Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Meaning of Suffering

So there's been this debate on why good people suffer and why God would allow it.  This never bothered me when I was younger, but apparently it bothers others, and so I should acknowledge it.  I have two answers to this.  One is a conceptual, theoretical answer, and the other is more based on research.  I didn't know it was research at the time, but learning happens whether we allow it or not.

Theological answer:

Many people have assumed that since suffering is in the world, that God is either unkind, or is somehow limited in his power.  Why should either be true?  Do we need remember that it was man that brought sin into the world?  We chose to disobey, and one of the consequences of that is allowing satan greater authority to mess with stuff on this earth.  We chose to listen to a lie, and thus sin has entered the world, and like wind and rain it makes no distinction on who it affects.  We are all trapped by it.

But why, one may ask, did God just nip the whole sin thing in the bud so we wouldn't have to deal with all the evil we see in the world today?  Some might argue that we need to understand the consequences of free will, and that free will means being able to choose dumb choices.  I personally argue that we would not know good so well if we didn't have some idea of evil, and why it is bad.  How would we value something if we didn't know what life is without it?  

Research-based answer:

By research-based, I mean answers based on what I have heard/seen/read from others.  

My favorite author is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer of The Gulag Archipelago.  This book is the compilation of his own experiences and the testimony of witnesses as to the entire history of the Soviet prison camp system, from conception until Solzhenitsyn's release in 1953.  In part of the second volume, The Soul and Barbed Wire, he explains how living in the camp changes people.  It changed him for the better, and he became a Christian.  In fact, had Solzhenitsyn not been in the prison camp, he never would have become a writer, a sourge to the Soviet government, and voice for communism's dead in Russia.  

Solzhenitsyn also wrote how the zeks (prisoners) who were released from jail were happier than the general populace.  Shortages and small problems didn't bother the freed zeks so much, since they could now go where they pleased and see the sunshine.  It would be unbalanced to point out that Solzhenitsyn mentions those who were corrupted by the camps.  And yet the stories of those who didn't become more magnificent by comparison.

Perhaps a direct quote would secure Solzhenitsyn's opinion on the matter.

"So wouldn't it be more correct to say that no camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept that pitiful ideology which holds that 'human beings are created for happiness,' an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner's cudgel?"

I have a book, which unfortunately I cannot find at the moment, called Sources of Korean Tradition.  I was only able to read the beginning before our hasty move to this new apartment, but I still recall the point of its prologue (it was a book on later Korean history, so it briefly touched on what came before).  The book claimed that since Koreans had had several centuries of peace, they weren't ready when the Japanese invaded them in the nineteenth century.  According to this book, too many years of peace had taken away the Korean's ability to defend themselves as they had once done, as well as keep them too content and separate (think "the hermit country"), to develop new technologies.  

When we read stories, do we like to read things where people have easy lives?  Do we like stories where every problem is solved without pain?  Of course not.  We call such fluff fake.  Even those stuck on cheesy romance plots don't want the protagonist to get her man without some dramatic twist.  We admire people who have gone through hard times and won, whether fiction or nonfiction.

As a Christian, I must point out the suffering of Jesus.  Many of us who complain about life haven't experienced anything so horrible as what Jesus went through for our sakes.  Jesus came to this earth for many reasons, and one of them is to share in all the pains of our lives.  How could we call someone Savior who hadn't experienced our problems?  Technically, God's knowledge is such that he doesn't have to suffer to understand us, but will we accept such an answer?  Probably not.  You know how much people say "you don't know me and what I've been through" these days.

Now, I've mentioned all these things, what is the point?  Simple.  Suffering makes us great.  Victimization may spoil it for us, but if we understand suffering and don't fear it, it will become an honor to us, a way we have survived and overcome in this world.  Perhaps some would find this idea offensive, but the truth of the matter is that it doesn't matter how we got to this situation.  We live in a flawed world, and we have to not only survive it, but enjoy it as it is, with all the endurance we can bring to the table.  Our need creates initiative to make better things.  Our flaws in ourselves inspire mercy for others.  Bad things in the world cause us to want to bring better into being, both for ourselves and each other.

"Formerly you never forgave anyone.  You judged people without mercy.  And you praised people with equal lack of moderation.  And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgements.  You have come to realize you own weakness--and you can therefore understand the weakness of others.  And be astonished at another's strength.  And wish to possess it yourself."

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