from the ashes…
Your kingdom come…your will be done…on earth, as it is in heaven.
For additional reading, check out…