Yesterday I wrote about how our offense and struggle with evil and suffering in the world is often detached from the feelings and words of those that actually endure much of it. I said that intense Suffering doesn’t seem to produce an extinguishing of faith to those that experience it.
People have often said that the deep suffering and injustice of the world is one thing that led them to Atheism or skepticism, but this seems to be more the case for those that observe and think about the idea of suffering, more than enduring it themselves. Yes, there are stories of those that lose their faith in the midst of their suffering, but they really are so few and far between.
This is one of the main themes of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The most powerful argument for Atheism I’ve ever read is in the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. After reading it, I was so deeply shaken for a few weeks after. And it was written by a Christian.
One of the central themes of the book is that Atheism is an absolutely logical and reasonable system, but not one that can be consistently lived out. When observing the world and its injustice intellectually and from a top-down perspective, Atheism is probably more easily sensible than Christianity. But, as the book goes on to show, no matter the philosophical veracity of Atheism, no one can truly live real, actual human life as a fully-consistent Atheist and flourish as a human, in human relationships, and in human society.
Even if people think about suffering Atheistically, people usually live in the midst of it religiously.
Beliefs based on “systems” (be they political, theological, or anti-theological) often have the benefit of being a closed system with all the loose-ends tied up and all the questions answered and every challenge having received it’s clever little go-to rebuttal. But “system” is inadequate for human flourishing, and Suffering and pain reveal that more clearly than few other things could.
Okay, so what?
I think this all has incredible and profound resources in teaching us how to suffer well, and how to respond to global evil and injustice. Here are a few of the ways.
Listen to the hurting.
This is one of the main ways I have found to restore my own faith. Talk to those in the deepest suffering: people that have had lifetimes enduring what you could never imagine human beings surviving through.
Hear their stories. See their faith. Observe how they relate to their own pain. Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps easier to see how God moves, sustains, and is real in the lives of people. Sufferers help us suffer well.
Taste the reality of pain.
When we don’t live life with those that are hurting, pain becomes academic. When we use someone else’s pain as a reason for our own doubt or unbelief, it actually belittles and delegitimizes their pain and their response to it, because they are often relating to their own pain as a source of faith.
To disconnect yourself from pain to merely “muse” it and “try to figure it out” is an insult to the sufferer and robs your soul of such potential sustenance. Pain is to be shared, felt, tasted, and visceral–not abstracted.
Suffer confidently and deeply.
I’ve often told people never to play the game where we say to ourselves “well I shouldn’t feel so bad about my ‘suffering’, because so many other people out there have it so much worse.” (I wish I allowed myself to curse on this blog so I can express my true feelings toward this sentiment.)
God sends to us (or allows) exactly the “level” of suffering that forms us and shapes us into his image. Not even Christ was spared this.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings….Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…(Heb2.10,5.7-10)
We are intended to feel our suffering deeply. To not to do so, is to blunt the sharpened edge and what it’s accomplishing in you. Let pain affect you. Mourn. Hurt. Cry out. Complain. Curse.
But do it confidently. Do it anchored to the foundation that on the other side of this pain is not less of God, but more. Believe (even when it seems impossible) that at the end of all things, we will all look back and say in once voice, “Yes! Though it was so hard, we see that this was all worth it, praise be to God!”
And pay attention in those precious moments when you hear of someone who has been dragged lower than any human should, or when you yourself have been put through to the end of what you thought you could bear. Because if, in that moment, words of sturdy faith and quiet confidence are spoken, then take heart, because that is Eternal Heaven breaking into the Present Pain.
And perhaps that can sustain you for one more day.
[image credit: Untitled piece by Mark Rothko]